Transition to Post-­Christendom: From the Temple Mount to Mars Hill

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Every year, thousands of Christians make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. There is something awe-­inspiring about walking where Jesus walked and seeing places from the Bible come alive in fresh ways. To retrace the steps of Jesus from the Praetorium where he was falsely condemned and scourged to the traditional site of the crucifixion outside the city gate is an unforgettable experience.

Many Christians also retrace the footsteps of the apostle Paul. In the spring of 1999, my wife and I had the privilege of traveling through Turkey and Greece, following the footsteps of Paul’s great missionary journeys. After our visit to Ephesus, we traveled north and crossed from Asia Minor (modern-­day Turkey) into Greece just as Paul had done in the first century. We visited such familiar sites as Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth. However, one of the highlights of the trip was the visit to Athens, Greece, the traditional seat of learning and philosophical speculation of the ancient world. This is the birthplace of Plato and the home of Plato’s Academy, regarded by many as the first institution of higher education in the Western world.

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The apostle Paul’s time in Athens is recorded in Acts 17. Paul stood on Mars Hill and saw idols and various objects of worship, including an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). From this impressive rock outcropping you can see the imposing Acropolis of Athens, upon which stand the ruins of the Greek Parthenon. Built in the fifth century BC, the Parthenon was dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. The apostle Paul stood on that spot with its impressive view of the Parthenon and declared, “You are ignorant of the very thing you worship—­and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). As I stood on top of Mars Hill, I wondered what it must have been like to hear this amazing proclamation from the apostle Paul and hear how he used the “Unknown God” as his starting point to proclaim the gospel to the Athenian skeptics gathered at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16–34).

Tertullian (160–220) once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”1 For Tertullian, Jerusalem represented a culture with the revelation of God’s Word at the center. Athens represented a culture of human speculations, skepticism, and instability. Tertullian understood profoundly that divine self-­disclosure powerfully trumps all other knowledge and discourse. Unlike some of the other early apologists, Tertullian wasn’t particularly interested in the insights of the secular philosophers. For him, Jerusalem represented a society framed by revelation, and therefore, theological and cultural stability. In contrast, Athens represented dialogue, speculation, and doubt.

Jerusalem and Athens are symbolic of a key shift in our culture. Like Tertullian, many of us would prefer to proclaim the gospel—­symbolically speaking—­from the security and stability of the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. Many of us yearn for a time to return when God’s Word was more widely acknowledged and respected in the culture, not to mention the church itself. We remember a day when our culture enjoyed far greater stability. However, we can no longer think of this as our primary paradigm. Instead, we are called to be faithful to the gospel in the midst of the raucous, pluralistic, experimental, skeptical environment of “Mars Hill of Athens.” The apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel not just from the Temple Mount of Jerusalem but also from Mars Hill of Athens.

Traditionally, pastors in the Western world were trained, even unconsciously, to occupy places of cultural and religious stability. Pastors arrived in communities to serve churches where a large percentage of the people either attended church or gave assent to the broad contours of the Christian worldview. Many of the ethical parameters of the Judeo-­Christian worldview were widely embraced.

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This kind of Christendom arrangement has collapsed. We are no longer in Jerusalem. We are in Athens. We are no longer on the Temple Mount but on Mars Hill. This has enormous implications for how we engage the culture in the opening decades of the twenty-­first century. Indeed, our society represents a more profoundly missional context than anything we have previously encountered. This new cultural paradigm means that we must prepare Christians to be far more articulate in responding to a wide array of cultural questions that are being posed to the church.

The pastoral implications of this reality for an exploration of the theology of the body are important. The wider culture no longer embraces Judeo-­Christian values and has only a fading memory of the long-­held assumptions that arise out of biblical revelation. Therefore, we must be savvy about where the first real battleground is for Christians today: we must prioritize the reclaiming of biblical Christianity within our own faith, practice, catechesis, and discipleship. That will have an enormous positive impact on the surrounding society. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that the neoevangelical movement of the 1940s is close to collapsing, and we are facing a substantial loss of Christian identity within the church itself. Helping our churches make this transition from Christendom to post-­Christendom may be one of the most important pastoral challenges we have faced in decades.

This is an excerpt from Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Seedbed, Zondervan). Through these pages, you will:

  • Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues
  • Discover a positive vision for human sexuality
  • Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture

The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.

Also available are the Video Companion and Video Study Guide for participants. In these eight (30 minute) sessions, Timothy Tennent presents the core teachings of the larger book. The Video Study Guide includes condensed narrative from the video presentations, outlines of the videos, discussion questions, and recommended reading. Together, these resources will help groups engage with the material at a deeper level and challenge us to consider the implications of the Bible’s teaching on the human body for discipleship.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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