Is Christian faith about ‘personal relationship with Jesus’?

There is a continuing rumbling discussion in the Church Times about the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ since Angela Tilby’s diatribe against ‘evo-speak’ in February, to which I responded with a letter the following week, and to which there have been further responses. Before exploring the issues, it is worth reflecting on the different reasons for reaction to this phrase—and on reflection I am aware that it is not a phrase that I use myself, and I confess to feeling uncomfortable with some ways in which this language of ‘relationship’ is deployed. 

One possible objection is that ‘relationship with Jesus’ focusses on the second person of the Trinity rather than being fully Trinitarian, though in recent discussion that theological concern doesn’t appear to be evident. Another objection might simply be what we might call ‘ecclesiology-cultural’: it doesn’t fit very comfortably with a certain church ethos. After all, there isn’t anything very ‘chummy’ about the language of the Book of Common Prayer, with its ‘manifold sins and wickedness’ which do ‘most justly provoke thy wrath and indignation against us’. Related to that, and connecting theology with the culture of our language, I remember having a debate with a friend at a summer New Wine conference a few years ago, where my friend argued that God is something akin to a celestial chum, and that if we found God mysterious or difficult to understand then we were missing out on God’s friendship. I think this approach is in serious danger of reducing the analogy of human friendship in our understanding of relationship with God, can trivialise our worship, and doesn’t attend to our confident but still partial understanding expressed in 1 Cor 13.12 as ‘seeing through a glass darkly’ or, in contemporary English, ‘dim reflections in a mirror’. This is reflected in many of our contemporary praise songs, where (in one charismatic tradition) as we ‘come closer’ in some sense to the presence of God, we move into celebrating intimacy, rather than being overwhelmed with the holiness and ‘otherness’ of God or being challenged (as were many who came close to Jesus in the gospel accounts) about the demands of discipleship. So there are clearly some important issues to explore here. 

Inclusion and exclusion in Luke 13

Sunday’s lectionary reading from the gospels is Luke 13.31–35, and once again the lectionary does us something of a disservice by cutting this short passage off from its surrounding narrative. That is not such a problem in relation to what follows, since Luke begins chapter 14 with a clear narrative break, ‘And it happened, he [Jesus] going to the house of a Pharisee on a sabbath…’ which is emphasised in many English translations by starting the sentence with the time marker: ‘One sabbath, Jesus went to…’. But the there is more of a problem in the detachment of the lectionary reading from the passage that precedes it, for several reasons. 

First, the previous pericope begins with a generalised reference to Jerusalem in Luke 13.22: ‘Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.’ Luke is not here offering any specific reference to allow us to locate the discussion that follows, but is reminding us of the ‘journey’ motif that he introduced in Luke 9.51, so that this second section of his account picture Jesus as travelling determinedly to the city, and that the challenge of discipleship is to join Jesus on this spiritual and metaphorical journey. That journey motif is implicit in our reading as background to the Pharisees’ question, and the reference to Jerusalem becomes explicit in Luke 13.34.

Tyndale NT study group 2019: call for papers

The Tyndale New Testament Study Group is part of the Tyndale Fellowship for biblical and theological research, based at Tyndale House in Cambridge, and including evangelical scholars from all over the world.

The 2019 NT Study Group will be meeting at Tyndale House from 26th to 28th June 2018. Our theme this year is Writing, orality and the composition of the NT. We would welcome proposals of papers on any issue of scholarly debate on issues relating to this, including writing in ancient world as it affects the NT, memory theory and orality, and canonical composition and dating of NT documents. We are particularly interested to see the way that evangelical scholarship has contributed to this important subject. Alongside the main theme, there will also be space to hear papers on other issues in NT study as in previous years.