I offer this methodology for thinking theologically about any particular theme or communal practice in Scripture. What I offer, however, is neither comprehensive nor complete but a theological trajectory. I hope to get more practical with this in the next few posts.
A Basic Methodology
First, and foundationally, the Christ Event (incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension) is the focal point. It is the root and ground for living out the story of God. This is a multi-dimensional point and therefore is pregnant with meaning and significance.
At one level, we consider how any particular theme or practice is present in the ministry of Jesus itself, that is, how Jesus lived out the story of God.
At another level, we consider how any particular theme or practice is rooted in the theological essence of the Christ Event, that is, how biblical interpreters of the event identified, interpreted and applied it.
At a third level, we consider how any theme or practice is an expression of the divine intent in creation (e.g., imaging God) and the divine goal for creation (e.g., eschaton).
Second, as we see the one who is true Israel living out the story of God, we also look into the history of Israel itself for the theology and practices which anticipate or are fullfilled in the Christ Event.
Third, as we see the one who is the image of God living out the story of God, we also look into the history of the church as given in Scripture for the theology and practices which are the continuation of the Christ Event’s meaning and significance among the disciples of Christ.
It probably comes as no surprise that I would choose the sacraments to illustrate my theological hermeneutic. I admit; it is an interest of mine. 🙂 The below illustrations are very cursory and superficial, but hopefully they indicate the direction in which my thoughts flow. For greater detail on each, I would suggest reading my books on each of the sacraments (Come to the Table, Down in the River to Pray [co-authored with Greg Taylor], and A Gathered People [co-authored with Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine]) . And everyone needs to buy their own copies! 🙂
Baptism is rooted in the baptism of Jesus, anticipated by the water rituals and types of Israel, and practiced by the early church as a participation in the gospel of Christ.
In terms of the Christ Event…
Ministry. The baptism of Jesus is the first Christian baptism. At the water, Jesus was declared to be the beloved Son of God, anointed with the Holy Spirit for ministry, and dedicated himself to the will of God as a disciple of the Father. As disciples of Jesus, we follow him into the water and experience the same–declared to be children of God, anointed with the Spirit and dedicate ourselves to discipleship.
Gospel. Our baptism is theologically rooted in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Romans 6:3-4 affirms that baptism is the means by which we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a “gospel” moment in that we participate in the gospel (die with and are raised with Christ) through baptism. The explicit connection between baptism and the gospel is not an identification of the two as if they are the same thing–baptism is not the gospel, but it is an experience of the gospel, a means for participating in the gospel. I include ascension because of the language in Ephesians 2 where we are “raised up with Jesus” to sit in heavenly places with him. We reign with Christ and thus participate not only in the eschatological hope of the resurrection but in the eschatological reign (kingdom) of God.
Creation and Eschaton. Our baptism is an entrance into–and an experience of–communion with the Triune God that is both intended in creation and consummated in the Eschaton. Thus, it is part of the Great Commision of Matthew 28 which describes baptism as a movement into the divine fellowship (“into the name of”). Baptism serves the divine intent of transforming us into the image of Christ and the divine goal of communion. Baptism displays the oneness of the community as reflection of the oneness of God himself and the oneness of the body of Christ.
In terms of the history of Israel, there are stories/events within Israel’s Scripture that function as types of the baptismal experience in the gospel (e.g., Noah, Moses and the Exodus). But further the baptisms contained in Israel’s covenant with God anticipated the the function of baptismal waters in the new covenant (cf. Hebrews 6:1-2; 9:10; 10:22; Leviticus 15:1-33; 16:4, 24).
In terms of the history of the church, the disciples participated in the baptism of Jesus by continuing the practice of baptism in their evangelistic work as a means of forgiveness, forming community and experiencing the transformative presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord’s Supper is rooted in the table ministry of Jesus, anticipated in the fellowship meals (offerings) of ancient Israel, and practiced by the early church as a participation in the gospel of Christ.
