Book Review: The Church Beyond the Congregation, by James Thwaites

Review
03.03.2010

The church is to have an influence in every sphere of life—marriage, family, work.  It was never meant to be confined to denominations and buildings.  This is what it takes James Thwaites 290 pages to say in his book, The Church Beyond the Congregation.  As far as the thesis goes, I am in agreement with it.  The Bible is clear that God is to be sovereign over every aspect of our lives, not just the “religious” parts.  It’s a message I’ve heard since I was a child in Sunday school: “You’re not just a Christian on Sundays.”  The point could be made in a thousand simple ways that would be understandable to any Christian.  Thwaites, though, is more ambitious.  He reaches for an argument that had its hey-day back in the linguistic and philosophical debates of the 1950’s and 1960’s—that the controlling mindset of Western thought today derives from Platonic, Greek ideas that separate (read, “alienate”) the eternal and material realms.  By contrast, the Hebrew worldview, the one held by Jesus and the apostles, was radically different; there was no dichotomy, but rather a unity of essence between physical and spiritual.  For the sake of clarity, let me take a few minutes to dig even a little deeper into this than Thwaites does.  The argument for this radical difference between Greek and Hebrew thought rested on the supposition that the linguistic structure of the Hebrew language didn’t allow for abstract thought.  The verb tenses of the language, it was argued, show us that the Hebrew mind was much more concrete than that, and that the Platonic distinctions of spiritual and material would not have been understandable to them.  If you’re not following all that, don’t worry about it too much.  The idea has been utterly discredited.  It’s really not even a discussion anymore.  When it does come up on rare occasion, the work that everyone cites to end the discussion is The Semantics of Biblical Language by James Barr.  I haven’t read the book entirely, only parts of it, but Barr’s argument is that it is simply a fallacy to assume that a language’s verb tenses are able to tell us that the people were unable to think abstractly.  You cannot reconstruct a people’s mind to such an extent by looking at their language’s linguistic structure.  There are too many unanswered questions.  Essentially, this debate has been over for 40 years.  In fact, one professor of New Testament whom I asked about it told me he’d have to think for a few minutes to remember the issues involved; it simply hasn’t been part of the scholarly discussion for decades.

The argument of Thwaites’ book moves through four parts.  The first part, “The Landscape,” is an historical introduction to the idea that Platonic thought has gained ascendency in the church, and subsequently hamstrung it.  Plato was, of course, the instrument of Satan in this (p.108), so over and against this diabolical worldview, Thwaites sets the Hebrew worldview.  It is this that takes up the second part of the book.  Chapter 10 is a very good summary of Thwaites’ argument, entitled “Brief Snapshot of the Hebrew Worldview.”  There is really no need to read the rest of Part Two. The 5½ pages of chapter ten’s summary capture his thought well.  Part three is an examination of what Thwaites sees as the divine strategy of reaching the world, using the books of Acts, Ephesians and I Timothy.  Part Four applies all these things to the sphere of secular employment.  A word on the style of Thwaites’ writing:  More often than not, it is simply confusing and overwrought.  Maybe that’s because of the singularly idiosyncratic language that he uses.  I simply do not know intuitively what phrases like “answering the immense cry of creation” and “growing up through the spheres into the heavens” mean.  Here’s the concluding sentence of the book:

“And we will become the fruit that others taste as they become the fruit we joy, gathered to each other’s inheritance, growing, reaching in vines and leaves, branches and fruit, diverse and colour up towards the fullness.  And there—a full and wild heaven, welcomed fires out of every atom, rushing through every moment, descending fire of sword in shout, colliding in all of us, all at once, forever.” (290)

To be fair, that’s a poem.  But to be honest, the prose isn’t much better.  Like this one:

“Our strongholds trigger reactions in the relational reality around us.  They evoke a response from creation that sends back a confirmation of where we really are in life.” (119)

I don’t know what that means.

Incidentally, I do think it is interesting that even in the middle of championing the “Hebrew mindset,” Thwaites uses words like “nature” and “attributes” and “essence” in reference to God, words that are as Greek as a chicken souvlaki.

