to ponder:

To think, reflect, consider, contemplate, mull, weigh, ruminate, deliberate, meditate about something, to weigh in the mind

with thoroughness and care(fully)

for a long time

especially before making or reaching a decision or a conclusion

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Faith of the Bible and our New Zealand Cultural Context: The Dove and the Olive Branch

(This is a talk I gave at a conference last week entitled “Kiwi Christianity: The People, The Land and the Kingdom of God”. The conference was framed as “Let’s together explore our New Zealand heritage, our identity, our future in Christ and our unique call to God’s Kingdom.” It was primarily concerned with recovering the story of the gospel in New Zealand, particularly the story of gospel and missionary witness among Maori, perspectives of local Christian Maori on the church and mission in our city, stories of churches wrestling with the bicultural journey and the unique possibilities and challenges in the New Zealand context. Half of the speakers were Maori. The opening speaker was Keith Newman author and passionate advocate for telling the story of mission in New Zealand particularly Maori mission to Maori. I was asked to provide some theological input).

I have been asked to bring some theological reflection on the issues we are considering today.  There are many theological themes that we could consider – things like land, culture, justice, and peace. However I want to approach this at a different level. As we consider issues of Maori culture, New Zealand history, the Treaty of Waitangi, tino rangatiratanga and biculturalism, this raises the big picture question of what are we doing theologically when we do this, why do we do this and how should we think about the overall relationship between the faith of the Bible “once delivered” and local culture and place?

I want to suggest an image from the Bible that helps portray the theology behind such an engagement with culture, history and land - the image of the Dove and the Olive Branch

This is an almost universally recognised image of reconciliation, restoration, peace, hope and new beginnings. The picture embodies the coming together of two elements: the dove and the olive branch. Now good theology normally involves holding in tension two truths. Error normally comes from taking one part of the truth out of balance. 

This image of the dove and the olive branch is a symbol that can illustrate the coming together of two different elements of a theology of God’s presence in our world and it is precisely at the point of intersection of these two elements that we find real power, truth and life.

The image comes from the story of Noah, shown below:

Back to the central image though – how should we think about these two elements?

Now it is normal to consider the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit but I want to suggest both elements are representative of the work of God and thus of the Holy Spirit’s work in our world. They represent different dimensions of the work of God in our world and it is when those two meet that something special occurs.

You see the budding branch is also a symbol of God’s life giving Spirit at work.

In the story behind the image of the dove and the olive branch, this was not a miraculous budding of a cut branch but the budding of new life out of the soil of that place – but still the lifegiving work of God.

I had always assumed that the dove found some fresh new shoots coming out of the ground. However I discovered that older Jewish commentators assumed this was fresh budding from old olive trees that survived the inundation of the flood. Olive trees are renowned for being ancient, hardy and resilient. The sign of life was that the ancient tree was budding again. Below is a picture of a Mediterranean olive tree purported to be 1500 years old.

So I want to suggest these two elements are two poles of a theology of God at work in our world. Yes the dove as from above, from the hand of the father. But also the ancient olive tree, battered and bruised, but earthed in the soil of the land and still standing after all the calamity, now budding again with new life – that is a great picture of spirituality emerging from the people of this land and in particular Christian life among Maori. 

Now I am not claiming that what I am saying is the intended message of this passage. I am saying it is a good picture or metaphor that can communicate simply quite profound theological truths.

I might also dare to hope that the story might be prophetic about where we find ourselves standing. The story actually has three comings of the dove:

If we think of these two elements as two dimensions of God at work in our world, then I  want to suggest the dove has in our recent past found nowhere to land but been left hovering. I hope the dove might be finding in meetings precisely like this one signs of the budding of the ancient olive trees of this land. My hope is that soon the dove might find a resting place in the land as we discover what it means to live at the intersection of these two ways God is at work in our land.

In terms of theology this is the tension of general revelation and special revelation. Special revelation is the story of the nation of Israel, reaching its defining moment in the death and resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in Scripture – the record of a particular story to a particular people in a particular place and time. However Scripture also affirms general revelation: God’s truth revealed to all people at all places in all times. Good theology should hold these two together.

Evangelical and Charismatics have tended to be strong on special revelation and have a weak theology of general revelation.  This is similar to another tension between creation and redemption. Again evangelicals and charismatics tend to have a strong theology of redemption and a weak theology of creation.

