Encountering God Through Art: Some Issues

Often on this blog, we have talked about ways in which the arts might help us encounter God. In this, my last regular post on Transpositions, I thought I might summarize some of these central points, both as a matter of personal reflection and as a helpful summary of some of our main concerns here. While these do not cover all the issues involved in thinking about the arts theologically, I think they are some of the most important questions to ask when formulating a theology of the arts’ role in encountering God.

  1. Issues of Particularity: This is ultimately a larger issue of the general versus the particular presence of God in the world and the ways in which we understand God to engage actively with his creation. As humans, we experience the world in particular ways. We live in certain places and not in others. We have specific opportunities. These particularities of lived experience also apply to our understanding of encountering God. God interacts with us as individuals and particular communities rather than in a general way. Therefore, when we suggest the arts as a mean of encountering God, we must resist the temptation to make the assertion an overly general one. The arts are not special because they house the divine presence permanently, providing a place for us to go and be assured of divine meeting. Rather, God actively engages with his creation, and he often uses the arts in this encounter because of their tendency to open us up to new ideas and worlds.
  2. Issues of Origin: Can all the arts enable encounter with God, regardless of the background of the artist herself? I think so. This is, is fact, one of David Brown’s main assertions in his book series on divine encounter through the arts and culture.[1] But this point is connected to our previous one. It’s not because art itself automatically houses the divine presence, but rather, that God chooses to engage with his world in particular ways through various mediums. Therefore, one might encounter God through an atheist’s work, but the nature of that encounter will be the same as when viewing a Christian painting. Both artworks will highlight certain features of the world, but ultimately, I think it is the work of the Holy Spirit that reveals divine presence to us.
  3. Issues of Vocation/Calling: Why even think about the arts as medium of divine encounter? What makes this act of human making more or less important than other things? One reason we might posit for the arts’ important role in divine-human encounter is the biblical calling to acts of responsible human making. From Genesis, we see God calling people to do things with the world around them, and these acts often serve to make the place of divine-human encounter (Adam’s call to till and keep the garden) or provide a place for housing an extended divine presence (notably, the tabernacle and temple.) When human making goes against the divine calling, such as with Babel and the Golden Calf incident in Exodus, the divine presence is removed from the people and there is no encounter possible. Human making, then, plays a major role in making possible the meeting of the human and divine. We are called to creatively engage with the world around us. The arts, therefore, should be a central component of theological thought.

Can you think of any other relevant issues for encountering God through the arts? What do you think are the most helpful ways to talk about divine-human meeting through the arts?

[1] See especially David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).;———, God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).;———, God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).


  • Jennifer Allen Craft is a regular contributor at Transpositions. Jenn is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places.

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  1. says: Sam Adams

    Hi Jenn, thanks for these thoughts. They neatly and concisely summarize what I take to be some of the key concerns of ITIA. I do have a few questions, however…
    In your first point you emphasized the importance of the particular and then ended with a general statement about the arts: “God actively engages with his creation, and he often uses the arts in this encounter because of their tendency to open us up to new ideas and worlds.” On what basis do you make this claim that God often uses the arts in this encounter? I can see why you would want to say that, but it seems to need much more support, especially that we can discern divine action in and through ‘the arts.’
    Next, your third point about human making seems to be problematic given your reference to the temple. Isn’t the point in the New Testament that Jesus is himself the temple now and that in the gathering of “two or more” is where God dwells? Isn’t this exactly opposite the claim that human making makes possible the meeting of human and divine? In this case human making would be more decidedly problematic…
    Finally, your second point seems just right, that it is the work of the Spirit that our encounter with God is reliant upon. But this seems to contradict the points about human making.
    I would love to see what sort of answers you or others have to these questions because they seem to me to be persistent issues that need to be addressed as we try and relate theology to the arts.

  2. says: Cole Matson


    Some brief thoughts to respond to your questions:

    1) I’ve experienced God through literature in very vivid ways. For example, reading Les Miserables taught me empathy for prisoners/ex-convicts (causing me to seek out a prison ministry program to get involved with), and also got me thinking about whether “eye for an eye” justice was sufficient when compared with Christ’s “turn the other cheek” mercy. I decided it wasn’t, and for that reason (and others, many immediately connected with the book), I sought baptism. I occasionally use The Lord of the Rings for lectio divina, not only for the profound beauty of it (“the beauty of that star smote his heart”), but also because whenever I read it, I find myself coming away afterwards strengthened in my resolve to live for Christ. That’s the working of grace, or it’s nothing.

    2) One of the ways in which we gather as “two or more” is through the arts. There’s a kind of communion with the artist when we experience a work of art, as well as with others who have experienced that artwork. There’s a kind of kinship between myself and others who have been moved deeply by Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/Star Trek, etc. Stories can cause in us an increase of empathy for each other (and any increase in empathy is the work of the Spirit, I believe). For this reason alone, it is valuable for Christians to engage in art-making.

    However, I believe that the making of a piece of art can itself glorify God, and be a place of encounter with Him. Those who write icons speak of encountering and praying to Christ as they paint Him. There’s a simple delight in making something structurally sound, whether it’s a cathedral or a Lego tower, that I believe pleases God. Bringing order out of disorder, making something pleasant to the sight, that is the creation of a garden from a patch of weeds makes us sympathetically resonate with the divine creativity, Who gave form to the formless chaos, much like a string that has not been plucked will start to vibrate if a harmonically-related string nearby is plucked. As Tolkien said, we make because we are “made in the image and likeness of a Maker”.

  3. says: Sam Adams

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Cole. I appreciate much of what you’re saying. I’ve experienced various things through different arts and having been a carpenter for fifteen years I know all about human making–from building dwellings to fine furniture. Even so, I still have some concerns.

    On what grounds do we say, of God, that he often uses the arts? It may be that we have a sense of experiencing God through them, and it may be that he does indeed use them, but that is not because of the arts themselves, but because God has graciously chosen to work in this way. He may speak through a sunset, a harrowing experience, a painting, or, as Barth says, a dead dog. What I am concerned with is that we are moving from a statement like God uses the arts, to an experiential justification (anthropological), to the further claim that human making is part of the mediation of the divine. I am extremely suspicious of claims that human making can somehow mediate the divine. God can use it, but an artwork is not something special that necessitates his use of it. It simply belongs to the human economy…

    The community formed around a work of art is not the community of the Spirit. That is formed around the broken body and shed blood of the one who did truly mediate between God and humanity: Jesus. Sure communities form for lots of reason, but we have no guarantee apart from gathering in his name that the Spirit will be there, certainly not that we have gathered in the name of Harry Potter. There’s plenty of empathy in Klan gatherings for Klan members, but that’s not the work of the Spirit! That’s an extreme example, but doesn’t there have to be more than just empathy for something to be identified as the work of the Spirit?

    Human making can be a good in the economy of human flourishing. No problem there. It can be done for the glory of God. But it cannot get us to God. As much as we make, as high as we build, we remain just as far as when we started. To the extent that we are human, that we are indeed made in the image of God, we make things. But this is not some sacramental connection to the divine, its simply being human. In other words, God can meet us in our working and our making, but there’s no guarantee. I just wonder how much investigation and study of art in its various forms can tell us anything of theological interest–unless we import it ourselves.