Before I get more specific, I should say that even though Thwaites has rested his book on a discredited argument, I do not think that an error in method necessarily undermines the intended conclusion.  James Barr writes at the beginning of his book:  “Where linguistic evidence has been used in aid of a theological argument, and where I believe that evidence to have been misused, I do not necessarily believe the conclusion of the theological argument to be itself wrong in particular.”  I agree, and I also agree with Thwaites’ conclusion that the church should have an impact in every aspect of life, even if his route to that conclusion is somewhat suspect.  There are other questions, though, that I have about the book, none quite so heady as that first one, though all, perhaps, related to it in one way or another.  The first has to do with exegesis.  Thwaites is generally very free in his interpretation of Scripture.  He is certainly a creative author, but when one is attempting to teach from the Bible, creativity isn’t really much of a virtue.  The idea is to transmit faithfully what is actually there, not to come up with a new and exciting way of looking at it.  Two other problems are more theological in nature.  As far as I have understood the book, Thwaites’ conception of God and the world has led him to tiptoe very close to a derivative form of pantheism, and thus to blur the essential distinction that must be made between the Creator and the created.  Finally, there seem to be some deficiencies in Thwaites’ understanding of the atonement, all brought on by his allowing this fallacious distinction between the Greek mind and the Hebrew mind to control his thought, instead of the plain and simple meaning of the Scriptures.

Let me first point out a few places where Thwaites’ grasp on the Hebrew mindset seems to be tighter than his grip on the meaning of Scripture.  The most striking example of this is on page 219. Thwaites spends several pages talking about the book of Romans, with the goal of showing how the pinnacle of that book is precisely his point:  that Christians should engage the creation—especially through our vocations—in order to “answer its cry” and bring it to its “fullness.”  He quotes Romans 8:28 as the “fullest expression” of “the sound that first touched the creation”:  “We know that God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”  From there, Thwaites assembles his argument:

I begin by drawing your attention to three very significant concepts found in this verse.  Firstly there is the use of our well-known phrase ‘all things.’  Secondly, we see a reference to the third sphere of creation, ‘work’, and finally we note the tell-tale declaration used by God after he created the heavens and the earth, that being the word ‘good’.  So there exists, in line with the ‘purpose’ of God, a powerful and strategic relationship between work, the all things of creation and the ‘good.’ (219)

I believe there are serious questions that can be raised about Thwaites’ understanding of all three of these significant concepts.  It seems to me that he has found more of his own mind in this verse than of Paul’s.  Why must we assume that the use of the word “good” in a passage necessarily points back to Creation?  It’s actually a pretty common word.  But then again, so are “work” and “all” and “things” for that matter.  We don’t have to read the same meaning into them every time we see them used in the Bible.  Think about the use of the word “work” in this verse:  “God causes all things to work together….”  That is, to “function” together, to “operate” together.  There’s simply no sense here at all of a person’s secular employment.  Every language in the world has instances where a single word has an array of very different meanings.  The error is in assuming that one can simply take his pick as to which one of those meanings he’ll assume for a particular instance.

Just to clarify, another example of this kind of error is on page 115.  Thwaites argues that at the Fall of man, creation was shrouded in a barrier, a film as it were, of pain and suffering, so that mankind could not experience it as it was meant to be experienced.  When the Savior came, though, he “went through the pain barrier set up by God after the Fall,” (Kind of like Neo, remember?, breaking through that jelly-like stuff when he escaped from the incubation thing in The Matrix.  At any rate…)  “[Jesus] went into futility, darkness and death as a man; he went through to the essence of all things to secure the inheritance in, through, and over all things.”  After saying this, Thwaites comments:

And as he entered in and through these things he suffered.  That is why we read that, “it was fitting for him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.”

Notice, of course, the italics on the word “through.”  Thwaites means for us to take from that word an image of Christ pushing or breaking through this “barrier of pain” so that we can follow him.  But there is really no need at all to force the word to carry that connotation.  It may (and probably does) simply mean “by means of,”  “by the action of,” “by the instrumentality of” suffering.  Put simply, a biblical exegete absolutely must leave room for subtle nuances in the meanings of words and be careful to determine which meaning is actually intended in a particular instance, or he will find himself again and again in error.

Besides this problem of method that shows up periodically in the book, Thwaites also comes to some theological conclusions that are at best questionable.  He is careful several times in his book to guard against the charge of pantheism.  For what it’s worth, I’m glad he recognizes the tendency of his ideas in that direction, and I’m even happier that he sees a need to distance himself from it.  There is another erroneous philosophy, though, closely related to pantheism, that I fear Thwaites has in fact fallen into.  It’s called panentheism.  The difference between panentheism and pantheism is that, like the name would imply, it means that God is in everything.  Not in the sense that He has a hand in everything, or that he is involved in everything—every Christian would affirm that—but that in fact God is within everything—trees, dogs, grass, this computer—that He shares their essence.   Listen to how Thwaites defends against the charge of pantheism:  “To allay any fears about the above teaching being some form of pantheism (God is only all things), let me stress the fact that the Son of God is in no way bound within time, space or matter.  He existed as God and in God in eternity before the creation and made space and time in himself as dimensions in which finite man could dwell. Time and space do not contain the Son; he contains them” (82).  Now take a look at the definition given to panentheism by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:  “Panentheism:  The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.”  The similarity is striking.

