Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Empty Tomb

What a mix of emotions this day held for the women and disciples of Jesus 2000 years ago!

It starts with sadness. "We didn't even have time to anoint his body on Friday," the women are thinking.   "How will we manage to move the stone?"

But they have to try. Jesus deserves that much. He deserves the honor of a decent burial.

Then confusion. The stone is removed but Jesus' body is not there. Someone has taken it. Where have they laid it? Someone reminds them of resurrection, mentions Galilee. They don't know what to make of it. They tell no one at first. They are afraid.  Soon it is time for the disciples to be confused.

Then there is hope and the greatest thrill of not just a lifetime--of all time! He has appeared to Peter. Then he appears to the other ten remaining disciples.  It is amazing. No one expected him to die. But then no one absolutely expected him to come to life again!

James believes--James of all people!  He had seriously questioned Jesus' legitimacy when he was on earth. A group of over 500 people sees him at once, including a husband and wife by the names of Andronicus and Junia. Jesus commissions them along with others like Barnabas and eventually Paul to spread the word that Jesus has been enthroned king and is risen from the dead.

The mission continues...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practical Theology 3: God as Other

My series on theology as it relates to practice continues..

1. Is Theology Practical?
2. Why Believe in God?

God as Creator

3. God as Other
Since the late 100s AD, Christians and Jews have generally believed that God created the world out of nothing, ex nihilo. We now read this understanding into passages like Genesis 1:1-2 and Hebrews 12:3, although it is not at all clear that these passages had this connotation originally. The doctrine of creation out of nothing arguably was forged in the Christian and Jewish struggles with Gnosticism in the second century, a likelihood we will revisit when we get to the creation.

The last 100 years have brought developments in science and math with potentially fresh insights into the idea of creation out of nothing. The theory of relativity implies that space itself can expand and contract. Since the universe seems to be expanding, there is a new sense that creation was not God filling empty space with material.  Creation involved God creating empty space itself. This is not an understanding any Christian had before the twentieth century.

The idea of the empty set itself is a fairly recent idea.  The empty set is not zero.  It has nothing at all in it, not even zero.  It is not even space or emptiness, in other words.

No theologian in history could have fully appreciated what we are saying here until the twentieth century, meaning that any contemporary discussion of creation out of nothing cannot fully derive from any comment in the church fathers and mothers.  The books of the Bible were also written in the categories of its original audiences and so would not give us a literal sense of creation out of nothing--or the otherness of God--even if it clearly taught creation out of nothing.

So we start any sense of the otherness of God with the realization that there was a point when the creation did not exist. We cannot say, "there was a time when it did not exist" because time itself is part of the creation, as we discuss in the next section. We simply have no point of reference from which we might say where or when the "before" of God was. God is not literally in the top layer of the skies, a figurative image we find in the Bible.

Since God existed "before" he created anything, he clearly does not need the creation in order to exist. It might make us feel good to hear people say that God created the world because he needed us or was lonely, but these sorts of nice-sounding ideas are "anthropopathisms," portrayals of God that are projections of human feelings. God does not need the creation.  "He" is self-sufficient (called his "aseity").

Nor is God literally a "he."  He has no genitalia.  He primarily revealed himself as a "he" to the patriarchal cultures of the ancient world, but the Bible also uses feminine imagery of God as well (e.g., Numbers 11:12; Isaiah 42:14).  All gendered language of God is to help us grasp some sense of him by analogy and is not literal.

It might be worthwhile to get a clear sense of what the word "literal" means in these sorts of discussions.  In popular language, the word is sometimes used to mean the same thing as "true" or "real." That is not how theologians or philosophers of language mean the word.  If a word is used literally, then it is used in its ordinary sense.

So the ordinary sense of calling someone a "he" is to imply that such a person has male genitalia. To call someone a "he" that does not have male genitalia is to speak of them figuratively as a "he."  Since God does not have genitalia of any sort, God is not literally male, only figuratively male. And he is "man enough" to use feminine imagery of himself as well.

The otherness of God implies that almost everything we know about him--including his revelation to us about himself--is by analogy.  God can be like a father.  God can be like a judge. God can be like a woman in the pains of childbirth (Isaiah 42:14). The things we know about him literally are more often things we know are not true of him.  He is not contained by space or time (called apophatic or negative theology).

Practically speaking, we must recognize the extent to which our sense of God is limited. Christians say so many things about God that are projections of ourselves. God does not literally forget sins--he always knows everything. There is no meaningful sense in which God cannot do something. What he does not do, he does not do by choice. The biblical pictures of God are pictures too and normally less literal than the discussion on this page.

