Friday, February 05, 2010

Contagious Holiness

Craig L. Blomburg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005). Notwithstanding its title, this book is not really about holiness (though its central insight on that topic is invaluable). Rather it is a book about the social and theological significance of meals in the Bible. The author sets out the current debate over whether Jesus' meals with sinners involved genuinely wicked people or simply those who did not live up to the overly particular standards of ritual purity laid down by the Scribes and Pharisees. To arrive at his findings he surveys meals in the Old Testament, Jewish and Graeco-Roman meals in the inter-testamental period, and finally the core texts in the Gospels that deal with Jesus' meals with "sinners." The sixth and final chapter discusses some contemporary applications of Blomberg's finding that the practice of Jesus eating with sinners subverted the rules of ritual purity so that far from Jesus becoming contaminated by contact with sinners, it was they who became "contaminated" by contact with him! His holines rubbed off on them as they came into contact with his transformative presence.

It should not surprise us that with the arrival of Jesus the meaning of holiness should undergo a revolutionary change. In the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, while there is direct continuity with Old Testament concepts of holiness there is also radical reinvention. For one thing the "location" of holiness is moved. “Holiness looks different now”; it looks like Jesus (see Stephen C. Barton, “Dislocating and Relocating Holiness: A New Testament Study,” in Stephen C. Barton., ed. Holiness Past and Present (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2003), 197-98. ) In the holy character of Jesus there is a contagious power present to make holy all who come within its influence. Kenneth Walters sees this as the heavenly realm encroaching upon the earthly realm in the person of Jesus so that “where contact with God once meant destruction for any earthly being or object, contact with God in Christ now means sanctification and life.” (Kenneth L. Walters, Sr., “Holiness in New Testament Perspective,” in Kevin W. Mannoia and Don Thorsen, eds. The Holiness Manifesto (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2008), 52.

Historically the church has "fenced" the Lord's Table so that entrance to fellowship with Jesus has been carefully guarded. The early church practice was to limit access to the Eucharist to the baptised. The Puritans looked for evidence of a conversion experience and this remains the usual practice among Evangelicals. Methodists have often taken an "open table" approach based on John Wesley's conviction that the Lord’s Supper was not only a confirming but also a converting ordinance. (His own mother was brought to full assurance at Communion). He welcomed “penitents” (what we today might call “seekers”) to come to the Table and thus take a step closer to saving faith. The practice of an “open table” has become a contentious one among some Methodists and a difficult stance to take in an ecumenical context where baptism is normally seen as the rite of entry to the Table, in keeping with the practice of the ancient church. In the argument from Wesley’s practice of inviting people who had not undergone a conversion experience to approach the Table, it is often forgotten that those Wesley addressed were for the most part baptised as infants and could therefore be admitted to the Table as a way of confirming the grace received at baptism in a conscious act of faith. Those who argue for an open table on the basis that Jesus “ate with sinners” and that this is after all, his Table, not ours, make a more persuasive point. Do we exclude for the sake of maintaining clear marks of discipleship? Or do we include for the sake of bearig witness to Jesus' "contagious holiness"? Blomberg's book will be must reading for those who are seeking to answer such questions from a textual basis.


Ross said...

As you probably know, the Baptist church has a "closed table" approach to communion, so that only baptised believers make partake of it, so it's a confirming ordinance.

Joshua M Walters said...

Interesting, interesting! I do prefer Wesley's approach as I too meet a very welcoming Jesus in the Gospels. Knowing how messy and sinful I am, I would never want to be responsible for turning someone away from anything. Moreover, I don't feel as though I've been given any special authority to speak for God on this matter.

I'd love to read more of Bloomberg's writings on the OT table fellowship customs. That would probably bring to light a lot of new insight the NT customs, eh? Did he discuss any of the Jew/Gentile issues over this?

P.s. you know I was really jumping over to your blog to see if you had learned to post footnotes? haha :) I always check your blog whenever I have a tech question...

JD Curtis said...

Ross, in my experience, baptism wasnt what closed the table to others but a conversion experience whereas the person places their hope for salvation in Jesus Christ and nothing else.


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