Colliding expectations, a sub-topic that nearly upstaged the main topic, and frustration over too little time to process it all characterized the MB study conference held Oct. 15-17 in Saskatoon.
The content was so rich, the energy of participants (many of them young or first attenders) so palpable, and the last-morning large-group conversation so satisfying (in the wake of the hunger that had grown for it), however, that the event will have to rank as one of the best in recent history.
More than 200 people gathered at Forest Grove Community Church in Saskatoon, Oct. 15-17, 2009, under the theme, “Confessing Jesus in a Pluralistic World.”
David Wiebe, executive director of the Canadian conference, set the stage by reflecting on why it’s important “to get together and work through together what matters to us.” Through our Anabaptist legacy we recognize the authority of Scripture, he said, and see its best interpreters as those filled with the Holy Spirit. Understanding is reached as Scripture and Spirit come together in community, with Jesus Christ as the centre.
Wisdom, peace, surprise
University of Waterloo professor Tom Yoder Neufeld, author of Recovering Jesus, gave the plenary addresses of the conference. His presentations were layered and sometimes complex, as well as warm and engaging. Each gave one answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
In the first, Yoder Neufeld considered Jesus as the “manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10). In its wisdom tradition, Israel had its “windows open to the world,” he said, and this literature gave the early church “language and categories of thought with which to lift up Jesus.”
The wisdom (Sophia in Hebrew) which brought the world into being is truly “manifold,” he continued, for it is also connected to the scandal of the cross, and “pushes us into mystery.”
Scriptural confessions of Christ as wisdom, he reminded, were spoken in a pluralistic time much like ours. We confess Jesus as “wisdom that invades creation and goes to any length to save us,” he said, and urged this be done with confidence, curiosity, hospitality, and love rather than fear.
Yoder Neufeld also urged creativity and fresh language, especially poetry, in speaking of this Jesus. Our message is often resisted in the public imagination, he said, because we’ve reduced it to “formulas and definitions” or because “it seems to combine an easy fix with militarism and materialism.”
In his second presentation, Yoder Neufeld worked through Ephesians 2:11-22, at the heart of whose chiastic structure is the acclamation that Jesus is our peace. This is not just an Anabaptist issue, he said, but is a “central component of anyone who names Jesus as Lord.”
We’re in danger of “domesticating” peace, he said, loosening it too easily from a confession of Jesus or seeing Jesus as “a model or perpetual volunteer.” But, he insisted, “Jesus is a peace activist – the absolute, ultimate peace activist.”
Yoder Neufeld’s final address took the familiar, though puzzling, parable of Jesus – that of the sheep and goats – and showed how it surprises us into the realization that in order to answer Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?” we will have to answer, “You are the one who is hungry, the one without a job, the rape victim…and so on.”
Such an answer is “almost too much to bear,” Yoder Neufeld acknowledged. “How do we write praise music to this Lord?”
“Is our Christology high enough,” he asked, “to go so low?”
A session of study around tables looked at what the Bible has to say on the question of pluralism and other religions, though the subject is “not central for the biblical authors themselves,” leader Gil Dueck of Bethany College noted. Texts had been grouped into categories reflecting major periods of biblical history, and each table group was assigned to one.
The hour went quickly, and there was not enough time for all tables to report their findings. Results, however, were forwarded to the listening committee.
The subject of atonement had originally been scheduled for a workshop. When organizers noticed that the majority of registrants were making this their workshop choice – and aware that disagreement over atonement has been building within parts of the Canadian MB community – they decided to give it a plenary session of its own.
B.C. conference minister Steve Berg opened the “How does the cross save?” session by stating what it is we confess – “that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the main thing” – as well as concerns people have raised that penal substitution will be “diminished,” and perhaps also God’s holiness.
Presenter Mark Baker, professor at MB Biblical Seminary and author of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross and Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, acknowledged that his writings had generated controversy. He stated that he “fully affirms” the Confession on salvation and the substitutionary death of Jesus.
Baker said he advocates “following the New Testament in using a diversity of images” for atonement. What he critiques, he said, is “any theory or image of atonement as the one explanation.” Many proponents of the penal substitution theory present it this way, he said.
The particular elements that he critiques in many articulations of penal substitution, said Baker, are the notions of appeasement and recompense/payback. “I do not believe the Bible teaches that God needed to be appeased in order to forgive, and I understand God’s justice as fundamentally restorative.”
God’s saving work through the cross and resurrection is “richer and deeper” than any of our explanations of it, Baker asserted, and to claim one theory covers it, is limiting. Describing the cross as a diamond with many facets, he said, “We need more of the cross, not less.”
Doug Heidebrecht, director of the Centre for MB Studies, responded. He listed New Testament atonement images, then spoke of three approaches to understanding the atonement: as one central image, as a variety of images, or as multiple complementary images.
Heidebrecht suggested three “explorations” of the third approach, which he proposes: recognizing themes common to all; exploring the depth of meaning of the particular images such as Jesus’ death as sacrifice; and discovering aspects we tend to neglect or miss.
The latter include God’s wrath (“we really don’t know what to do with God’s wrath, present in history and in judgment”), the relationship of the atonement with Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection, and Christians’ participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Heidebrecht put Baker (and his co-author Joel Green) in his #2 category (variety of images) because “the harshness of their critique of a caricature of penal substitution makes it seem it can be set aside.” In the short discussion that followed, Tim Geddert of MB Biblical Seminary noted that it was hard to see the difference between # 2 and # 3 (“multiple complementary”). Baker responded that he saw himself as # 3 as well.
The session’s weakness, commented Nanaimo (B.C.) pastor James Toews, was that “the argument that [penal substitution] is a controlling paradigm” was not represented. “Reformed theology is very dominant in our denomination,” he said, “and it needs to be spoken to.”