For example, what does it mean to say that God is "perfect"?  To say that God is the best anything could be in every category is still to measure him by the standards of this creation, meaning that even to call God "perfect" is an inadequate and less than literal description of him.  It is still to think of him in this-worldly terms. This insight immediately indicates the limitations of so much theological reflection throughout history.

God is not exactly the "greatest possible being" because God is not another being in this creation. This description once again tries to capture him with this universe as a reference point. What the medieval theologians meant by divine "simplicity"--the idea that God does not have parts--is itself an attempt not to make him like a this-worldly being. So God reduces to a point.  It is much easier simply to say that whatever his "essence" or "nature" might be, it is "outside" or "beyond" this universe. We put all these things in quotations because we have no real idea of what they might literally mean for God.

The Bible speaks truly of God, but it does so in the kind of analogous and anthropopathic language we have been talking about.  The fundamentalist approach to God is thus a kind of cognitive idolatry in its insistence that we take biblical language of God literally. This is not only misguided.  It undermines even an analogous sense of God's true "perfection." It inevitably reduces God.  To give God his true supremacy, biblical pictures of God must be recognized as exactly that--pictures to help our vastly finite minds grasp the ineffable and incomprehensible.

One of the best expressions of God's otherness is his holiness.  This term should not be tamed by this-worldly categories, as if to say that God's holiness basically means that he is morally pure. Indeed, even for us as humans this is a description of our general intentions and actions, not of something that inheres in us literally.

God has created what is true in this universe. God has determined what is just and good in this universe.  They are excellent descriptions of how God acts in this universe. To say a person literally is such things is not to understand the nature of these adjectives, even for a human.

To say God is holy is, most fundamentally, to say that God is God. It is not so much a statement with propositional content as a statement of awe and emotion.  God is awesome and fearful in power and magnitude.  God is "other" than this creation. If the magnitude of his existence does not cause us to tremble, we have not even caught a glimpse of his awesomeness.

The bottom line is that if we think we have truly understood God, even if we think so because we can quote a bunch of Bible verses, we are most likely making a fool of ourselves without knowing it. We know what God is like.  We know how God has chosen to act in this universe. Anything more requires poetry and quotation marks.

4. God as Timeless
5. God the All Powerful
6. God the All Knowing
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just

Friday, March 29, 2013

Jesus on the Cross

They were putting Jesus on the cross about now. His cry six hours later when he died shows that the cross was a time of anguish for him in his humanity.

Some like to picture Jesus as calm, cool, and collected on the cross.  John's presentation leans in that direction, with Jesus giving instructions about his mother to the beloved disciple from the cross. But each gospel has its special features, and one of John's is a minimizing of Jesus' human struggle.

In Mark, Jesus asks for this cup to pass (14:36). In John, Jesus dismisses the very idea (12:27). John gives us Jesus in hindsight, the spiritual understanding of Jesus. In Mark we get a little more literal picture.

So I believe the cross was a time of anguish. John does not give us the cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" but the confident, "It is finished."  Mark gives us the pain of the moment, the intense suffering.

Jesus is so in anguish that he dies hours before a crucified person normally would have. The physical struggle was not the worst possible death, but his anguish was spectacular. There's no evidence that God turned away because of him taking on our sin--that's just a fun story driven by a particular theology.

I fully believe God the Father was there with him on the cross.  But I also suspect that Jesus himself wasn't feeling it at the time.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Grudem 12b: God's Mental Attributes

I continue from last week Grudem's chapter on the "communicable" attributes of God, the ones that have to do with his relationship to the creation.
B. God's Mental Attributes
3. Knowledge (Omniscience)
Grudem defines God's knowledge in the following way: "God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible in one simple and eternal act" (190).  First he knows everything about himself, which is amazing because he is infinite. He secondly knows everything actual--everything that exists and happens.

Third, he knows everything possible. Some things are contingent upon other things but God knows how each contingent scenario would play out depending on what happens. Fourth, God knows all these things at all times. "God's knowledge never changes or grows" (192).

Grudem's presentation of God's omniscience is almost entirely valid and orthodox.  He is right to take biblical statements about God forgetting our sins as hyperbole rather than literal.  God cannot forget anything because he is all knowing.

Grudem is also quite right about God's contingent knowledge.  God knows what will happen if we choose one way, and God knows what will happen if we choose another way.  Grudem would also rightly believe that God knows which choice we will make in every circumstance.

