It was 2003; I was 23. Finally after all these years, I had scraped up the cash (& credit cards) to undergo that great American rite of passage – the summer trip to Europe. Thanks to the generosity of Andrew Jones & family, a couple of house churches, and many other hospitable friends (including Bea & Andy Marshall) I made my way from London to Bournemouth to the Netherlands to Birmingham and Sheffield. While on one leg of my British journey, I was part of a learning party Andrew & friends put on called Wabi-Sabi. It was there I was having a conversation with a fellow American, a new friend 20 years my senior, who had published a book the year before. He was a pastor and church planter, and ‘coach’ to other pastors and church planters. He was asking me what I was up to, & I told him about a book I was working on. (It’s a book I’m still working on! Could this be the month I finish it..?)
“What’s it about?” He asked.
I proceeded to tell him, noting that in part it attempts to unfold “The eternal purpose of God.”
“Well!” He exclaimed jovially but incredulously. “When you figure that one out, be sure to let the rest of us know!”
Ah, these were the early, heady days of postmodern incredulity to metanarratives – even postmodern Christian suspicion of Christian metanarratives. And why not, after all? We (at least, we evangelical Christians) were weaned on a ‘big story’ of “If you were to die tonight, do you have assurance in your heart that you’d go to heaven?” Or, “Have you heard the four spiritual laws?” Those of us following Jesus with awareness of our post-everything cultural shift were keenly aware of the shortcomings of our blithely-uttered “theories of everything,” and were looking for a humbler approach – even if it ultimately meant affirming a much humbler, more localized, cosmology.
But I had a problem – one I still have, at least in part, today. But it’s one I think From Eternity to Here by Frank Viola speaks into. My problem, sitting in Europe circa 2003 – and in the Southeast US of A circa 2009 – is that, since 1998 or so, I was arrested by a grand story – a tale of a God in love, a God who is love, a God who is Community, creating matter and physicality and embodiment as an expression of that love to pour Godself into. If this Story doesn’t do away with the Fall-Rescue-Restoration narrative so common to Christendom, it certainly reframes it, going back further and then permeating the present, to the point (for me at least) that some eschatological tensions are less pronounced. And further still, proponents of this Story have the audacity to believe it’s hiding in plain sight right in our bibles:
Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Paul’s letter known as Ephesians, 3:8-11, TNIV – emphasis mine, as ancient Hebrews & Greeks did not have italic fonts yet.)
So this story’s sexy – it has grace, and the overseeing of an age-old ‘mystery,’ in the same sense as ‘mystical’ or Babylonian mystery religion (only better). A message, a power, hidden by God in Christ that would be as revelatory to heavenly principalities and powers as it would be for mere mortals, a divine purpose that’s not only age-old but eternal.
By which I mean Where to, Frank?? It is this impenetrable enigma that Viola turns his pen to unfolding for us – and it’s a good thing, too: If folks in the first century CE barely grasped what the apostle Paul (and, Frank contends, Jesus – and others) were talking about, we certainly don’t talk much about this stuff 20+ centuries later.
Except, interestingly, there is a stream of the Christian family who has dared speak about such things: Plymouth Brethren, Christian Missionary Alliance, Keswick Higher Life movement folks, and their descendents. I can’t do justice to their whole story here – that’d be a post in itself, or a series – so I’ll just do a genealogy. Ruth Paxson begat Mary McDonough begat Watchman Nee and T. Austin-Sparks (I’m talkin’ spiritually, now) begat Stephen Kaung and Devern Fromke. Hudson Taylor and AW Tozer run around in this family tree too, somewhere. All of these folks had teaching ministries, or churches, or publishing outreaches, the emphasized the the exchange that happens when those who trust in Christ spiritually ‘die’ with Christ and have his resurrected life take the place of your own – and how this all fits into a larger, more cosmic plan of God’s original purpose – or as Fromke calls it, ‘The Ultimate Intention.’
Frank brings these teachers’ core messages into the 21st century, connecting them in dialogue with other branches of the Christian family, including neo-orthodox folks like Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who explore radically Christ-centered spirituality as the ground of all being and escape from religion and conventional categories of knowledge), and more recently still post-evangelical luminaries like Stan Grenz and Miroslav Volf who explore the social habits of the Trinity and how these might be reflected in the Church.