B.C. church planting associate Mark Burch challenged Baker with reference to the diamond image, saying Baker seemed to love all facets of it but penal substitution. Baker reiterated that his writings had reacted to “certain descriptions” of penal substitution with payback and appeasement in them. “I’m willing to affirm versions of penal substitution that don’t contain those elements,” he said, noting that Recovering the Scandal of the Cross is being revised.
Talk-time, at last
Judging by foyer conversations, frustration was growing over the lack of time to talk together. There had been a short question-answer time only after Yoder Neufeld’s second presentation, and the stimulating round-table Bible study had not proceeded to the next level of wider group discernment. Now the atonement piece, which had been widely anticipated and perhaps also a factor in the attendance of some delegates, was finished. It was time to move on to two further sets of workshops.
Time to talk together finally came, however, after the annual general meeting on Saturday morning. The report of the listening committee (Gerald Hildebrand, Ingrid Reichert, David Chow, Lynn Jost) set a frank tone. After summarizing the content of the conference presentations, the committee listed three pastoral concerns or “elephants” that were “resident within” the gathering.
First, it said that although “Christ calls us to a ministry of reconciliation… we are hearing accusations of heresy and threats to leave the MB conference over matters of theological disagreement.”
Second, it asked whether the biblical portrayal of atonement was a multi-faceted diamond or is there a controlling theory (that is, penal substitution), and how and when the conversation about this question would happen.
Third, said the committee, this was the second conference in a row in which expectations were raised but “guided dialogue opportunities” too limited.
Appreciation was expressed, especially by a number of younger leaders, for the opportunity to be at the conference and for its hearty theological learning. It had been “a pivotal point” in his ministry, said Port Coquitlam (B.C.) pastor David Warkentin. “I feel empowered.”
Some spoke of fears, or of being subsequently reassured. Jake Balzer of Calgary had come specifically, he said, to hear “how is Christ preached in the MB church.” Laurence Hiebert, MBMSI missionary in Japan, declared himself satisfied that “we’re still confessing, professing, preaching Jesus.”
Others wished there had been a stronger focus on the practical implications of the conference theme, or offered suggestions, such as engaging more intentionally with First Nations groups.
Many of those who came to the mic addressed aspects of the atonement issue. Borden (Sask.) pastor Tony Martens said he appreciated Mark Baker’s not wanting to use “appeasement” but asked if there was another term for “God moving from wrath to not-wrath.” Baker replied that he didn’t want to use the word “because of what it can lead to,” but noted there are many words, like reconciliation.
Mark Burch raised the basic question, as he saw it. “I wonder if the time has come to declare ourselves on penal substitution,” he said. Burch said he believes “the majority of grassroots people” in our congregations read the MB confession of faith through a penal substitution lens.
“I challenge us to make a statement,” he continued, “for I will be asked, did you decide anything?”
“I’m not sending you home with a decision,” replied Lorraine Dick, chair of the board of faith and life, who was presiding. “Could you please say, ‘We’re not done’?”
“It’s not the first time we’ve wrestled with what to say publicly,” said Gerry Ediger, of McIvor MB Church, Winnipeg, offering eschatology as an example in which “we wanted precision,” and in which “there were accusations.” In the end, the truth of Jesus Christ’s return at any time was affirmed, without a statement on details. “We have a paradigm how we work at this,” Ediger said.
Frequent reminders were voiced that the details of how the cross saves are less important than the fact that it does. Vidya Narimalla, pastor of Kitchener (Ont.) MB Church and member of the board of faith and life, told the story of his son needing his school fees paid. When it was done, the young man didn’t ask if it was by cheque, cash, or credit card. “He just knew if he called his dad, he would pay.”
As far as returning home with a conclusion, Bethany College professor Gil Dueck said it was “profoundly unrealistic to hear something one day and decide the next.” He suggested, “Can we think about how what’s happening here can shape us as leaders?”
Dueck continued, “I would suggest to my brother, respectfully, that the question is not where we stand on penal substitution. We don’t need to begin with penal substitution; it’s not a biblical term, and most don’t care about this term.” Dueck said he had spent an hour after the atonement session debriefing with one of his college classes which attended it. They wondered, he said, “What’s the big deal?”
“We need to start with the Scriptures,” Dueck said.
B.C. church planting director Gord Fleming reminded that the MB conference is driven by mission. “Let it be about mission,” he said. “That’s what we bring to the table as a [church] culture.”
Several speakers mentioned the event’s time dynamics, referring to the conference as “a progressive supper, never getting the full value of the meal” or a “series of serial experiences” without enough time to process them together.
Terry Froese, pastor of Hope Fellowship Church in Saskatoon, addressed the board of faith and life: “Have more room and don’t pack it so tight. And thank you for affirming we’re not done.” Applause greeted this statement.
Mike Housek of Hillside Christian Fellowship in Beechy, Sask., presented two statements from his church: a concern that the conference is becoming more like a business, and the expense of coming to such conferences. “We feel like we’re not being heard,” he said.
Vidya Narimalla drew the discussion time to a close by saying, “Many of you know I come from India, which has many elephants.” To laughter, Narimalla continued, “I like elephants. They are majestic, graceful, and sometimes run through villages and cause havoc, but people still live in those villages.”
He referred to the “moral patience” talked about in Paul Doerksen’s workshop the previous day – a patience that finds its source in the patience of God and “creates space.”
Narimalla also picked up an image for the church that Thomas Yoder Neufeld had used from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? – a gang of prisoners trying to work and run while shackled together. “We affirm that we’re chained together,” he said. “So you’re not going anywhere.”
The conference had convened, he said, “to affirm what we believe and to learn a few things.” He stated what Mennonite Brethren believe by reading from the Confession.
The 2010 study conference then closed with a session of worship and communion.