    I’m pushing this because I think these are important issues and I want to really think this stuff through–not because I’m trying to pick a fight! Thanks for responding!

    PS I’m with you on the turn the other cheek thing…!

  4. says: jfutral

    Sam, your response puzzles me. On the surface some of your questions seem non-sensical, such as:

    “On what grounds do we say, of God, that he often uses the arts?”

    This leaves me asking what are the arts to you and what do you think the arts are to the article you responded to? I am not certain you two are talking about the same thing. What fleshes out our ecclesiology if not art and art of human making, whether the music we sing, the sermon the preacher delivers, the architecture of the building, the elements of the sacraments, the scriptures themselves?

    Then some leave me wondering if we have read the same material. “The community formed around a work of art is not the community of the Spirit. That is formed around the broken body and shed blood of the one who did truly mediate between God and humanity: Jesus.”

    As a warning the same can, and I think should, be voiced in regards to our ecclesiology. The only thing required for Jesus’s presence is when two or more are gathered in his name. What that community looks like is not the point, whether gathered in a home, a church, a cafe, or around art. At the same time, neither does the promise preclude any of that.

    “What I am concerned with is that we are moving from a statement like God uses the arts, to an experiential justification (anthropological), to the further claim that human making is part of the mediation of the divine.”, I for one have not heard that expressed on these forums. Maybe you have? Of the site’s authors’ articles and responses, I have found a sensitivity to just the opposite, especially in this article.

    The best that I can ascertain from your response is a concern about justification by works, and rightly so. But I have not heard such a position implied nor have I seen one that can be properly inferred. No one has suggested that God can only use art of human making. If we are to be blessed, as Mrs. Spackman wrote to one of my responses “the poorest of visual aids can sometimes open the deepest places of the heart when the Holy Spirit uses them to speak to someone. The artist, however, dare not take credit for that.”

    If the Spirit chooses to use human making, we certainly should not boast. But that the Spirit uses such things is impossible to deny, IMO, either as illustrated in scripture or as found in day to day experience. A reductionist theology may try to strip away the particulars to find the universal, but God has given us no indication that the universal is apprehended or expressed independent of the particulars.

    You response brought to mind C. S. Lewis’s essay on the efficacy of Prayer:

    “Petitionary prayer is, nonetheless, both allowed and commanded to us: ‘Give us our daily bread.’ And no doubt it raises a theoretical problem. Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate. He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will. ‘God,’ said Pascal, ‘instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.’ But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.”


    1. says: Sam Adams

      Thanks for the comment, Joe. I know that the issues can be subtle and complex, and that I may have not been as clear as I needed to be, so I’ll try and be as clear as possible in my response.

      When I ask on what grounds we say, of God, that he uses the arts, I am pointing to the problem of justifying a theological statement based upon human experience (something I think Cole illustrated in his response). The thinking goes like this: I have experienced something through this medium (art, in it’s many forms) and I want to attribute it to God, therefore I think this medium itself is special, maybe even sacramental, and so I want to elevate that object as worthy of special theological reflection (again, Cole illustrated this with his practice of using the Lord of the Rings for lectio divina). I am concerned that this process elevates the role of human making, along with the object itself, into an a priori position before theological reflection begins. This tendency is a concern to me precisely because of the examples you used with respect to ecclesiology: human making may indeed flesh out our ecclesiology, but because of tendency of these practices to fall into an a priori relationship with respect to a proper pneumatological eccslesiology, founded in divine action, they can become means of control and obscure and block the prior movement of the Spirit.

      I understand your point that Jenn’s post was trying to avoid such a thing with a nod to the ultimate reliance on the Spirit for revelation, and I acknowledged that. I think she’s exactly right. But I am extremely suspect of elevating human making beyond the ordinary economy of this world, that is, beyond an immanent logic. In the divine economy it seems just the opposite: human making is especially susceptible to getting in the way. The question is how we bring human making, and with it the work of the artist, under the gracious judgment of the Gospel.

      I hope it’s clear that this isn’t just a concern about “works righteousness,” or that the concern about works is not just limited to the case of individual salvation as this term usually denotes, but it’s a live concern in our ecclesiology and political theology as well. It’s a concern about the priority of God’s action in the economy of salvation and the tendency in these conversations, whether explicit or implicit, to want to sneak a little bit of human making into the equation. In a way, it’s the same concern that Barth had with Brunner, if you’re familiar with that interchange over natural theology.

      As far as a “reductionist theology” goes, I’m not sure what you mean. I think that Jenn’s post wanted to move in a more particular direction but ended up trying to articulate a general/universal theology of human making. A particular theology of human action would pay attention first to the category of pneumatological gifting in the context of local Christian communities on mission, rather than a theologically articulated account of human making prior to the gifts of the Spirit. But (and I just read Jenn’s post again), on a second reading of her last point, maybe this is exactly what she is trying to say. If that’s the case, then I stand corrected. Sorry Jenn!

      Maybe my point can be stated like this: It may be the case, and often is, that God does not speak through a piece of artwork (sermon, song, painting, poem, etc). And, sometimes he does. But a painting (etc.) does not contain revelation, grace, glory, as any special property inherent to the medium, the object, or the artist. Because of this, art is interesting as one aspect of human making, but not as anything especially divine, or especially connected to the divine. Would you agree? Disagree? Why?


        1. says: Sam Adams


          I think I’m saying something more like, we can’t use the shadow to prove the sunshine when the light is coming from a fire we made…!


      1. says: Cole Matson


        If you don’t mind, I’m going to jump to replying to your response to Joe, because I think I better see the point you’re making now.

        It seems there are two questions:

        1) Does art do anything on its own apart from God?

        I think we would both agree that no, art does nothing on its own without God. We would probably also agree that nothing does anything on its own (at least nothing good) without God. However, I think we might disagree on what we mean by that.

        I admit to having what would usually be called a more “sacramental” understanding of how God operates in the world (not to be confused with the belief that everything is a Sacrament, in the way that Baptism and Communion – and, if you’re Catholic or Orthodox, some others – are). This is based on the idea of participation – something can only be good, true, or beautiful if it participates (albeit in a limited, creaturely way) in God, Who is Goodness, Truth and Beauty Himself. Similarly, something can only be if it participates in God, Who is Being. God maintains the entire world and everything in it in existence at all times, and if He took away His power from the smallest atom it would cease to exist (which is as much to see that if He removed Himself from the smallest atom it would cease to exist, since God is simple and His power is not separable from Himself). So God is there in all beings, and in all activity, for them even to exist. There must be some good, and thus God, even for evil to exist, since evil is parasitic on good – if existence is a good, and if evil exists, then where there is evil there is also (at least a minimal) good, and there is no such thing as “pure” evil without any good. So even at a Klan meeting, I would argue that any empathy for each other that does exist comes from God, because empathy in itself is good. That empathy may be corrupted through sin and its effects (and inevitably will be when, as you point out, the centre of that communion is not Christ, but something else, such as the idol of “the white race”, or even the idol of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan Christ, which is of course not Jesus Christ at all). But even a corrupt empathy (and all our empathy is corrupt to a certain extent, as long as there is any sin in us) can only exist if there is in the person a logically prior “pure” empathy to be corrupted – that is, if God is in that person’s heart making them empathetic. This is why, contra Barth, I side with Brunner in finding value in natural theology (though I admit Barth scored points against Brunner, esp. on the question of what makes us human and whether Brunner’s definition denies humanity to those with mental retardation, for example). There is this kind of “natural grace” which keeps everything in existence, and is the source of any goodness at all, whether or not it becomes corrupt (which is due to our own sinfulness).