It is also the tension between the immanent presence of God in our world and the transcendent presence of God from above.

There is a parallel in our theology of the person of Jesus. An orthodox theology holds together claims that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Orthodox theology is traditionally preoccupied with defending the fully divine side of the tension (against for example the Arian heresy). However it is also possible to be in error on the other side and let go of the full humanity of Jesus. This heresy is Docetism from the Greek word dokeo, “it seems”, meaning Jesus only seemed to be human.

This is the Jesus who floated six inches off the earth. In the language of the dove, and the olive branch, the dove was never allowed to fully land.

I would suggest that in Evangelical/ Charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity in New Zealand we have been enraptured with the hovering dove. And it is beautiful! Who would not desire this? 

But we have not let the dove land on the sprouting life of God within our culture.

I want to give three examples of the dove landing.

The first is Don Richardson. He was a missionary in what is now called Irian Jaya. 

In his early books he records stunning examples of truths he found within these cultures that provided landing points (analogies and points of contact) for the story of God’s special revelation in Christ. You see what may sound radical in a New Zealand context is actually just taken as a given in cross-cultural mission. It is not radical theology but normal cross-cultural mission practice. When we were missionaries there was a saying that the missionary does not take God to the people, but rather God calls the missionary to the people and God was there first. That’s just good theology holding together general and special revelation. 

Later Don Richardson wrote a more historical and biblical reflection on the principles behind such encounters, called “Eternity in Their Hearts”. He gives examples from the history of non-Christian people groups who had a knowledge of God and of times where missionaries either missed their opportunity or accelerated their mission by appropriately connecting with culture e.g. choosing (or not) the right name for God within the culture so that people said “Oh you have come with a message about this God whom we know of, rather than being perceived as bringing a message about a foreign God”. He also illustrates his principles from Scripture. 

Don Richardson discusses what he calls the Melchizedek factor and the Abraham factor.
This comes from the story in Genesis 14 shown below:

Here the person of God Abraham encounters this mysterious figure Melchizedek. Because of how he is dealt with in Hebrews it is often assumed he is some kind of theophany or pre-incarnate Christ. The other option is that he actually is a pagan king and priest. In which case there is a curious encounter where the great father of biblical faith acknowledges this priest and king, receives a blessing from him, gives an offering to him and above all uses the name of God that this pagan uses. I don’t want to explore this today but Richardson contrasts this attitude with Abraham’s response to the other pagan king the king of Sodom – Abraham will have nothing to do with him. These two responses represent two possible stances towards other cultures and actually two streams within Scripture. Evangelicals and Charismatics are so deeply immersed in the second stream, that we are largely blind to this other way of relating to culture, this other stream within Scripture. What is significant is this is more than just adopting cultural forms but actually connecting with the knowledge of God and the work of God found there. The balance is obviously a discerning engagement but unpacking that is probably for another time in New Zealand. The immediate challenge is to acknowledge the alternative Biblical model of a positive engagement with the revelation and presence of God in and through culture– the dove lands on the olive branch of God’s revelation in culture.

This can be illustrated by Moses and his relationship with his father-in-law, Jethro, a pagan priest. We know the Moses who denounces foreign religion but we do not know the Moses who will worship with this pagan priest, and receive his advice:

The climactic and humorous example is of the conversion of Cornelius. Notice it is the pagan who has the angel appear to him, whose spirituality is affirmed but who then is told he needs to hear the story of special revelation from Peter. It is Peter who needs the radical encounter with God to convert him -  to the fact that God is at work among gentiles. But (and as I have said good theology is about the tension or balance) the Holy Spirit falling still depends on the witness of Peter. It is a curious interplay of general and special revelation!

This positive attitude to culture is not just illustrated by Scripture but deeply engrained in the Judeo-Christian attitude to Scripture as a whole. You see Jews and Christians have always translated Scripture. This contrasts with an Islamic theology of revelation where the Qur’an is deeply honoured as the very words of Allah in Arabic and cannot be translated but only interpreted in another language. In contrast the Jews translated their Scriptures from Hebrew to Greek. As soon as you do that you have to use words of that language and words have a context and a story and a worldview… and according to Jews and Christians that is ok, it is legitimate; in fact it is necessary. So YHWH can be announced as theos (just a note Richardson again here notes the discernment required – Christians felt they could use the concept of theos but not Zeus). Now what this means is that the gospel is announced as “this theos you have known of we now tell you of his revelation in Jesus Christ.” There is contact -  the dove and the olive branch meet, gospel and culture, special revelation and general revelation.

