An Invitation to Theology

15 March 2019

The first thing to know about theology is that it operates from the inside; it is inherently a believing endeavor. Sociology of religion, comparative religion, cultural anthropology, history of philosophy–these endeavors focus on believers (and the beliefs they hold) as the object of study. They operate, in other words, by looking from the outside in.

But theology cannot be practiced in that way. Theology is not a study of beliefs but an experience of the One about whom people hold those beliefs. To engage in theology is to have your own beliefs about the divine shaped by knowing God yourself, by partaking in the divine nature yourself. In this way, theology is less something you study, and more something you participate in, something you practice, and perhaps something that–to a degree, by God’s grace–you may attain.

***

Theology is not an objective discipline, any more than romancing your spouse is an objective discipline. Objectivity seeks to elide the observer/interpreter, such that anyone might–through a scientifically valid method–come to the exact same understanding. This sort of method is entirely appropriate to the natural sciences, in which we are doomed to observe the objects of our study from the outside. Partaking in the nature of, say, a granite boulder is entirely beyond us. The best we can do is subject it to study.

But where the nature of the endeavor is to know another p/Person, we proceed differently. We seek the other person’s self-revelation. We communicate. If we are successful, there is a kind of mutual indwelling (or to use the old word, perichoresis). All of these are inherently relational acts; it matters who the parties are. To elide the observer/interpreter is to miss the whole point.

***

In hermeneutics texts, much is made of the gap between us and the original author and audience–gaps of time, culture, language, geography, and more. We work diligently to overcome those gaps and try to grasp the situation of the original author and audience in order to better understand the text.

Little is made–at least in the hermeneutics books I was reared on–of the gap between us and the divine Author, although in some respects, that gap is easier to bridge. This side of eternity, Paul is beyond my reach. The Corinthian church was the product of time, place, culture, and circumstances that no longer exist. Through diligent study and imagination, I get as close as I can, but some aspect of a passage may remain forever opaque to me through simple ignorance of an idiom, crucial archaeological fact, or tidbit of cultural knowledge. Many things that were obvious to them are now lost to me in the mists of time. Gary Derickson has given us a window into the viticulture behind John 15, for example. How many other such things are yet to be discovered and articulated?

The divine Author is entirely beyond my reach as well. But I am not beyond His reach, any more than the biblical authors were. And so it is that, unchanged by the passing years, is as present to us now as He was to them then. (More than under the Old Covenant, now that we have the indwelling Spirit.) He offers us the opportunity–if the promises of the sacred text mean anything at all–to know Him directly, in a way that is consonant with, but not limited to, what can be mediated by the Scriptures themselves.

***

tl;dr: God is real. God is present. God speaks. Here. Now. Yes, even to you. Are you listening?

 

 

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Jesus All The Way Down

22 February 2019

If I want to house a homeless woman, because Jesus, or feed a homeless man, because Jesus, I must also desire to pay for these things, because Jesus.

I may not drive someone from their apartment at gunpoint in Jesus’ name in order to house the homeless woman. I may not steal from the grocery store in Jesus’ name in order to feed the homeless man. And if—in Jesus’ name—I stick up some third neighbor at the ATM in order to pay the landlord and the grocer, I am only compounding the problem. It can’t be a slick patina of Jesus (which looks suspiciously like Shane Claiborne, just sayin’) on the surface, and an unrepentant Zacchaeus down where the real work gets done. It’s got to be Jesus all the way down.

The point here is simple: STOP COVETING OTHER PEOPLE’S STUFF!!!

In a more secular mode, the appeal is inevitably to “simple human compassion.” You cannot call it compassion to care for the addict who does not work or the mentally ill who cannot work while plotting to rob the worker to pay for it all. It is not compassion to hate the productive business owner and make him your slave. Covering it all with Jesus-talk does not somehow make it okay. We cannot expect God to bless our so-called compassion when we build the whole project on covetousness and theft.

All the Christian leftists who want to take other people’s stuff to pay for their compassionate endeavors—if all those people repented of their covetousness and became Christian business owners who work hard to earn the money to pay for those same endeavors so they can show real generosity with their own stuff rather than faking it with someone else’s—it would all be paid for, and then some. Or do you think God wouldn’t bless that?

