By: Ian DeJong | November 11, 2022
Debates surrounding the fundamental nature of human beings continue to persist today. With the rise of artificial intelligence, postmodern subjectivism, and other intellectual challenges, the world continues to wrestle with the question of what it means to be human. For some of us, the last place to find the answer to this question is the church. With its reputation for harsh judgements, scandals, and corruption, it is difficult for us to imagine how the church might be relevant to our most pressing questions.
But we may be able to reach some tentative answers to these questions if we embrace the perspective of a Chicago-born theologian named Dr. Daniel Lee Hill. He is the 2022 recipient of the Emerging Public Intellectual Award, conferred by Redeemer’s own Albert M. Wolters Centre for Christian Scholarship. Dr. Hill is an assistant professor of Christian theology at George W. Truett Seminary at Baylor University. The selection committee chose Hill because of the stellar scholarship evident in his book, Gathered on the Road to Zion: Toward a Free Church Ecclesio-Anthropology, published in April 2021.
Hill’s work is especially profitable to the Redeemer family because he offers fresh insights into how we conceive of anthropology (the scientific study of humanity). In the book, Hill argues that something about human nature can be learned from a “Free Church ecclesiology,” a study of the church that upholds freedom of conscience, liturgy, and noncompulsory and participatory church membership. The church is not only where believers discern God’s will; it is the place where they participate in God’s will. At Redeemer, it is quite common to study human nature on the basis of Imago Dei (humans are created in the image of God), but Hill goes beyond this basic concept and elaborates on the many layers of ecclesiology’s intersection with anthropology.
Hill’s writing is accessible, unique, and elaborate. He excels in offering a fascinating vision of the sacraments and their purpose. He also masterfully bridges the gap between complex theological principles and mundane matters of church life and church practices. Moreover, he freely admits the limitations of ecclesio-anthropology and the difficulties that arise when synthesizing the ideas of his interlocutors. Regarding the strength of his thesis, Hill’s suggestions are Scripture-based and consistent with Reformed ecclesiology, which highlights the missional and redemptive nature of the church (principles also emphasized in reformed author Michael Goheen’s Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story).
This article will summarize Hill’s ideas, analyze the extent to which they resonate with Redeemer students, and finally conclude with a word on Hill as an emerging intellectual.
Summary of Hill’s Argument
In Gathered on the Road to Zion, Hill begins with drawing from three modern theologians—John Zizioulas, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Stanley Hauerwas—and puts them in dialogue since they each emphasize different characteristics of ecclesio-anthropology.
First, Zizioulas sees the Trinity as the model community for human interaction and fellowship. The church features the unity of believers who anticipate full union with God on the new earth. Furthermore, baptism does not merely represent the washing away of sins but formally inducts one into the church and so transforms one’s identity from merely biological to something ecclesial. Similarly, receiving the Lord’s supper involves reflecting not simply on the sacrifice Jesus offered but on experiencing increasingly uninhibited fellowship with God and others. To quote Hill, “To truly be is to exist as God exists: as persons in communion [and] in love” (Hill 2021, 51-52).
Second, Balthasar sees the church as the continuation of Christ’s redemptive mission, which shapes the purpose of humanity to surrender the self to God. “To know God is to be moved by him, enraptured and drawn into the arena of his dramatic action,” according to Hill’s interpretation of Balthasar (61). In other words, the church assumes “being, identity, and mission from Christ” (61). Similar to Zizioulas, “ecclesiology reveals that human persons were made for perfect love” (80).
Third, Hauerwas particularly defines the church as a community fashioned by the story of “God’s reign in Christ,” in which believers are to tell that story, witness to the world, and be servants (99). In particular, Hauerwas describes the church as “an alternative polis” with a specific mission of “bearing witness to the story of God’s peaceful rule in Christ” (91). Our individual purpose, then, is to participate in a political community that acknowledges God’s kingship and his call for bringing peace in his Kingdom. Humans were made to be peaceful, and the only means to achieve that is through the church.
Engaging these insights, Hill presents a Free-Church-ecclesiological perspective on anthropology as “a Spirit-ed account of identity, a Christotelic orientation, an intrinsically interdependent and communal nature, and an uniquely embodied vocation wherein human beings serve as the means through which God manifests his presence and rule” (197). In other words, our identity is formed by the Spirit re-interpreting our stories, by our conformity to Christ as prophet, priest, and king, by being situated in a church community where we are both individuals and united to others, and finally by being enlisted by God to embody his presence in the world.
Ecclesio-Anthropology at Redeemer?
Nevertheless, how are Hill’s ideas consistent with widely accepted notions of church and human identity? In an effort to put Hill’s thesis to the test, Redeemer students were asked the following questions, “How does your participation in church shape your identity and purpose as a human being? How are you formed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper?” Here is how Redeemer students weighed in on how their identity is shaped through their commitment to and participation in the church:
“My participation in church shapes my identity because it forms my beliefs. It shapes my purpose by providing the opportunity to worship in community with other Christians and praise God. To me, baptism is a declaration of faith and the Lord’s Supper symbolizes the embodiment of Christ.”
“My church holds me accountable to the truth. Because of baptism, the church has a commitment to me, and through Lord’s Supper, I am reminded of Christ’s sacrifice.”
“The church encourages me to continually honour God and further his kingdom in my calling. Baptism means that I am marked, set apart, and part of God’s covenant. Lord’s supper gives me the reminder that I’m completely forgiven by God’s grace.”
“My participation in church contextualizes my relationship with God and the world and puts me in a bigger story other than my own. My baptism was a conscious decision to be reborn into a new life. I see Lord’s Supper as a renewed commitment, participation in his gospel, and acceptance of God’s forgiveness.”
“The church is very important to me because part of my faith is being in community with people who share my beliefs. I see baptism as a declaration of committing your life to Christ and following him, whereas Lord’s Supper is a reminder of Jesus’s sacrifice.”
When reflecting on these conversations, it is clear that these Redeemer students have a shared vision of the significance of the church, sacraments, and how it pertains to their identity. Their contributions partially align with Dr. Hill’s argument, but this is where Hill is able to push us: the church indeed transforms human identity to be part of a community, a kingdom, and a larger story, and the sacraments indeed signify the washing of sins, being part of a covenant, and the reminder that Christ sacrificed his body. Hill can inform the importance of peace, the Holy Spirit, and seeing church participation as previewing union with God in the new earth.
Dr. Hill, the Emerging Intellectual
Next year, Hill intends to complete his second book, Freedom Papers: Toward an Evangelical Political Theology. Since the intersection of evangelicalism and politics is a difficult yet important undertaking, it gives one all the more reason to regard Dr. Daniel Lee Hill as a potential model theologian for Redeemer students.
For now, Hill continues to provide new theological perspectives in the academy. Interested readers can learn more from him at the Voice of Dallas Theological Seminary, a website which features articles, podcasts, and discussions that promote the gospel. In January, Redeemers plans to host Hill on campus, where he will give a lecture in the annual The World and Our Calling series.
Dr. Daniel Hill’s hope for his readers is that we must continue to follow the light of Christ. For this reason, he regards Ephesians 5:7-10 as instructive in his thesis: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” (NIV). This passage emphasizes the need to gather together, acknowledge the presence of Christ, listen to the Lord, grow in maturity, embody his calling, and shine his light into a dark world.