Where he is wrong is in something he only hints at.  Grudem believes that, because of God's foreknowledge, "there must be some sense in which our choices are not absolutely free" (193). That is to say, Grudem believes that it is ultimately God who is behind the scenes orchestrating which "contingent" choices we will make. As we will say later on in his consideration of God's providence, such an approach renders incoherent any meaningful sense of God as love and leaves us without any meaningful solution to the problem of evil.

However, Grudem is quite right to reject "open theism," the idea that God has intentionally suspended his foreknowledge so that we can have free will on some level. Such an approach not only takes the Old Testament too literally; it is unnecessary. Like Grudem's sense of predestination, open theism falsely assumes that God's knowledge of the future inescapably would imply that God determines the future.

As creator of the universe out of nothing, God must know every possible aspect of the universe.  He must even know what it feels like to murder someone or to die on a cross, from the very beginning of creation. For God there is no difference between theoretical and experiential knowledge because he created every possible experience from nothing.

And since Christians believe further by faith that God knows everything actual as well as possible, depictions of him with emotions must be pictures to help us understand him.  In reality, God cannot literally have a rush of emotions--anger, sadness, etc--because that would mean that some event became more real or present to him at a point in time. By contrast, the full reality of all events is always, equally present to God at all times. Depictions of God's emotions are thus God helping us understand rather than literal.

4. Wisdom
"God's wisdom means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals" (193).  Wisdom thus, as Grudem defines it, has to do with the decisions a person makes with the knowledge he or she has.  God has shown his wisdom in the plan of redemption.  He shows his wisdom in our individual lives. God gives us wisdom too, although we will never fully share in his wisdom.

Grudem helpfully points out that wisdom is about knowing the right decisions to make with the knowledge you have. He is also correct that God knows what the best goals are and what the best means to those goals are. However, probably implicit in Grudem's thinking is a kind of "determinism" that would say God orchestrates everything that happens in the world.

We are in no position to say whether God created this universe as the "best possible world." I believe that God has created a world where it is better for his universe to choose him freely rather than a world where he micromanages and determines everything that happens. In that sense, God knows the best goals for us to choose and the best means to those goals for us to choose, but he does not always choose them for us. In his sovereignty, he has given freedom to nature ("natural law") and empowers humans potentially to do good ("common" and "prevenient grace").

Grudem has some very commendable application in this section: "If the Christian church is faithful to God's wise plan, it will be always in the forefront in breaking down racial and social barriers in societies around the world" (194).  He also as always has some questionable interpretations.

For example, Romans 8:28 was not originally about God working all things for good in this life.  The following verse points us the good as being conformed to the image of Christ, which has to do with being glorified either in the resurrection or in the transformation that will take place when Christ returns. The entire section has been about being freed from the corruption of our bodies.

5. Truthfulness (and Faithfulness)
"God's truthfulness means that he is the true God, and that all his knowledge and words are both true and the final standard of truth" (195).  Grudem takes the statement that God is the true God to mean that God fully conforms to his own idea of what God is. In Grudem's thinking, his words cannot conform to some standard of truthfulness outside of himself. They are truth itself.

In addition, "God's faithfulness means that God will always do what he has said and fulfill what he has promised" (196).

For us, God's knowledge is the standard of true knowledge. "God's words are both true and the final standard of truth" (196). If what we know is true, it is true because it conforms to God's knowledge. Grudem assents to the notion that "all truth is God's truth" and therefore that we should be encouraged to pursue knowledge in all areas of the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.

Because we are God's children, we must also be truthful.  To Grudem, lying is wrong not only because of the harm that comes from it but because we are acting in a way that is contrary to God's own character.

There is no question that God is faithful and true and that truthfulness is a core Christian value, in keeping with the nature of God. Similarly, the idea that "all truth is God's truth" is also beyond question.  Truth from any domain of knowledge cannot ultimately contradict what is true in the spiritual domain. It is refreshing to hear Grudem say that Christians should be encouraged to pursue knowledge in all areas of study.

However, if you find some of Grudem's presentation of God's truthfulness confusing, it is probably because his ideas are actually confused. What does it mean to say that God's words are truth itself, nothing that can be judged by some standard of truth outside himself? It sounds good.  It's just not clear what it really means.

It is much more helpful to think of it in this way. When God created the universe, he created everything that is true in this universe.  He created the very standards of truth that we know and rely on in all of the creation. He created the criterion that truth corresponds to the data of the world. He created the criterion that truth coheres with truth. He created the criterion that truth "works" and helps us function and do things in the world.