“Let him who stole, steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, in order that he might have something to give the needy.”

And let him who lobbied for the stealing, and him who voted for the stealing, do the same.


Introducing Five New Fundamentals

15 February 2019

I’ve written recently about the continuous need for discussion about the fundamentals of the faith, for re-articulating the ways in which the Christian faith cuts against the temptations of our own time. It is not enough to rest on the victories of the past; we have to deal with the temptations of the present.

To that end, I present my own modest proposal: five fundamentals for the present day. I believe that these key doctrines must, first of all, be lived. We must joyfully and obediently push them into all the little nooks and crannies of our lives, and reject the temptations that they cut against. Only then can they be effectively proclaimed from our pulpits and across our supper tables, defended in private discussion and public discourse, and paraded before a shocked and disbelieving world.

So without further ado, five fundamentals for the present day:

  1. The Unity and Community of Christ’s Whole Body. Those who are united to Christ are united to each other, and therefore we must fellowship deeply across gender, family, class, ethnic, denominational, and national lines. Every form of individual pride or group-based sectarianism, chauvinism, prejudice, and vainglory is destined for the pit. Every form of individualism that assures us we’re fine without deep and constant sharing of life with one another is also destined for the pit.
  2. Love of Generous Fruitfulness. “Be fruitful” is the first command to humanity; it extends into everything, and obedient, godly fruitfulness overflows in every direction. From reproduction to craftsmanship, every endeavor and way of being that is fruitless by nature falls short of our calling as human beings. Every attempt to simulate generosity through compulsion by guilt, fear, or force is doomed.
  3. The Equality and Difference of Man and Woman. “Male and female He created them.” The existence of culturally constructed differences does not invalidate the existence of biological differences: men and women are different down to the very last cell. Men and women have equal value and dignity and are designed by God to live symbiotically together. Every erasure of real differences — and the social policies based on such follies — can only come to grief. Every form of contempt for one sex, or vaunting one sex over the other, robs us of a chance to flourish.
  4. The Social Reality of the Fall. There is no “system so perfect that no one will need to be good”–and Jesus is the only hope for human goodness. Nothing short of continuing repentance and life in the Holy Spirit will lead to a genuinely good human society. All utopian social designs are counterfeits of the New Jerusalem, and until the New Jerusalem comes, all social designs must plan for the human drive to exploit other humans for one’s own advantage.
  5. Functional Supernaturalism. The world was spoken into being, and is upheld by Jesus’ spoken word. It is supernatural down to the quarks, and God actively intervenes on behalf of His Kingdom. Materialism — including the methodological kind — is not correct “as far as it goes;” it is error all the way down, as wrong as Ptolemy’s spheres.

Every one of these five will be derided as ridiculous, judgy, dangerously retrograde. They* will be outraged when we talk about them, but they will be jealous when we live them. So let’s live all five, to the hilt. They* will argue, but like Sophrony once said, “For every argument there is a counter-argument, but who can argue with life?” We don’t have to out-clever our cultured despisers; we just have to live. As we live these truths, and they do not, we will reap fruit and blessings and joy that — for all their cleverness — they cannot explain. We can hope that induces repentance, but honestly I think it will just make most of ’em even madder.

I can’t wait.

*Spoiler alert: “They” will include an impressive number of Christians, not least the evangelical suits and haircuts from Impressive Universities, Respectable Publishers, and Important National Conferences. But so what?


Fake Discernment and Real

25 January 2019

In the more supernaturally aware parts of the church, I’ve run into a particular kind of rot: a fake “discernment” that is anything but. These folks are actually a lot like the anti-supernatural Christians; they just have different expectations. These folks are often okay with prophecy and tongues; you might even get away with anointing with oil. There’s frequently a collection of weird shibboleths around the way those gifts are practiced. (My  personal favorite was “Don’t touch the person you’re ministering to.” Yeah…I’m a massage therapist. Not gonna happen.)

But the core of this attitude is not its particular prohibitions or practices. The core of this attitude is its reliance on a set of man-made, visible standards, rather than on the hard work of real discernment. God is not permitted to do anything outside of our expectations…whatever they happen to be. If it’s outside the lines we drew, there must be something wrong with it?