        So, if anything good happens through the experience of art, it is because of God, because He is the Source of all goodness. However, there’s also this “supernatural grace”, so to speak, where God might choose to communicate Himself to a soul over and above the normal experience of art. God isn’t restricted to human activity, or natural beauty. However, I think most of the time we experience goodness through art – which is an experience of God – it is through natural means, through how art works on human beings, without God having to make any “extra” effort to communicate Himself through it. I firmly believe in the Jesuit maxim of “finding God in all things”. I believe that art does contain inherently contain revelation of God, if only because the fact that art exists shows that human beings are makers, that God is the sort of God Who found it important to give us that ability, and the ability to delight in it. And because (through Scripture) we know that God also makes, albeit in a more perfect way than we do, in our making we can see one aspect of God’s image in us, and glorify Him for giving us that ability (and through the exercise of that ability). So, I would disagree with the statement that there can exist any piece of art through which God does not speak. Even the sickest, most perverse and evil piece of art speaks to the goodness of God (it can’t help it, all existence itself testifies to God’s goodness), as well as to the existence of sin and need for God’s mercy – and also to the existence of the love that gives both mercy and freedom, testament as such an artwork is to God’s gift of free will, which includes the ability to rebel against Him.

        There is also the question, however, of being able to hear God speak through a work of art. I suspect it may require supernatural grace in a person’s heart to be able to understand the message of God’s goodness and mercy through art which in itself tends to evil, though Aquinas believed we could understand the goodness of God through the use of natural reason by looking at the Creation, and I believe we can similarly understand something of God simply through the experience of art working on our intellects and imaginations – keeping in mind, of course, that that communication through art is only possible because of God. I side with what I understand Brunner to say, that the imago Dei is not wholly obliterated in us, but corrupted, so there still exists a “point of contact” between us and God, even without the supernatural grace that comes in at Baptism. Art, because of its powerful effect on the imagination, can be the medium for this contact.

        2) Does art especially lead us to God?

        But is art especially suited to provide contact between us and God, more so than other human activities? Yes and no. Because art has an effect on the spirit, deeply moving the emotions and forming the imagination (and helping to form one’s desires), it can be a powerful tool for either good or evil. Art will move most people more than, say, doing laundry will. When it’s good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad, it’s horrid. So I would say, by its nature, it has a greater power to lead us towards, or away from, God, than many other activities have in their own nature. However, that power is, so to speak, neutral. I don’t believe there’s anything necessarily Spirit-ual about art, such as participating in artistic creation or contemplation necessarily leads one closer to God. Art is not a privileged means to salvation (though it is a means God uses to lead some people to salvation). Doing laundry for your bedridden neighbour will probably bring you closer to Christ than staring at a Michelangelo.

        That’s why we’re having this conversation, of course: how do we acknowledge the power of art to communicate God to people (in a way different from other activities such as preaching, evangelizing, reading Scripture, etc.), without making art into an idol that necessarily communicates God? The power of art is not necessarily angelic; but it’s not non-existent, either.

        (And just so I don’t worry you too much, I’ve only ever used The Lord of the Rings for lectio divina accidentally – in that I’ve found myself, as I’m reading the book, stopping to meditate over a passage that strikes me deeply, praying over it, and contemplating the goodness of God that the Spirit moving through the reading has shown me. I’ve never actually sat down to lectio divina time and thought, “Hmm, I think I’ll use Tolkien today.” My usual lectio reading is the Gospels.)

  5. says: Jenn Craft

    Wow! I have been away for the past two days and come back to find all these wonderful comments! I’m glad this post stirred so much conversation! You’ve all raised some very interesting topics, and I’ll try to respond to the main issues as I see them in your responses.

    First, I think it may be good to define the terms, “human making” and “the arts,” so we know what we are all referring to. I tend to define the arts very broadly. I see it as a spectrum that ranges from general acts of human making such as gardening, tool-making, or everyday language to what we typically think of as art—poetry, painting, sculpture and so on. I have no problem with talking about the art of agriculture in the same breath as the art of music. Obviously, they are different, but at their core, I think they speak to the same issue: the fact that humans are called to participate in their environment in various ways that help them not only understand their own place within it, but that also makes their world better (hopefully!) and adds something of value to it. Understandably, it’s simultaneously very general while accounting for the very particular. Sam, you pointed out that I was trying to move in a particular direction but articulated a general view. It seems, to me, almost unavoidable in what we are doing. I can point to particular instances all day long, but in the end, I am making a general claim about those instances. I think that’s just how we understand the world. We see the universal through the particular. Perhaps my short post mixed these up a bit though, and I see your point about the confusion.

    Moving on to more specific points. Sam, you said, “But I am extremely suspect of elevating human making beyond the ordinary economy of this world, that is, beyond an immanent logic. In the divine economy it seems just the opposite: human making is especially susceptible to getting in the way. The question is how we bring human making, and with it the work of the artist, under the gracious judgment of the Gospel.” I totally agree that human making can often get in the way of divine purposes. My citation of the Babel and golden calf experiences I think represents that tendency. God doesn’t always use the arts (however we want to define them), nor does he HAVE to. In fact, sometimes he rejects our acts of making! But I don’t think this is enough to dismiss the role of human making in God’s creative and redemptive purposes in the world. He does often call people to do things with the world, and I think that human making more generally, and the arts specifically, do receive special attention in scripture. Much of this is in the Old Testament, and I’ll get to how it applies to the NT in just a minute. As you have said, human making is part of the human economy. It is the way that God made us—to work and build and do things with the world around us. There is no questioning that. But I think that in that, God also invites us to participate with him and therefore brings human making into the way the divine economy chooses to work in the world. Cole already suggested something like this, and I think it’s one of the main ways that we can talk about the arts as having some sort of theological significance. In my view, God’s will and action always remain in central focus. But I think God does invite humans to participate in bringing about his will through acts of human making. That being said, human making alone cannot mediate the divine. I totally agree with you there. In scripture, when God uses human acts to facilitate divine-human encounter, he always commands them specifically—so Adam’s acts in the garden, the building of the tabernacle, the command to Noah to build the ark, the commands to the prophets to makes signs that bring about some sort of revelation. It is when God does not command acts of making that they go wrong—the tower of Babel, the golden calf, etc.