In terms of the Christ Event…
Ministry. Jesus, as the presence of God in the world, ate at the table with both sinners and “righteous.” His table ministry was a concrete parable about the kingdom of God and his table ministry demonstrated “kingdom table etiquette.” At his last table before his death he called his disciples to continue to sit at table with each other as fellow-servants, and after his resurrection he himself ate with them in continuation of his table ministry.
Gospel. Table is about communion, and it is a communion in the gospel (body and blood) of Jesus Christ. We commune with each other and with God because of the altar (cross) and this communion is vibrant because we commune with the living Christ (resurrection) as we sit at his table in his kingdom. We sit as reigning kings at the table of the King in the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God (ascension motif). It is sanctifying nourishment and transforming participation in the gospel.
Creation and Eschaton. God created us for communion and he intends to fully establish that communion in the eschaton. The table is an experience of the eschatological reality in the present which is a fulfillment of the divine intent in creation that was detoured by our own brokenness and sin. The table is a renewal that divine intent in the present and an anticipation of the Messianic Banquet to come.
In terms of the history of Israel, the sacrificial system instituted a rhythmic experience of table at the festivals and through individual sacrifices (e.g., fellowship offerings). God met his people at the table after the sacrifice of the altar. The people “saw” God as they ate and drank in his presence.
In terms of the history of the church, the disciples continued the table ministry of Jesus in their own communities. They shared their food, resources and fellowship through the table–a place where the rich and poor were to share the grace and communion of God as one body.
Assembly is rooted in the communal habits of Jesus, anticipated in the rhythmic cycle of Israel’s assemblies, and practiced by the early church as an experience of the gospel of Christ.
In terms of the Christ Event…
Ministry. Jesus participated in the festivals and weekly sabbaths of his community, but his participation was not merely as an attendant. Rather his presence–as the presence of the incarnate God in the community–transformed those festivals and sabbaths into the presence of the in-breaking kingdom of God. He is the light of the festival of lights; he is the bread of the Passover; he is the new temple of God himself. He gathers a people “into” his name and assures them that he will be present among them just as the glory of God was present in the temple of Israel.
Gospel. The incarnation is a partial fulfillment of God’s presence among his people, and the outpouring of the Spirit after the ascension of Jesus is another partial fulfillment that presence. In addition, as the ascended high priest seated at the right hand of God, Jesus invites us to draw near to the Father through his blood and enter the Holy of Holies as we assemble with believers whose hearts have been sprinkled by that blood and their bodies washed in pure water. Christology grounds our entrance into the presence of God–both through the indwelling of the Spirit and through assembly where the Spirit dwells within the body to mediate our “ascension” into the throne room of God to worship with the saints and angels gathered there.
Creation and Eschaton. That God intended to dwell with his people is a key theme throughout the plot of God’s story. It begins in creation where the community of God created a community to share the communion of love, and God walked in the Garden with his community. It is also the end of the story where God dwells with his people in the new heaven and new earth so that there is no need for a temple to mediate or locate God’s presence. Rather, the fullness of God dwells with his people in the Eschaton as the goal of his redemptive work in the world.
In terms of the history of Israel, the sacred assemblies of Israel in Leviticus 23 established a rhythm of divine presence within the community. These assemblies were types of future assemblies gathered into the name of Jesus and fufilled in Jesus himself.
In terms of the history of the church, disciples gathered to break bread, pray, praise and hear the story of God. Their gatherings were not mere occasions of mutual edification but participations in the eschatological reality of the heavenly throne room. When they gathered, they gathered to God and Jesus by the Spirit; they joined the festive assembly of the angels; they joined the church from all over the world and the saints already around the throne. They gathered in the Holy of Holies, the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God (Hebrews 12:22-24).
I admit that I “waxed” a bit “theological” (some may think “good,” some may say “huh?”) and perhaps impractical in this post, but at the root is something very simple and practical to which I hope to turn in my next post in this series.