As far as truth in relation to God himself, we are in no position to know what it literally might be. We have no frame of reference for God's essence outside this universe other than by his revelation of himself through the analogy of things in this universe.  To think otherwise is to confuse God with the creation, to put him inadvertently within rather than beyond the creation.

Therefore, even Scripture gives us truths about God largely if not entirely by analogy. To think otherwise is to create an idol of God in our thoughts. It is thus a little misleading to say that "all of God's words about himself and about his creation completely correspond to reality" (196). They do correspond to his divine reality, but largely by approximation and analogy.

So God is not subject to the standards of truth inside this universe because his essence is outside this universe. But within this universe, all truth conforms to the basic rules of logic and the fundamental three criteria. Most Christian thinkers have rejected the idea that God might ever choose to violate the laws of logic in this universe, although when we approach God in this way, we cannot preclude the possibility.

It is not surprising, given the extent to which Grudem believes we can know God literally, that he would very closely identify truthfulness with a very literal presentation of the truth. He is here almost certainly reflecting a certain stream of Western culture. The Bible itself does not present truthfulness in such Victorian terms, from Rahab to John 7:8.

Grudem continues to demonstrate that he is unable to read the Bible in context.  For example, what does it mean for Jeremiah 10:10 to say that YHWH is the true God?  It is not to make a statement about God telling the truth. It is to say that YHWH is the only legitimate God to worship in comparison to the other gods.  It is not even necessarily to deny that the other gods exist as spiritual forces.

Once again, Grudem comes to the words of the Bible with his definitions in hands and unsurprisingly finds the Bible to teach the theology he comes to it with.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Practical Theology 2: Why Believe in God?

The second in my new Sunday series on what the practical implications of theology are.

1. Is Theology Practical?

2. Why Believe in God?
Why should someone believe in God? To word it that way could give the mistaken impression that we really have a choice about whether God really exists or not.  In reality, either God really exists outside ourselves or he doesn't.  What we want to believe about his existence is irrelevant.

So the best answer to the question is "because he exists."  People should believe in God because he is real and he exists.

Unfortunately, God's existence is not as obvious to the people of the world as it used to be.  He does not come down to earth to do interviews on the news. He does not do miracles on demand. Most people find belief in God reasonable, but few people are convinced merely by some logical argument.

So it makes sense to say that someone created the universe. The idea that the universe just happens to be here continues to baffle the mind. What caused it to explode into existence when it did?

And there is an order to the universe. Quarks and electrons behave in certain predictable ways. Even evolution and chaos theory follow certain rules.  Are those rules just coincidence?  Our lives seem to have meaning. The world seems so beautiful.  Is the universe really just accidental and coincidence, and my sense of them merely the interactions of chemicals in my brain?

None of these things prove God's existence. The path of the intellectual zealot who feels compelled to prove things is just as likely to hurt faith as to help it. Faith in God is reasonable, but God is more about faith than about proof.

Why believe in God? Because he's calling to you. Some Christians of course only believe that God calls a few privileged ones, the "elect," the "predestined." That is not the spirit of the New Testament. The spirit of the New Testament is 1 Timothy 2:4--God wants all people to be saved.

A more coherent theology believes that God gives light to everyone who comes into the world.  At some point, he tugs on the heart of every person.  Why believe in God? Because he is tugging at our hearts.  When he tugs on your heart, believe.

Future posts...
God the Creator
3. God as Other
4. God as Timeless
5. God the All Powerful
6. God the All Knowing
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The First Pope

Someone asked me recently, "Peter was in Rome?"  Yes, reasonable tradition suggests that Peter was crucified in Rome under the emperor Nero. However, even Roman Catholic Bible scholars will tell you that it is not at all likely that Peter founded the church at Rome.

Brown and Meier, two of the best RCC Bible scholars of all time, suggest that the kernel of truth behind the tradition may be that the Roman church was a little more "conservative," more sympathetic to Peter's positions, than to Paul.

But I don't think it's appropriate even to translate the word episkopos as "bishop" in the time of the New Testament.  I believe that, for the most part, house churches were run by a council of elders and that these elders were also called the "overseers" of the assembly (=church). So there was probably not even a single overseer (episkopos) of an individual house church, let alone one over a whole city.  That doesn't happen until around the beginning of second century. That is not to say that there wasn't often someone more or less running the show.

So who was the first bishop of Rome?  Linus may very well have been an overseer in Rome. He's traditionally second to Peter.  Was he an overseer of all the churches in the city?  We just don't know if it got that far that early.  I personally doubt it.