    The people’s actions in conjunction with the initial command/blessing of God to do those things is the key element there. This wider point, I think, is about the response of humans to divine calling, what in the New Testament we see instigated in the work of the Holy Spirit. Sam, you said that, “A particular theology of human action would pay attention first to the category of pneumatological gifting in the context of local Christian communities on mission, rather than a theologically articulated account of human making prior to the gifts of the Spirit.” That is basically what I am trying to articulate in a theology of human making, but I wanted to account for the Old Testament witness to the role of human making as a precursor to what we see in the NT. The NT, as I’m sure you’d agree, does not do away with the things we learn about God and humanity in the OT. It intensifies them and alters our perspective on those things, so that we can understand them more clearly in the context of the Incarnate Christ and the gifting of the Holt Spirit. In this regard, I don’t think the claim about God’s presence being where “two or more” are gathered is counter to the claim that the temple is the place where human making makes possible divine-human meeting. We are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, and while the physical structure of the temple is done away with after Christ comes, divine-human meeting in a place of human making (community) is still very much the main point. While the Eucharist is the central place where humans come together in community to share in the body and blood of Christ, I think other meetings of people in communities in place speak to and bring about the divine presence as well (as Cole suggested). Even the Eucharist, though, points to the participation of people in bringing about divine presence. We come together and engage in the liturgy of the Eucharist (a form of human making) to meet God. God is fully active in the Lord’s Supper (it’s not just an act of human sign-making or meaning-making), but if we don’t come together in the first place, there is no point of contact, right?

    So, all that to say, the arts as one form of human making should receive attention in such a discussion of divine encounter precisely because of this divine calling to participate in creation and be in community, not because they are special in themselves as a medium of divine revelation or presence. God does not have to use the arts to reveal himself. I totally agree with you that the arts themselves so not have any intrinsic property to reveal God or have any special connection to the divine. I do believe, though, that God has given humans particular gifts and callings (which we see and understand through the work of the Holy Spirit), and that God will use these gifts and calling to fulfill his divine purposes and reveal himself to his various members of his creation.
    I think any view of divine encounter through the arts has be remain especially nuanced in order to deal with these complexities of divine presence and human action/participation. If there is one thing I know, it’s that theological engagement with the arts requires much more than we typically think. It requires developing our whole systematic theology to determine what role the arts might serve in things like human religious life, God’s creational and redemptive purposes, and divine-human encounter. It’s easy to lean too far to one side or the other. Thanks for all of your comments! It’s definitely made me think more about these issues!

    Also, Joe, what is the title of the Lewis essay you quoted? I’d like to read it in its entirety.

    1. says: Sam Adams

      Thanks, Jenn, for your helpful clarifications! One question I want to ask, and this seems an important one, is whether or not we really do “bring about the divine presence” as you said. I am sorry to focus on so small of a phrase, but this seems to be significant. I would emphatically deny that we can say such a thing, unless the agency at work is the Holy Spirit. Gathering as a community may be a human act, but the gathering of the church is first and foremost a divine act–and I would say that this is absolutely essential when thinking of other communities. The church is fundamentally different than a community gathered around a book, movie, play, etc.. It may be sociologically similar, but theologically they must be absolutely different. Would you agree? Cole, would you?

      1. says: Cole Matson

        Yes. God always gives Himself; we have no power ourselves to ‘call Him down from the heavens’. He does ‘lend us the dignity of causality’, such that He promises to come when we call. But that’s because He has chosen to make that promise, and give us that gift. The priority of action is always His.

        I would also agree that ‘the church is fundamentally different than a community gathered around a book, movie, play, etc.’ However, I wouldn’t make the difference that God is in one (the church) and not in the other (Harry Potter fandom). God is in both. But it’s the community of the Church that makes possible any other form of community, in that the community of the Church is the community of God-with-us. It’s THE community to which He calls us, the only one necessary. Other communities are derivative of it (which is not a bad thing).

      2. says: jfutral

        But I would disagree with the inference that the divine act of gathering precludes gathering around a book, movie, play, etc. To suggest otherwise, seems to me, to be just as guilty of elevating our own actions and intentions over God’s to bring about the divine presence.


        1. says: jfutral

          In other words, if God’s engagement with humanity is entirely up to God and not of our making, then making a distinction between gathering as a human act vs gathering as a divine act is unhelpful and unnecessary, and probably theologically irrelevant.


        2. says: Jenn Craft

          Joe, I agree that making divine action and human action mutually exclusive is unhelpful. I think we have to see them in conjunction with one another, while also understanding that human action and participation in creation is always a gift from God to us, which it seems like Sam is wanting to stress. We have to hold onto a dichotomy of divine “givenness” and human “making.”

      3. says: Jenn Craft

        Sam, your questions are really helpful! I tend to not be so precise in my language about these things, and this conversation has been really great. “Bring about the divine presence”: when sectioned off like that the phrase does seem to produce a problematic interpretation of divine and human action. I would not want to say that humans can simply say the magic word and God appears. I guess my point is that God has allowed us to participate with him and that fact makes our human action significant. The agency stays with God. The ultimate focus remains on God. It’s, therefore, not because we do anything special, but because God has said, “Hey, come join me,” that we can talk about the theological significance of human making. I think it’s more a matter of our response to and understanding of God’s calling; we can do things that serve to highlight the presence of God in a place or that serve to detract from it. Our particular actions can serve in redemptive ways or in destructive ways. That’s what makes human making and artistry so significant–because its a matter of human vocation to which God has called us to.

        As far as the community of God. Yes, I totally agree that the church is a different form of community than, say, an art appreciation society. As Christians, we must see coming to together in Eucharistic community as the central place where we experience the presence of God in us and in community. But human making, as a God-given gift, extends beyond the church community. I think this allows us to talk about it, albeit in a different way, in terms of calling some kind of attention to the various ways that God interacts with his creation.

        1. says: Sam Adams

          Thanks, Jenn. I was just about to respond to Joe’s post when I refreshed and there was yours! I am being particular about the language, but in my area of research these days there are volumes written on the distinctions involved here…you know how these things are! Anyway, I think I agree with you on the place of art and human making. Human making is part of the economy of created existence, and as such has a valuable role in the goods and the flourishing of this world. Indeed, God often uses them, i.e. our labors, to benefit the world for his glory. Yet if we miss the clarity of agency and contingency then these labors can quickly become a means of possessing the divine and the consequences can be devastating (something Barth was acutely aware of). Instead, human making must fall within the economy of salvation on the side that needs redemption, so it makes sense to bring all of our human making endeavors under the gracious judgment of God–as we bring all of our efforts, efforts of worship, prayer, preaching, farming, etc.. I threw the ‘farming’ in there specifically for you!

        2. says: Jenn Craft

          Sam, I totally understand that! I’ve been struggling with these issues in my research on placemaking and divine presence. Your comments have definitely given food for thought. And thanks for the farming shout-out…Wendell Berry would be proud! 🙂

    2. says: jfutral

      “In fact, sometimes he rejects our acts of making!”

      I would challenge this notion with the question of what exactly is being rejected. Is Cain’s offering of human making rejected on the basis of its material existence or because of Cain?

      “It is when God does not command acts of making that they go wrong—the tower of Babel, the golden calf, etc.”

      There is an example of an act of human making commanded by God that eventually goes wrong—The serpent staff Moses made to heal, eventually destroyed by Hezekiah.


      1. says: Cole Matson

        “It is when God does not command acts of making that they go wrong—the tower of Babel, the golden calf, etc.”