Is this a serious error, though?  Yes, it is, because in panentheism, much like in pantheism, the essential distinction between the Creator and the created is blurred to non-existence.  It becomes very difficult at best to distinguish between a tree and the God who made that tree.  Where does the one end and the other begin?  Thwaites describes his own position in striking clarity:

If all things are brought into being by God, are maintained by his hand and are indwelt by his attributes, nature and power, then they cannot be considered categorically distinct in essence to the divine being. (88, emphasis mine.)

The creation cannot be considered distinct in essence from God?  I’m not sure we want to say that. What could be clearer from Scripture than that indeed the Creator is distinct in essence from the creation?  He is not like us.  Yes, we are made in His image, but we are not made of His stuff.  God created us from the dust of the ground. To say that the creation “cannot be considered categorically distinct in essence to the divine being” is well over the line of panentheism and seems to drive dangerously close even to pantheism itself.

Thwaites also seems to have some confusion regarding the meaning of the atonement.  We have already seen how he understands Christ’s work to have been breaking through the “pain barrier” that God put across the created order after the Fall.  Consider this paragraph from pages 132-133:

When humankind fell into sin, the creation reality was not destroyed: rather the fullness of it was placed behind thorns, sweat and travail.  Futility and death came in to stand in the way of humanity’s journey into the attributes, nature and power of God in and through all things. . . .

The Son of God came and became a man to re-establish the eternal purpose.  He suffered his way through every judgement arising from the Fall [remember Thwaites’ understanding of the word “through”] and opened up the way through to the inheritance again.  He came in the power of righteousness and entered into all of human travail, thereby forging a strategic relationship between himself and every facet of fallen humanity’s experience.  He went into futility, darkness, and death as a man; he went through to the essence of all things to secure the inheritance in, through and over all things.  The outcome is that the wall of futility that faces humanity is now the gate for the redeemed.

The Bible’s understanding of the atonement, though, seems to be somewhat different.  Jesus did not come simply to break a gateway through the pain and suffering of the world.  It wasn’t an impersonal trailblazing, like Superman busting through a brick wall.  Nor, for that matter, is the judgment of God some sort of divine shrink-wrap around the creation that Jesus had to cut through for us.  No, the biblical testimony is that the wrath of God is a very personal, sustained anger against sinners, and that Christ actually stood as a very personal substitute to pay for His people’s sins.  As Isaiah prophesies, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”  Christ’s atonement was a personal atonement.  He became sin for His people so that they might become the righteousness of God.  I can well imagine that Thwaites would agree with everything I have just said about the atonement.  His image is not necessarily contradictory to biblical teaching; it could conceivably include judgment and penal substitution.  But if that is the case, then I still question the wisdom of using these spiritualized, mystical images to describe the atonement when the Bible has already given us perfectly good ways to think about it.  Why muddy the waters and cloud the understanding with new, extra-biblical images?  At best, Thwaites’ image of the atonement is inadequate and unnecessary, and it fails to highlight as the Bible does the penal, substitutionary nature of Christ’s work.

All of these errors—from the misuse of Scripture and misunderstanding of word meanings, to the panentheism that characterizes the book, to the inadequate image of the atonement that Thwaites articulates—all of these could have been avoided if Thwaites had allowed the Scriptures initially to shape his ideas.  As it happened, though, Thwaites seems to have come to Scripture with a controlling idea already lodged in his head—namely, this “Hebrew mindset”—and Scripture for him simply played the role of validating that presupposition.  In some cases, as we have seen, Thwaites even quite literally forced the words of the Bible to conform to what he had already decided was the truth.  That should be a warning to us as Christians.  Our “mindset” should be given to us by the Scriptures themselves.  We should come to the Bible as free of presupposition as we are able and allow it to shape our thinking, to give our minds their structure and framework.  James Thwaites is a sobering example of what can happen—and what error we are liable to fall into—when we allow a philosophy or idea to gain ascendancy in our minds, and only then ask the Scriptures to agree with us.

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.