The second brief example is Chuck Smith who died recently but was involved through Calvary Chapel is a move of God in the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s. 

The thing that strikes me is that this was not about the church trying to be relevant and trendy. Rather this was about a move where hippies came to Jesus and just as they sat naturally around singing folk songs with guitars now they naturally sang folk music to Jesus … and so was born contemporary Christian music.


A move of God happened where culture met gospel, where the dove was loosed to alight on what sprang up among the people.

The third example is from the life of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus is surely one of the most perplexing stories of the gospels. 

Note the appearance of the dove again, and specifically as the Holy Spirit. However Jesus had been born of the Spirit so like the dove and the olive branch both elements represent the work of God and of the Holy Spirit and it is the intersection that matters.

Matthew in particular brings out the perplexity of the story:

The perplexity is because baptism was about identifying with sin and repentance. Jesus was precisely the one person who did not need to be baptised but he choose to. Why?

Much of the art representing Jesus’ baptism focuses on the private revelation of his identity as below:

I love this contrasting picture that shows Jesus in the midst of crowds of people: 

Because the essence of his baptism was an act of identification with his people.

The point is that it is precisely at the moment of identification with his people, their story, their plight, their brokenness, and their hopes, that the dove comes and Jesus is propelled into a great move of God among his people. I wonder if today what God is looking for is such an identification, the trigger for a move of God as not so much a call for the falling of the dove but a radical act of identification with our people and land.


I presented this talk twice at the recent conference on “Kiwi Christianity: the People, the Land and the Kingdom of God” in Christchurch, hosted by New Wine NZ and North City Church. At the end of my talk I shared how apprehensive I had been about sharing at this conference precisely because I felt I was a living parable of what the church was doing wrong! I had felt deeply connected to land and place in Taranaki where I grew up. I knew the walkways, beaches, parks and monuments. I knew the local history. As adults, my wife and I had been missionaries. We had entered into the culture, language and worldview of Asian urban poor squatters and then of a Muslim people group. We had learned to express our faith from within their world and thinking and language. Fifteen years ago we moved to Christchurch and I have often said to my wife I felt like I hit the ground running and never really connected with this place – I was like the dove that never landed. I shared this at the end of my talk. I also shared that as I sat waiting for the second day to begin I was aware of those around me: Keith Newman, author of “Bible and Treaty” and “Beyond Betrayal”; Ngaire Button former deputy mayor of Christchurch of Maori decent; Donald Scott pastor and champion of the journey towards indigineity of expression; Daryl Gregory our cultural advisor at Laidlaw College. As I sat there I heard a voice whisper in my spirit “You have come home”. It was very emotional sharing this. Our Maori cultural advisor, Daryl Gregory was the next speaker. He spontaneously invited local Maori to gather around me to pray and welcome me home. It was one of those powerful moments where you say I am not sure what just happened there but it was really significant. I know it was significant for me but I think it was also a prophetic act about the dove landing.

Later that day two kaumatua of Southwest Baptist church shared about the journey of their church developing a kowhaiwhai panel for the front of their church that represented the story of their church. They spoke of the powerful service when this was unveiled. The service involved a singing of the Dave Dobbyn’s song, “Welcome Home” – bridging into a welcome call from a Maori woman. When they talked about this service they used similar language - of something powerful happening that was hard to put into words but shown in many tears and in people saying they had never really felt at home until then.

There seems to be something powerful in tangata whenua welcoming others home to this place. There is a restlessness in the souls of tangata whenua and of pakeha that seems to be released when tangata whenua are given the mana of welcoming visitors to their place and pakeha are given the dignity of being received -  the dove lands not on the ancient Mediterranean olive tree but on the totara or the kauri of this land. And maybe it is not the form of a dove that lands but it is a native pigeon or kereru that lands and  - finally - finds a place to rest.  

May God bless you as discover the dove who seeks the budding olive branch.