That’s ridiculous. Jesus surprised everybody. You’ve got to expect God’s people to continue to be surprising today.

And Jesus was all the time getting in trouble with the “discernment ministries” of His day. Stands to reason that His followers would be getting into trouble with “discernment ministries” today–and sure enough, there’s plenty of that going around.

But Jesus gave us some simple, effective measures by which to discern.

  • If the fruit is good, then so is the tree. See what happens, and then judge. Do more than just check to see if the thing violates your expectations. Do the hard work of examining the results. If the results are good, then there you go.
  • If you can’t believe the words, believe the works. Pay attention to what God actually does in time and space. God will never violate His Word, but He will happily violate your domesticated interpretation of it. The concepts might be hard to grasp, or fly in the face of your theology, but when necessary, you need to believe what God did and revisit your theology.

Jesus’ beloved disciple John also gave us a useful rubric for discerning spirits: “Every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:2-3). So now you know. Want to know if the spirit is from God? Ask: “Do you confess Jesus Christ come in the flesh?”

The practice of real discernment isn’t tremendously complex; it’s just hard work. It’s harder than having a predefined set of expectations and rejecting everything that’s outside them. But it’s worth it.


Eating the Garden Wall

11 January 2019

Heresy is bad for your soul. Christianity, rightly practiced, is a vital relationship with God, and like any vital relationship, it relies heavily on grasping the truth about the person you’re in relationship with. Of course you don’t have to perfectly know all the truth right away — you learn over the course of the relationship, and there’s always more to know — but there are certain core lies that can badly impede the relationship.

It’s not really that strange a concept. The plot of nearly every romantic comedy hinges on the resolution of relationship-threatening lies. If you believe God is not faithful, that’s going to create problems, same as if you wrongly believe your fiancee is not faithful (the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, among many others). Ditto if you believe He’s not really God, not really competent, and so on.

So we work hard to keep heresy out of the church, because those lies wreck our relationship with God.

However — to return to the romantic comedies for a moment — consider where the chief benefits of the relationship lie. Once the lies are dispelled and the happy couple realize the truth about each other, the music swells, they come into each other’s arms, and wedding bells begin to ring. No one with any sense supposes this is the high point of their life together; the point is that this is the beginning. The real benefits of the relationship are not in that one happy moment, but in the many years to come. And so it is with God.

Clearing out the lies opens a channel for the benefits of the relationship to flow. It enables us “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” as the Westminster divines put it. But the chief end of man is not to be able to enjoy God, but to actually enjoy God.

This is to say that our creeds and confessions and various arguments against heresy are important, but they are the garden wall, not the garden. If you spend all your time reinforcing the garden wall, foolishly thinking that the garden will somehow take care of itself…well, it’s gonna be a long winter. The garden wall is vital for keeping out pests, but you can’t eat it.

And therein lies one of the critical errors of “discernment ministries.” Heresy-hunting is no kind of occupation for a Jesus-follower; “accuser of the brethren” is a title that’s supposed to belong to the other guys, not us. Too many of these guys are in love with the wall, and neglecting the crops. We have a duty to the truth, and part of that duty is to maintain a sense of proportion and keep our focus where it belongs. So while we necessarily reinforce the wall at the points where it is being attacked, the point of reinforcing the garden wall is to be able to reap the benefits of the garden.

As I develop this series on fundamentals for today, I’ll take note of the errors and heresies that we’re necessarily at war with. But the point of walling them out is not to focus on what we’re at war with outside the wall. The point is what those well-placed walls will enable us to grow inside the wall. Because that’s where the real sustenance is, and that’s why we build the walls to start with.


We Always Need “New” Fundamentals

4 January 2019

Back in the early 20th century, in response to a ruinous drift away from the historic Christian faith, there was a widespread movement in American Christianity to return to a serious and careful exposition of what they termed the “Five Fundamentals” of the Christian faith:

  1. The inspiration and infallibility of the Bible
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  3. Substitutionary atonement through Christ’s death on the cross
  4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. The historicity of Jesus’ miracles

Of course these are not the Five Most Important Truths of Christianity for all time, as though we had a prioritized list that fell from heaven or something. These five truths were foundational elements of Christianity that were under attack at that historical moment. At other times, such a list might have included the deity of Christ (in A.D. 325), or the full deity and humanity of Christ (451), or justification by faith (1517), or the necessity for individual new birth (1741), or the reality of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry (1906).