        I’d also quibble at this statement. I don’t think God has to specifically “command” an act of making for it to be legitimate and in accordance with God’s will (which not what I think you meant, but is the way it comes across to me). A playful sketch of my girlfriend’s face is not going to be wrong, just because God didn’t specifically issue a call to me to draw that sketch, in the same way He might call me to craft a tapestry for a church sanctuary. (Not meant to imply that God only “calls” artists to work in the sacred arts.) The tower of Babel and the golden calf were created as challenges to God, and therefore illegitimate acts of making. I agree with Sam’s language that all human making must be “brought under God’s judgement”. God claims authority over all activity, and if it’s not for God it’s against God (though “for God” doesn’t necessarily mean activity that is clearly “religious” or “sacred” as opposed to “everyday” or “secular”). However, I think God gives us a wide rein in terms of our choice of activity, as long as it’s directed to Him and not away from Him. We have freedom to play with our making – “holy play”. We’re not limited to creating only when specifically commanded by God to do so.

  6. says: Cole Matson


    Thanks for your enlightening response! The title of the Lewis essay is “The Efficacy of Prayer”, in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays.

      1. says: Brandon Craft

        Thankfully your husband spent all of his money in college on assembling a very large Lewis collection! 🙂

        I’ve enjoyed reading these thoughtful comments back and forth. The above comment is the only thing I can muster that even approaches a “response.”

  7. says: jfutral

    @jenn, “We have to hold onto a dichotomy of divine ‘givenness’ and human ‘making.\'”

    However, the position that Sam articulates does not jive with the conclusions he reaches. Either God’s actions are God’s gift, particularly his engagement with humans, within or without human making, or it isn’t. If it is, then Sam has no basis to say one act of community allows for divine engagement and another doesn’t except as pure speculation.

    In either case, as human making comes from divine givenness, I see no dichotomy.


    1. says: Jenn Craft

      Joe, I think perhaps my quickly typed response got the best of me. I didn’t mean to suggest that we should advocate a stark division between human making and divine gift but that we should hold them together while also accounting for their differences. I think we can say that God’s action is distinct from human action but that he also allows human participation in his purposes and inviting his indwelling presence.So yes, you’re right in saying that human making comes from divine givenness. God’s action is not dependent on human making, but neither is it totally separated from it. Sorry for the confusion on my part!

      1. says: jfutral

        Imagine circles in a Venn diagram. Sam is saying we have one circle that is divine act/making/community, etc. Then there is another circle that is human making/art/community. The two do not touch nor overlap. There may be times when the God extends himself over to the human circle to engage or “redeem” some form of humanity, but those things with which he engages cannot be counted as divine.

        Now, I think you are saying it is more likely these things overlap and they overlap because God chooses for them to overlap. It is not an existential leap for God, but a design. And where they overlap, we dare not take credit for it, it is God’s gift, God acting of his own accord as he wishes.

        I think that is a fair overview of each of the positions as presented here.

        My position is that the human circle exists within the divine circle, and that not of ourselves lest anyone should boast. It is the human circle in the divine circle, not the divine circle in the human circle. There is not anything we can make that is not made from something God made first (on that fact alone we should always make with a heart of thanksgiving and humility.)

        Therefore, it is never an existential leap for God to interact at any point in any kind of human making. When things go wrong, it is not because of human making getting in the way, nor any fault of God’s. It is because of our own selves getting in the way in ways such as forgetting Who gave first, thinking more highly of ourselves or our making than we ought, believing we deserve more than we do.

        In a lot of ways, this is very much the discussion underlying the tithe. how can we really give back to God what already belongs to God, what is his to begin with whether we give it back or not? And is there really anything mystical or innately spiritual about 10%?

        I could be wrong, though.

        1. says: Cole Matson

          “There is not anything we can make that is not made from something God made first (on that fact alone we should always make with a heart of thanksgiving and humility.)”


        2. says: Sam Adams

          Joe, I’m trying to understand what you’re saying in this comment. Are you saying that we can count human things, things we make, acts that we do, as divine? Is everything divine? Are God and nature the same (I’m thinking here of Spinoza)? If so, what do we make of the Incarnation? And is not the Incarnation that point at which God does become human, at which the human does become divine? And does that not demand that we see the rest of creation as precisely not divine, and maintain the all important distinction between the Creator and the creature? And if all acts are somehow divine acts, in what way do we need redemption or reconciliation? In your view, is sin simply the failure to recognize that we are divine? Cole, feel free to answer as well since I have similar concerns with your comment.

        3. says: Cole Matson


          “Are you saying that we can count human things, things we make, acts that we do, as divine?”

          Not insofar as they are human. Insofar as they are redeemed and participate in God’s redemptive purposes. Human =/= divine. Human in Christ = divine (because of Christ, not because of humanity).

          “Is everything divine?”

          No, but everything is possible and held in existence only because of God’s divine power.

          “Are God and nature the same (I’m thinking here of Spinoza)?”

          No, definitely not! Though again, while God and nature are wholly separate in one way (because God is the Creator and nature is a creature, wholly different in substance/essence/existence), they are also linked, because nature could not exist without God. I find Aquinas’ use of analogy helpful. The two are not the same. But there is a necessary link between them (though the necessity is one-way – God is necessary for there to be nature, but nature is not necessary for there to be God).

          “If so, what do we make of the Incarnation? And is not the Incarnation that point at which God does become human, at which the human does become divine?”

          Yes. The Incarnation is the only reason any human activity can be called divine, is the cause of divinization. The Incarnation is the cause of the redemption of human activity. Human existence is taken up out of its corrupted nature to share in the supernatural divine life, redeemed by a gift of grace.

          “And does that not demand that we see the rest of creation as precisely not divine, and maintain the all important distinction between the Creator and the creature?”

          Of course the creation is not divine. It does not share in the divine substance. It is not God. Its nature is not the divine nature. We’re completely agreed there. The creation is wholly separate from God, in that way.

          However, the creation is not wholly separate from God, in that it only exists because God’s power has created it and upholds it in being. If God were to retract His power from it, it would immediately cease to exist. Its existence is fundamentally depending upon God’s existence. Not the same, but linked. Participatory (but participatory in a different way than a redeemed human being participates in the divine life of the Trinity through Christ).

          I find the distinction between cause and substance to be helpful. The substance of the created nature and the divine substance of God are wholly separate, and never the twain shall intermingle. However, God is the necessary cause of the created nature. The created nature cannot exist without that cause.

          Another picture that helps illustrate how I’m conceiving of the relationship between the divine activity and human activity, which follows Joe’s Venn diagram of human activity within the circle of divine activity. Let’s say that a child wants to buy a Christmas present for his father. The father gives him an allowance, and the boy goes off and carefully chooses a Christmas present for his dad – a bright, shiny new tackle box for their fishing trips together, let’s say – which he wraps lovingly and gives to him. You can’t say that the boy has done anything solely of his own power. He didn’t have any money of his own – he was only able to act because he had been given a gift. But with that gift, the father did empower the son to take a free action (which could have been spending $5 on a tie rack and keeping $20 for a new video game for himself). The boy had the power to make choices and take action, but only because that power was given to him by the father. If he had started to think, “I gave him a gift all by myself – he had nothing to do with it”, or even worse, “Now he owes me” – well, that would just be silly.

          “And if all acts are somehow divine acts, in what way do we need redemption or reconciliation?”

