My friend and colleague Bruce Fields joined the church triumphant late last month, after a 21-month battle with cancer. The Oikonomia Network’s Vincent Bacote offers him a magnificent tribute in Christianity Today. In the various remembrances of Bruce, one quote recurs frequently, and I hope the ON will always strive to live up to it:
I am a theologian for the church. I visit the academy for wisdom and insight when it can be found. My burden, however, is the church and that which strengthens the church, equipping it for all realms of needed ministry.
When I published reflections in the April ON newsletter about how disease is one of Satan’s attacks on the goodness of God’s creation, I didn’t expect to revisit the theme so soon. I was richly blessed to study under Bruce as a student, taking more classes from him than from any other professor. I enjoyed working with Bruce as a colleague, especially as we wrestled in deep conversations with the complex challenge of faith and social order. I am carrying forward in my current doctoral work much that he taught me, especially about Augustine – and about what it means to be a theological scholar.
A Humble Dignity: Striving in His Image Is Flourishing
How grateful I am that we have a window into Bruce as a man, as a leader and as a theological scholar in the talk he gave us at the inaugural meeting of Karam Forum in 2017. His subject was the image of God and human flourishing. In a very personal talk with a surprise twist at the end, he reflected on a childhood model who helped him learn that striving to bear the image of God more and more fully is what it means to flourish as a human being.
The image of God and human flourishing is a very trendy subject now. But Bruce comes at it from theological angles you won’t often encounter in more conventional sources. That’s because Bruce didn’t just come to this topic in recent years, like so many of us, as cultural and theological developments have made it clear that we need to do our homework a little more carefully in this area. For Bruce, this was a subject as old and familiar as the Incarnation.
This talk came back to me as I listened to student and peer testimonies about Bruce in a digitally-convened memorial time held by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Mosaic Ministries. As the testimonies were shared, it dawned on me again and again that the themes of the talk he gave us at Karam Forum were also reflected in the themes that his students and colleagues wanted to highlight in his memory. How many of us manage to conform our lives so well to our theological commitments?
Bruce didn’t just talk about the image of God and human flourishing. He lived his testimony. Now, as was said years ago in memory of another great Christian political mind and life: The witness is gone, but the testimony will stand.
Striving for Love, Accountability and Grace
As we wrote when we first released the talk, Bruce built his presentation on the story of Reverend Leslie – a man who worked hard and was extremely generous, being formed by his biblical convictions. After working as a janitor for most of his life, Reverend Leslie founded a church at age 65 and pastored for the next thirty years.
Through the life and work of this beloved mentor, Bruce showed how believers are called to image Christ. This call invites believers to “model God’s care and love to creation.” Image-bearing is not a static category, but a task and a privilege, one with deeply relational dimensions.
Using Reverend Leslie as a model, Bruce laid out the three spheres of image-bearing: community, accountability and grace. The Triune God of grace exists as a community of love, and this aspect of God’s being calls believers to love their neighbors as themselves. Bruce shared how Reverend Leslie loved others through his work as a janitor – striving to meet the needs of both his community and his family – and viewed his work as worship.
Because of sin, perfect image-bearing is impossible. A sinful world requires that image-bearers keep one another accountable to the calling we have been given. We strive to resist all that pulls us apart or promotes false forms of flourishing.
Finally, grace is necessary to faithful image-bearing. The call to image-bearing isn’t a legal demand for perfection. We strive to be faithful to what God desires of us, and we need grace when we fall short. We also need to show grace to others in the same way.
You may have noticed that the theme of striving runs through these topics. This is reflected in the title of the talk, which epitomizes Bruce’s profound insight that “striving in his image is flourishing.” We do not flourish only when we succeed, but whenever we strive, whether we succeed or fail:
Flourishing for image-bearers is the striving for ideals informed by God’s revealed word. Striving to achieve God’s designs, while sometimes falling short, is a hallmark of our being image-bearers of God.
At the end of the talk, Bruce reveals the twist ending – how he knew Reverend Leslie, and why his memory has so much meaning.
We are grateful to our mighty and merciful God for the gift of Bruce Fields – educator, scholar, mentor, colleague and friend.