So where to, Frank? Frank wants us to begin in the Godhead:
In “the agelessness of eternity,” God had an incredible dream: He wished to expand the “infinite communion” that He had with His beloved Son. He wanted other beings to participate in the interior mystery of the Trinity, to share in the sacred exchange of fellowship, love, and life that flows…between the Father and His Son. He wanted others to participate in “the amiable society” of the Godhead.
But he doesn’t end there. In order to “participate” in the Godhead, the Church in Frank’s depiction lives out four values (see chapter 27):
Communion with God:
As the bride of Christ, the church is called to commune with, love, enthrone, and intimately know the heavenly Bridegroom who indwells her.
Churches that excel in the bridal dimension give time and attention to spiritual fellowship with the Lord. Worship is a priority. Seeking the Lord, loving Him, communing with Him, and encountering Him are central.
Corporate display of the church in an atmosphere of ever-member freedom:
The church is called to gather together regularly to display God’s life through the ministry of every Christian. How? …In open-participatory meetings where every member of the believing priesthood functions, ministers, and expresses the living God in an open-participatory atmosphere (see 1 Cor. 14:26; 1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 10:24–25, etc).
God dwells in every Christian and can inspire any of us to share something that comes from Him with the church. In the first century, every Christian had both the right and the privilege of speaking to the community. This is the practical expression of the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood all believers.
The open-participatory church meeting was the common gathering of the early church. It’s purpose? To edify the entire church and to display, express, and reveal the Lord through the members of the body to principalities and powers in heavenly places (Eph. 3:8–11).
Community life where practical reconciliation takes place:
The church’s allegiance was exclusively given to the new Caesar, the Lord Jesus, and she lived by His rule. As a result, the response by her pagan neighbors was, “Behold, how they love one another!”
God’s ultimate purpose is to reconcile the universe under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10). As the community of the King, the church stands in the earth as the masterpiece of that reconciliation and the pilot project of the reconciled universe. In the church, therefore, the Jewish-Gentile barrier has been demolished as well as all barriers of race, culture, sex, etc. (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:16). The church lives and acts as the new humanity on earth that reflects the community of the Godhead.
Thus when those in the world see a group of Christians from different cultures and races loving one another, caring for one another, meeting one another’s needs, living against the current trends of this world that give allegiance to other gods instead of to the world’s true Lord, Jesus Christ, it is watching the life of the future kingdom lived out on earth in the present. As Stanley Grenz once put it, “The church is the pioneer community. It points toward the future God has in store for His creation.”
It is this “kingdom community” that turned the Roman Empire on its ear. Here was a people who possessed joy, who loved one another deeply, who made decisions by consensus, who handled their own problems, who married each other, who met one another’s financial needs, and who buried one another.
Commission where we love the world as God does:
As we have already seen, when Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, He chose to express Himself through a body to continue His ministry on earth. As the body of Christ, the church not only cares for its own, but it also cares for the world that surrounds it. Just as Jesus did while He was on earth.
The pages of history are filled with stories of how the early Christians took care of the poor, stood for those who suffered injustice, and met the needs of those who were dying by famine or plague. In other words, the early Christian communities cared for their non-Christian neighbors who were suffering.
Not a few times a plague would sweep through a city, and all the pagans left town immediately, leaving their loved ones to die. That included the physicians. But it was the Christians who stayed behind and tended to their needs, sometimes even dying in the process…the early church understood that she was carrying on the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. She well understood that He was the same today, yesterday, and forever (Heb. 13:8).
So there you have it. I’m still not sure if we contingent humans can dare speak in plain prose about something as ineffable as an “eternal purpose of God.” And yet, if I saw my American church planter friend again today, I’d echo Pete Rollins (or is that Caputo? Or is that Derrida?) in saying that while language definitely fails at such a sublime provocation, we cannot help but speak about eternity and ultimate meaning. Some of the best conversations, orations, letters and books have been penned exploring this very idea, and From Eternity to Here is no exception. What I appreciate about it is its desire to marry the contemplative with the active, the mystical (if you will) with the missional. As I said in my inside-cover endorsement of the book,
Frank Viola is the heir apparent to classic Deeper Christian Life teachers, faithfully bringing their core ideas into the 21st century with his own fresh insight. Visio Dei meets Missio Dei in this passionate examination of what motivates the very heart of God!