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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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.


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?


Mere Supernaturalism

12 August 2012

As I have discussed my transition away from cessationism with various people, it has become clear that there are actually two related issues entangled together. In my life, they came as a set, but there’s no reason why everybody’s experience would be the same as mine.

The first issue is the question of whether certain miraculous spiritual gifts ceased operating as individually vested gifts after the initial launch of the Church. This is the issue around cessationism proper. Many charismatics don’t understand this, and thus are confused when a cessationist professes to believe that miraculous healings still happen today, that God answers prayer today, and perhaps even that God can still speak through visions and dreams today. The issue in cessationism is not healings, but a particular person having the gift of healing; not someone hearing from God in a general sense, but a particular person having the gift of prophecy. (Generally. This distinction does not hold for tongues — every cessationist I know says it’s over and done with, period.) So with cessationism vs. continuationism, we’re talking about whether the Spirit continues to dispense all the biblically attested spiritual gifts in the present day.

The second issue, although related, is distinct from cessationism: the expectation that God will intervene supernaturally. From the Red Sea to the present day, God’s people have struggled with the temptation to forget that God intervenes in the world. We tend to think of this as a peculiarly modern temptation, but a quick look at the Exodus generation shows us this is not the case.

Hold that thought a moment.

***
In eschatology, the wide dividing line has typically been between premillennialists on the one hand, and post- and amillennialists on the other. That’s where the bright political fault lines have been drawn. I want to suggest that this is a mistake.

The lines ought to have been drawn between those who look to the future with hope and expectation, and those who look to the future with gloom and the spirit of Chicken Little. This is the difference that makes a difference. I’m an optimistic premil (or if you like, a dominion dispensationalist), and I have much more in common with a patient postmil than I do with either my doom-and-dystopia premil brethren or most amil folk.

This is not to say that the theological question of when Christ returns relative to the millennium is unimportant. I believe it is an important question, and one which Scripture plainly answers. What I am saying is simply that optimism or pessimism about the future is vastly more important. We who can look at the nations raging, laugh at them with Yahweh, and seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness on earth as it is in heaven — we are one breed. The Chicken Littles are something else, and whatever their doctrinal statements might say, their spirit of fear and their little pronouncements about “polishing the brass on a sinking ship” are not from God, because He doesn’t give that spirit or talk that way.

***
In similar fashion, I believe that in the battles over the charismatic movement, evangelical Christians drew the bright political line in the wrong place. I know folks who are charismatic in their theology, but day in and day out, expect no divine intervention in their lives. I also know charismatics who go to church, belt out a couple of paragraphs in tongues, and go home — but don’t pray with authority, don’t seek to hear from God, and don’t seek to minister to others in any supernatural way. By the same token, I know rock-ribbed cessationists who believe God speaks in dreams, pray for miracles, and trust Him to supernaturally order their affairs and relationships.

We drew the political line between those who practice all the biblically attested spiritual gifts today, and those who do not. However, the far more important issue is whether, on either side of that line, a person will seek to resolve his problems through doctrine alone, or whether in his daily practice he will also expect God to intervene supernaturally.

I’m open to suggestions for naming these positions, but for our present purposes, I’d like to call them doctrinalism and supernaturalism, respectively.

Two points of clarification. First, I’m talking about habits of practice, not talking points. I know lots of people who on paper, and when pressed will admit that it’s possible God would intervene miraculously today, but in practice, from day to day, they rely on doctrine alone, and they teach their followers to rely on doctrine alone. These people are doctrinalists, no matter what they say.
Second, I am not setting up an either-or situation here. It’s not either doctrine or supernatural intervention. I am talking about people who rely on doctrine alone versus those who look to doctrine, but also seek for God to intervene supernaturally in the present.

Again, I am not saying the cessationism question is unimportant. Not at all. I think the stakes are very high in that conversation. In the interests of full disclosure, let me just go ahead and spill the beans: I believe that most cessationists and most charismatics have one critical thing in common: an allergy to biblical discernment. I believe that the Church will not grow into health and maturity unless she employs all the biblically attested gifts (cessationists, I’m lookin’ at you), and she employs them with testing and discernment, as Scripture requires (charismatics, I’m lookin’ at you too), and all of that in the context of loving God enough to take His Word seriously and be visibly united with His people. So yeah, I think it’s an incredibly important issue.

However, supernaturalism/doctrinalism is a much more important issue. The question of whether God will intervene through the gift of healing is important, but the question of whether God will intervene at all is obviously an even more important question.

I would contend that in most ministry venues, supernaturalists — charismatic or not — are natural allies. Doctrinal statements can create a barrier where no biblically founded barrier exists, of course, but those who look for and appreciate God’s intervention can work together, if they’re allowed to — or if they simply choose to move forward no matter what their more sectarian brethren might prefer.

And then later, over a bottle of wine, they can argue over whether the miraculous healing they just prayed for, and received, was the result of the gift of healing, or whether it was simply an answer to prayer.