          I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe all acts are divine acts, i.e., acts aligned with the will of God, or acts of God directly, though I do believe any activity is only possible because the power of God has given the actor the good of the power to act. Because we have that free power, we have the power to turn away from God, and act contrary to His will. Any such action is self-contradictory, because it denies the God who gave the actor the power of denial in the first place. It’s cutting off the branch on which you stand. That’s why the Luciferian position of sin is so ridiculous and absurd. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer says he is “self-begot”, which is absurd because he, as a creature, has no power of self-begetting, and the only power of begetting he might have (ignoring for the moment the angelic nature) comes from God! Sin is saying, “My power comes from myself,” when all along it comes, and can only come, from God. There can be no sin without God, because we commit sin through the power of agency which God gave us. But when we commit sin, we separate ourselves from God, from His love, from the grace that is within us. Clearly I’m talking about two kinds of separation – separation from the fullness of the divine life which is redemption, and separation from God’s power in every way, the power that keeps us in existence. The folly of sin is to say that that second kind of separation is possible, that I can exist, of my own power, without God. Such a thing is impossible.

          At all times, in all activity, we’re either saying “yes” to God, or “no”. “Yes” is redemption, reconciliation, only possible because of God’s supernatural grace. “No” is sin. In the end, “Yes” is life, full participation by gift in the life of the divine Trinity. “No” is death.

          “In your view, is sin simply the failure to recognize that we are divine?”

          No. It’s not as if we’re really divine (participating fully in the divine life) all along, and our liberation from sin will come when we open our eyes and see that we are already gods. (Barth saw the consequences of that kind of thinking, and New Age pop psychology/spirituality is often dangerous along the same lines.) Rather, sin is refusing to acknowledge that we are dependent on God’s power, that we belong to God, that He is divine and worthy of all our love and worship, that He is our source and cause and fullness of being. He is the One we were made for, and the cause of our making, our beginning and end, God. It is setting oneself up as wholly separate from Him, and complete in that separation – rather than seeing that that separation is death.

        4. says: Sam Adams

          Thanks for your response, Cole. I wish I had time to do justice to what you have written in this and your previous post! What I think is interesting as it relates directly to Jenn’s comments and the issue of the arts and human making, is the degree to which we see the realm of the human as fallen. If reconciliation is not simply the realization that we are divine, which we both agree it is not, then it must be an overcoming of something that separates us from God, something that requires death and resurrection (that is, after all, what the at-one-ment requires). If that’s the case, then we should talk of human making in terms of the cross, and not as simply a change in our understanding. You are exactly right to say that that separation, i.e. the separation determined by the “heart turned in on itself,” is death. But if it is, and it is Christ’s death that overcomes the separation, then it seems that all of human making must be said to need to pass through some sort of baptism.
          You wrote:
          “The Incarnation is the only reason any human activity can be called divine, is the cause of divinization. The Incarnation is the cause of the redemption of human activity. Human existence is taken up out of its corrupted nature to share in the supernatural divine life, redeemed by a gift of grace.”
          I wouldn’t put the weight of redemption on the Incarnation unless we also recognize that the Incarnation was a taking up of humanity toward the cross. If the goodness of creation is affirmed in the Incarnation it is also judged at the cross. What matters, and what we hold out hope for is new creation, new life, resurrection, etc. Baptism reminds us that that death is ours as well, and that we live only on the other side of baptism. I guess I worry that this sort of death-resurrection motif is avoided in much discussion of the arts and human making. Does this make sense to you? What do you make of this death-resurrection motif as it relates to the arts? I could say more but I’m in the middle of making dinner for my family and wanted to keep the conversation going!

        5. says: jfutral

          Sam, I can’t for the life of me figure out what repentance would be if not realization and action on that realization, all brought to by the work of the Spirit.

          If Jesus is to be believed, then we are judged long before the cross. The cross is the resolution of that judgement. I can’t find better discussions and motifs of death-resurrection than in the arts. Content of art not being the only way to discuss this, but also process. Western music can easily be defined as tension-release, G7 to C. Any material art passes through a death-resurrection when it is transformed from what it was into what it becomes.

          In a lot of ways the cross is the ultimate work of art. Nietzsche once said (though I’ve heard this quote attributed to Goya as well) “We have art so as not to perish from the truth.” If the traditional Christian view of what would happen to us if we stood face to face with God in an un-redemptive state is true, then in that case it is Truth that is destructive. We have the art of the cross to bring us life so we don’t perish.

          But I would agree that most Christian discussions of art have long be bereft of the qualities that make art important. Thankfully, I see the Spirit moving in ways to alleviate that more and more everyday. Maybe, as the Church, we just weren’t ready until now. Or maybe the world wasn’t. Whatever reason God has for doing what he does, I am thankful.


        6. says: Cole Matson


          Sorry, for some reason I didn’t get an e-mailed update about your last comment, so I just saw it. When I use “Incarnation”, I was speaking about the cross as part of that – viewing the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension as all one movement. I absolutely agree with you, the cross is the “crux” of all human making, and the redemption of human making. Art doesn’t make sense without the cross. Art points to the cross. Art is redeemed by the cross.

          One important question in theology and the arts is, what makes art redeemed? Can there be “Christian” art, i.e., is some art redeemed by the cross, and some art isn’t? I think there has to be in difference, but then again I see art that the creator probably wouldn’t have called “Christian”, but in which the cross shines clearly to me (e.g., Les Miserables). Is art created by people who have been redeemed itself redeemed, so “Christian art” is “art made by Christians”? C.S. Lewis, I think, would argue no: he called T.S. Eliot’s poetry “infernal”, even though he acknowledged that Eliot was a baptised Christian. Are only human beings redeemed, or is the Creation redeemed as well (which is another theological argument)? If the former, can art be said to be redeemed? If the latter, does “the Creation” include “sub-created” works (i.e., works made by creatures, such as art)?

          We’ll have to talk these out more. I still haven’t come to a definition of “Christian art” that I think really works.

          On a related note, I wonder how you would respond to the following statement by Prof Paul Fiddes, a systematic theologian at Oxford, in his short paper on “Sacraments in a Virtual World” (http://www.docstoc.com/docs/86883542/virtual-communion):

          ‘There can be an “extension” of the sacraments from the church sacraments of bread and wine into the sacramentality of the whole world, since the world is held in the life of the triune God; for an expression of this, see Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass on the World. Many physical objects in the world can become a focus of mediated grace in continuity with the church sacraments, while remaining depending upon the sacraments of dominical institution for their meaning.’

    2. says: Sam Adams

      The church is different from a book club. The church is called, gathered, and sent (not necessarily in that order) by the Holy Spirit. A book club is not. God can work through a book club; the church is, by definition, an act of God. This is not speculation, it’s scriptural.

      1. says: Jfutral

        That the church is called, gathered, and sent, I agree, is scriptural. That it cannot be a book club is not scriptural.


        1. says: Sam Adams

          If a book club gathers in the name of Christ, is gifted by the Spirit, is sent on mission to proclaim the Gospel, and is placed under the gracious judgment of scripture, etc., etc., then, okay, it can be a church too. I just don’t see how we can call a book club that has gathered to read, say, the Lord of the Rings, a church. Is this what you’re saying?

        2. says: jfutral

          I am saying when you elevate a particular form of gathering over another you run the risk of worshipping the serpent staff rather than the God that heals.

          I did find your choice of form somewhat ironic. In many ways our church rituals are very much a book club, aren’t they?


        3. says: Sam Adams

          Ironic or more to the point: it matters which book. Scripture has a unique function within the economy of salvation that cannot be replaced by another book or another medium such as painting, etc.

