Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) blogs


Subscribe to this blog feed icon

About this blog

Thinking the Faith, Praying the Faith, Living the Faith is written by the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship.

Thinking, praying, and living the faith is at the core of ministry in the Office of Theology and Worship. In the following videos, learn more about what thinking, praying, and living the faith means to the leadership of the Office of Theology and Worship. Discover why it matters and what difference it makes in our lives, work, and worship.  

Charles Wiley  
Barry Ensign-George
David Gambrell
Christine Hong 
Karen Russell

Recent posts



See all PC(USA) Blogs

PC(USA) Home

January 31, 2011

Lessons from Captivity (Is the PCUSA in Exile?, Part II)

As several pointed out in response to my previous post, and I readily acknowledged, the comparisons between the current late-Christendom situation of the North American Church and post-monarchical Judaism ought not to be made in too simplistic a fashion. That being said, I still maintain that there are some potential lessons for the contemporary church to learn from Israel’s experience of Babylon. Perhaps the better operative word is “Captivity.” Consider the following:

  1. It was during the Babylonian Exile that Israel formed her perduring identity. Deuteronomy and much of the self-understanding of Israel’s history was put into canonical form in this post-monarchial reality. During times of relative prosperity, there was not a pressing need for Israel to understand itself over against its environment in the way that was now needed.
  2. The encounter in Daniel,  between Nebuchadnezzar and the Hebrews at court, illustrates the kinds of formative practices that at least some in Israel adopted in order to preserve their identity and distinction vis à vis their exilic captors.
    • They refused to eat the king’s food, eating their own instead (Daniel 1).
    • They refused to conform to the king’s cultural and spiritual practices—worship of the gold statue, with its accompanying drone: “the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music” (Daniel 3: 5, 7, 10 and 15).
    • Daniel adhered to his own spiritual disciplines, praying three times a day to his God (Daniel 6:10).
  3. On a larger scale, Old Testament scholars tell us that much of the Old Testament canon was put into final form during the Exile.
  4. The doctrine or concept of divine election was articulated and refined at this time, engendered by a need for identity formation.

Indeed, from the vantage point of Babylon, Israel’s election has a more universal flavor than the particularism of the earlier (Deuteronomistic) History.  With the threat of syncretism no longer operative, the prophet envisions Israel as the very servant of YHWH who will be messenger(s) and witness(es) to the nations, bringing about the conversion and incorporation of all peoples into Israel. In what can only be seen as a remarkable statement, given the earlier emphasis on Israel’s distinctive identity over against the nations, Isaiah’s boldly asserts the servant’s mission:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

As a word to exiles in a foreign land, election is a message of profound hope, providing pastoral comfort, purpose and meaning (in a word, vocation) to a downtrodden and marginalized community as well as missional purpose. 

Just as some (it is difficult to estimate how many) Jews were absorbed by the Babylonian culture entirely and never returned, or resolved the tension they faced by embracing the surrounding culture (e.g., Zoroastrian dualism), the same dangerous dynamic must be recognized in our late Christendom Sitz im Leben.

I think the church would do well to adopt intentional spiritual practices (beyond the daily disciplines, but certainly including them) to differentiate us from the co-opting surrounding culture.

As Israel did, might the church utilize this occasion as an opportunity for constructive theological activity. Unpleasant though our circumstances, it is precisely a situation of exile—identity crisis—that yields the greatest potential for constructive theology. 

Is the time ripe to work on a contemporary doctrine of election for a church in a culture that is late/post Christian?  


Categories: Faith, Religion, Theology, Worship