The point is, the fundamental elements of the Faith remain perennially the same, but the battleground shifts. The same old temptations come back, all tarted up in the latest fashions. The new attacks, having been developed downstream from past battles for orthodoxy, are necessarily framed in a way that–at least at first glance–passes all the older litmus tests.

Take, for example, the battle about biblical inerrancy. As major institutions (and their collections of big donors) took up positions on the right side of the fight over biblical inspiration, they found no shortage of folks willing to agree. However, a bunch of these professor types–having signed a doctrinal statement that clearly stated the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit– went on to say (where the donors couldn’t hear them, but the students could) that of course inspiration didn’t mean the Bible had no errors in it. In practice, that meant you could ignore the bits you didn’t like, which was the same temptation all over again. So when we started insisting on inerrancy as well as inspiration, we were providing a clarification rendered necessary by the ingenuity of heretics. The basic error (“Yeah, hath God said…?”) was a few minutes older than the Fall; it was just dressed up in new words. The word-jugglers, of course, affected a wounded stance and asked us why we would needlessly divide the Body of Christ by adding some new doctrinal shibboleth that was unprecedented in the history of the Church. The proper response to their pearl-clutching, or course, is a hearty horselaugh and a boot to the backside.

The enemy is crafty. When he has exhausted one attack on the vital core of the Christian faith, he tries another. And another. And another. There are always seemingly well-taught people who reject all the old heresies and compromises but swallow the new ones whole. These are the same folks Jesus derided for laying wreaths on the tombs of the dead prophets while persecuting the living ones. They have failed to learn the lessons of the past because they understand the old heresies as bad ideas, and not as temptations.

The liquor ad always has a picture of the girl dancing at a party on Friday night, never a picture of the same girl passed out in a gutter on Saturday morning. Temptations always look good at the time, and bad in hindsight. The old heresies were tempting at the time–and we need to learn to see how the temptation worked at the time–but usually don’t look all that appealing today. The new attacks look very tempting now, because they are temptations geared to this historical moment.

And so one of the pastor’s tasks is to continually articulate the unchanging fundamentals of the Christian faith in a way that cuts against the current set of temptations. There is an ever-present danger of being ready to win the battles of the past, but woefully unprepared for the temptations of the present. So while I happily affirm and defend the Creed of Nicea, the Definition of Chalcedon, the five solas of the Reformation, the five fundamentals of the early 20th century, and so on–if I stop there, I am not doing my job.

The need of the hour is to articulate the unchanging Christian faith in a way that cuts against today’s temptations. In this series, I will lay out a modest proposal: five fundamentals to do just that.


Going Full Cornpone

17 December 2018

Most of the American church is in bondage to a worldview that doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in the supernatural. It grudgingly allows for a handful of supernatural things that we feel forced to accept, but the truth is that the more intellectually respectable you aspire to be, the fewer supernatural things you can believe in. That’s how the hierarchy works.

If you’re okay with just being part of the rank and file, then you can be a little mushy on creation, and believe in the miracles of the Exodus. That’s fine for normal people. If you want to be an educated Christian, then you’ll clearly see myth in the early chapters of Genesis and have a tentative scientific explanation for the Exodus stories. Maybe the Sea of Reeds was only waist deep, after all. You’ll only start going supernatural around the later prophets or the ministry of Jesus.

The real intellectuals explain away the miracles of Jesus’ life, and just barely tolerate the resurrection. Of course only the total cornpones believe in 6-day creation or a worldwide flood, and even those guys mostly don’t expect God to do anything supernatural today.

Jesus wasn’t a big fan of that kind of thinking. He seemed to think and act as if God could show up anytime, anywhere, and do absolutely anything. Always had, always would. And He taught His disciples to act the same way.

Why’d we stop?