          (by the way, I really appreciate your comments!)

        4. says: Jfutral

          I would say at least with a book club you have a better chance everyone having read the book being discussed.


  8. says: jfutral

    Sam, I appreciate anyone willing to share in the wrestling and the questions of who we are, why we are here, who God is, and why God even cares about us, and particularly how that affects us and our art.

    I’m not sure how to answer your questions as you asked them. I think they are asked from the perspective that misses the point. I 100% believe God does exactly what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. He would rather work with us than against us. He would rather we work with him than against him. He would rather we be aware of him working. Although I do think if we were ever aware of exactly what he was doing, particularly in troubling moments in our lives, we would be scared to death and probably rebel even harder. I think God wants more for us and from us than we could ever imagine. I believe the more we love and trust him the more he asks of us. Also from Lewis’s essay on the Efficacy of Prayer

    “Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”

    The most grave implication of my belief is that my understanding of what God wants to do and how he wants to do it probably often has little resemblence to God’s views of those things, no matter how much he reveals of himself or how logically I’ve worked it through. If God is capable and able to do all things, then there can be no point of existential leap for him. How can it be otherwise for an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal/infinite God?

    God acts as the Divine, as the Deity. There is no other God, there is no other who can be called God. All creation exists as a divine act. Creation is not Divine because creation is not the Creator. To answer Sartre, God is the ultimate cause. One of the reasons I believe in the Trinity is, a God that has always existsed in relationship as his essence, is the only way all creation makes sense. There is no part of creation that exists on its own. Everything has a relationship with something else and especially God. Because an act of community is an act of relationship, an act based on being made in His image, ANY act of community is a divine act. How could it be otherwise?

    Now to bring this back to art, in my life as an artist, one idea I have come to about art is that art is a result of relationship. Good art results in relationship/s. As art is humans partaking of the nature God being made in the image of a Creator, how could a community around art not be a divine act?

    And I do like Mrs. Craft’s phrase “human making” because I do believe art is so much more than what most people consider to be art. Another place Jesus has said we will find him is when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visited the imprisoned, took care of the sick, etc. To me those are as much a part of art and human making as anything can be. And if these are not divine acts, how can we find Jesus there?


    1. says: jfutral

      (Sorry about some of the erroneous grammar there. It’s late and it has been a long day in a dark theatre.


  9. says: Jono

    Sam, Joe, and others, I have been keeping up with your discussion this past week. I was hoping to say some things by way of response and see if we are all closer to agreeing than it might seem.

    Justin Taylor posted this from something Michael Horton wrote, which I thought was relevant to the discussion. “Distinguish between the church as institution from the church as its members: In the former sense, the church is Christ’s embassy of saving grace through the ministry of Word and sacrament. In the latter sense, it is believers-saved-by-grace who are scattered into their worldly callings as salt and light.”

    If we agree on the distinction it would seem you might actually be in agreement with one another. The institutional or organizational church is certainly gathered around a specific book (Sam’s emphasis), which as N.T. Wright says, “mediates the authority of God.” As far as rituals are concerned, Scripture mandates the specific rituals (word & sacraments) we are to participate in during our institutional church gatherings. The set apartness of the institutional gathering does elevate it above other gatherings as special (not meaning a sacred/secular dualism). For instance, a wedding is a more special occasion than a Harry Potter book club. Joe, I don’t see why this admission puts us in a greater danger of “worshipping the serpent staff”? That is a danger either way. And the serpent staff actually was special in a way other staffs were not because God had chosen to use it in healing the people. I would think that if we fail to recognize the uniqueness of the institutional church gathering, it is then that we run the risk of worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. So, a Harry Potter book club would not be and could not be an institutional church. However, a book club could be the church in the second sense (the people).

    John Frame says that Scripture “does not exhaust the word of God”; that the word of God is “the sum total of his free communications with his creatures.” Frame breaks God’s diverse ways of communication into, events (history/nature), words, and persons. Sam, I think others are right to emphasize that we have been given eyes to see, which makes it possible for us to “hear” God in creation. This doesn’t mean that the stars and trees mediate in any salvific sense (Christ is also responsible for general revelation). We also bear the image of God and participate in the development and government of His creation, so why is it wrong to say we can discern something about God and His world through reading Lord of the Rings?

    A donkey as a part of God’s creation, tells us something about God. God can also speak through a donkey in a special way (Numbers), but it is up to Him when He chooses to do so. Sam, is that what you meant? The bond fire isn’t the burning bush (Exodus)! So, God can communicate in a special way through things we make, but it is up to Him when He chooses to do so (it’s not normative like with Scripture). The guy who tells his female classmate, “God told me we are to be married” is not in a position to demand the girl’s acceptance of his proposal. I think it is important that we do not elevate the arts to a prophetic role, which is what I thought Sam was warning against. Sam and Joe, I hope you will let me know if I understood you both correctly. Grace and Peace, Jono

    1. says: jfutral

      I would say this distinction is what is causing so much of the problem. I understand the need to find comfort in knowing there is someplace someone can find God. Especially as it often so difficult to find God anywhere else. To know that I can go to a particular place or gathering to get away from distress, to think clearly, or otherwise be able to come before God.

      The problem is when we start to define everywhere else in opposition to this place. What I have found is that man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man. And we worship, not on a particular mountain or in Jerusalem. We worship in Spirit and in truth. The institution is not more important than what the institution was created to support.


      1. says: Jono

        Joe thanks for the response. I see that you are engaged on two fronts!

        “Love the church; hate the institution.” So many say. Doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like saying “I love my wife; I hate marriage.” –Eugene Peterson

        “As a theological category, church could refer to just those who are Christians. But when we use the word church as in, “I’m at church,”…we’re talking about a gathered body with certain parameters…. It’s important to remember that when you have two people at Starbucks who are talking about Jesus, that’s nice and that may be a group of Christians, but a church has order, offices, and certain worship elements.” –Kevin DeYoung

        It would be strange to have the NT talk of elders and deacons without an organization that they are leading and serving. Whatever your church polity is, there is a church polity. Christians are citizens of the already not yet Kingdom. The church is one institution among many (marriage, government). The Kingdom is the larger category. I am not reducing the Kingdom to the institutional church. I would not define other places in opposition to this place either. Distinction does not entail opposition. What about an institutional church is in conflict with other places in the Kingdom? They all should work together.

        A specific place is not needed for worship (all of life is worship) but that does not mean that there are not specific requirements for the worshipping community. J.I. Packer writes, “The New Testament assumes that all Christians will share in the life of a local church…The NT shows clearly what the staple ingredients of corporate Christian worship are, namely, praise (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” Eph. 5:19), prayer, and preaching, with regular administration of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7-11).” Institutional church is not the only place that one finds God. However, the Bible is clear that having found Him there is to be a local congregational gathering. The institution serves the people. You can have a bad marriage or a bad government but you don’t get rid of marriage or government to fix the problem. I take N.T. Wrights view of the Sabbath, but that doesn’t preclude institutional church.

        “1. The New Testament presumes church governance
5. The New Testament churches had recognizable structures. 6. “Spirit-filled community or institutional organization” is a false dichotomy that presumes the Spirit is powerless against institution
7. Logically speaking, there is no such thing as “no institution” except chaos or anarchy 10. No one in 2,000 years has successfully cultivated an enduring institution-less expression of the local church.”

        How is this distinction (organization/organism- Kuyper) the problem? What scriptural basis do you have for being against an institutional Church (distinguished from institutionalization)? Do you agree there is a difference between general and special revelation?

        1. says: jfutral

          I’m not saying I hate institutions at all and have never said I am against them. I have a great deal of respect for institutions. If someone finds meaning in any particular institution, they should by no means reject them.

          I am against setting up “the other” in opposition, and beyond “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also” and “Those who truly worship do so in Spirit and truth”, I reject the notion that the NT gives any kind of singular, exclusive, exhaustive remedy for gatherings, much less with any clarity. If that were the case, the Institutional Church would not be as disparate as it is today and the Church would be in much dire straights than it is.

          The distinction is a problem because men make it so. Always have (I follow Apollos, I follow Peter, I follow Paul). I don’t expect it to end anytime soon, not before the new heaven and new earth.


        2. says: Jono

          Joe, sorry I didn’t mean to suggest that you hated institutions. I don’t think we are going to end up agreeing on this ☺ but I have appreciated the interchange thus far. I wanted to respond once more and then if you could, please answer my question at the end of this post so I can have a better understanding of what you are saying. I agree that where two or more gather in Christ’s name, He is there. But that isn’t the only thing the Bible has to say about gatherings. The reason we go beyond that text is because there are other texts that that speak of a gathering having elements beyond two Christians coming together in Christ’s name. I don’t think we see one model for church. However, it is evident that the Bible recognizes a difference between Paul and Silas singing together in prison and Paul setting up a local church. Just because all institutional churches don’t look the same, doesn’t mean that the institutional church isn’t different from a book club. Again, why would the institutional church be in opposition to a Christian book club? We worship in spirit and truth at home, in book club, and at church. I don’t see the problem. Even if you say that all gatherings of Christians are equal, you still have to do deal with texts that speak of specific gatherings that have elders, sacraments, etc. These distinguish the gathering as different from other gatherings. A Christian book club is not the same thing as a Christian film club. A gathering with elders, preaching, and sacraments is not the same as a gathering without elders, preaching, and sacraments. What role do you see elders playing in our life? Here is the question I am most interested in you answering-Do you think we should have institutional churches but recognize them as equally significant to other gatherings where Christians gather in Christ’s name? Or do you see any gathering of Christians coming together in Christ’s name as sufficient for what the text asks of us?

          Grace and Peace Joe, I hope you have a wonderful Easter and I look forward to hearing your response- Jono

        3. says: jfutral

          “Do you think we should have institutional churches but recognize them as equally significant to other gatherings where Christians gather in Christ’s name? Or do you see any gathering of Christians coming together in Christ’s name as sufficient for what the text asks of us?”

          If I understand the questions, yes and yes. I believe gatherings are not about institutions. The institutions are a means to the goal of community, with community being defined as love/relationship—love God, love your neighbour. As long as any institution sees furthering that as it’s sole purpose, but not the exclusive caretaker of that purpose, I have no qualms.

          As an artist I work in concepts. The concepts, to me, are more important than the particular chosen to communicate that concept. For instance, in dance lighting there is a light referred to as a “shin buster”. It is a light low (usually 6″-2′ or so off the ground, in other words shin height and often accidentally kicked by people’s shins) and to the side.

          As a designer and an artist, what is more important is not that this light is at that position, but what I do with that light, how I use it. If that light is defined by its explicit position, If I come to a theatre where I cannot use that position, then my lighting is screwed.

          If, however, my concept for this light is “a way to light the dancer without lighting the floor”, then I am no longer tied to that position if there is a theatre where that position is impossible for some reason.

          The concepts of church/gatherings are more important than the particular structure of an institution or ecclesiology. I have found that particular structures are actually a natural part of social interaction.

          My favourite example, particularly with and as a protestant is, quite frankly, everyone has their pope. Everyone, not just Catholics, has someone that they view as nigh on incorruptible in explaining doctrine and theology. If they are honest, they will see it as well.

          I think in just about any group dynamic you will find people who serve as elders, pastors, preachers, teachers, deacons, et. al., even if not explicitly so.

          If you need those positions clearly defined and delineated within an institutional structure, you should find that institution. All I will ask is, does it help you love God and love your neighbour, even if that neighbour is someone who believes you to be the enemy? Or (to put an expositional twist on the parable) does it help you love someone who helps you even though _you_ believe _them_ to be the enemy?

          I hope the answer will be yes.


          P.S. What do I call myself anymore? I no longer feel the need to protest Catholicism, but I feel no compulsion to venture into the Catholic traditions. I guess, just a rogue. Ah, well.

        4. says: Jono

          “The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit”- Karl Barth

          Joe, of course I answer yes to your question. Attending church is an act of loving God and loving neighbor that also helps me to love God and love neighbor. What about this gathering having requirements is inimical to love?

          The quote above says nothing about a specific location (theater) or a specific denominational style (various styles of a dance). However, the Good Book, while not commanding one day (light height) for its use, does require the use of Scripture/sacraments (light) in a certain gathering (particular dance between God and His people-dancers) called the church. We don’t have to call it an institution. Let’s just call it a gathering where two or more gather in Christ’s name, take communion, and hear the word. Joe, there are also instances where it would be impossible for two or more to gather in Christ’s name.

          Most importantly, in Matthew 18 he clearly distinguishes the church from a gathering of two or more in Christ’s name. In context, the verse says that if you go to a brother who has sinned against you and he doesn’t listen then “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Notice that he says, “If he refuses to listen to them (the two or three gathered in Christ’s name), tell it to the church.” The verse you are using is not delineating the requirements for local church but addressing how its members are to deal with conflict.

          You can’t answer yes to both of my questions. By saying that any gathering (book club) in Christ’s name is sufficient to be obedient to what the Bible requires of us, entails that it is not necessary to have Christians gather for the preaching of the word and partaking of the Lords Supper. Are you saying that a gathering where we partake of the Lords Supper and hear the word is not required of us? There is no such thing as rogue Christianity. I don’t think rogue is the best word to use; it implies disobedience, which might be the case. I say this with concern.

          I don’t agree that I think some man is infallible.
          I am also a protestant. Grace and Peace Joe, I hope you attend church on Easter 😉 –Jono

  10. says: Cole Matson

    One phrase I like to keep in mind against a temptation to be either too iconodulic or iconoclastic is Charles Williams’ phrase, “This also is Thou. Neither is this Thou”. I’m including it here because it seems relevant, and in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

    From C.S. Lewis, ‘Williams and the Arthuriad’, Taliessin Through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso, by Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 335:

    “Two spiritual maxims were constantly present to the mind of Charles Williams: ‘This also is Thou’ and ‘Neither is this Thou’. Holding the first we see that every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him. Holding the second we see that every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image, that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation. The first maxim is the formula of the Romantic Way, the ‘affirmation of images’: the second is that of the Ascetic Way, the ‘rejection of images’. Every soul must in some sense follow both. The Ascetic must honour marriage and poetry and wine and the face of nature even while he rejects them; the Romantic must remember even in his Beatrician moment ‘Neither is this Thou’.”

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