Perhaps by the time of Clement, in the late first century, the role of overseer had developed enough for him to be called the overseer of the city.  Even here, though, he doesn't talk of the leadership of Corinth in such "one man" terms. Ignatius in the early 100s is arguing for the authority of a single overseer, so even then the idea of a single leader of a city is still being solidified.

So Peter was not the first bishop of Rome, let alone the first "Pope," a concept that would not develop for several more centuries.  Even in 1054, half the church denied that the bishop of Rome was of higher authority than the other bishops of key cities. Thus the Great Schism between East and West.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review 3: Protestantism is the root of all evil...

OK, OK, Brad Gregory doesn't say that in The Unintended Reformation, chapter 2: "Relativizing Doctrines."  That sure is how this chapter feels.  This post is the second half of my review of this chapter.

My second review begins at about p. 96.  In keeping with the Parable of the Talents, I'll try to obey the Lord's command and not bury my gift of sarcasm too much in the ground.  But in keeping with the love command, I'll at least try to maintain a modicum of civility. :-)

1. Up to this point in the chapter, I agree with Gregory that sola scriptura has failed to provide anything like a common Christian understanding of faith. However, this does not validate Gregory's apparent agenda, only thinly veiled, which seems to be to say it was a mistake to leave the pre-nominalist views of the Roman Catholic Church, with a frequent hint that he thinks Vatican 2 was a big mistake.

In fact, let me stop right here and trash his whole line of thinking up front.  Transpose his arguments back a couple thousand years and we're trying to justify how the new fangled religion of Christianity didn't settle the "hyperpluralism" of the ancient religious world.  Oops--his entire underlying argument disintegrates into a pool of drool. This book is a Charles Taylor want-to-be.  It tries to use the big words and complex sentences, but is completely devoid of the profundity. His rhetoric is stale, contributes no new ideas, and does so in a tiring, preachy style.

2. The only coherent option is thus the next variety of Protestant Christianity he trashes. He calls it "spiritualism." Let's call it by the name those of us to are more sympathetic to it use: pietism.  He is quite right that those who looked to the inner light of the Spirit to settled disagreements over ideas did not arrive at common ideological ground...

And here let me stop and tell him the best hope for orthodoxy.  The best for orthodoxy is not for Protestants to admit we were wrong to leave the Roman Catholic Church.  What were we thinking?  He doesn't say this but, come on, what else could we conclude from a chapter like this one?  He trashes every other option but clearly believes in orthodoxy. So the answer is that Luther should never have disagreed?  In other words, the theological bickering that you say led truth to shift to science could have all been solved if the Protestants would have just shut up?  That's helpful.

No, the only real hope for Christian orthodoxy is some sort of faith in common Christianity.  It is not "Scripture only."  It is something like "5 centuries, 4 councils, 3 persons, 2 natures, 1 God." Even that requires an act of faith, but it represents what the vast majority of Christians believe and have believed throughout the centuries. This faith in common Christianity acknowledges what Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox hold in common in terms of creed.

... but pietism takes the only really coherent position on what is important to God.  If God is not ultimately more interested in our hearts than our heads, there's no hope for Christianity.  So eat Vatican 2, Gregory, and accept that I am your "separated brother."  Otherwise it all falls apart.  The alternative is not pre-nominalist Roman Catholicism any more than it's pre-Great Schism.  It's non-Christianity.

So perhaps neither Zwingli nor the most zealous catholics of the Inquisition will be in the kingdom of God, while Luther and Erasmus may fare better. Gregory criticizes pietism because it did not result in orthodoxy... which is ultimately a circular argument.  A heart-oriented religion cannot be judged a failure by the criteria of a head-oriented religion!

3. The bulk of the rest of the chapter is devoted to trashing reason as a reliable path to truth. He runs through a host of modern philosophers--Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Husserl--with the goal of showing that they didn't agree with each other while being quite certain they, at last, were the individuals that had reasoned it all out.  And of course there can be no doubt that philosophers say the darnedest things.

Are there commonly accepted relationships between these philosophers?  Gregory seems to ignore the fact that Kant is more or less the funnel of the rationalists and empiricists before him like Descartes, Spinoza, and Hume. There are accepted connections, accepted improvements between these thinkers.  They are not disconnected atoms that all disagree with each other.  He also seems to ignore empiricism and seems to want to bracket science from it, as if the success of science is not in some way a vindication of empiricism on some level.

And stuck in his cognitive priorities, he cannot see that modern philosophy has inevitably led to the same basic point of view as pietism: it is not so much our ideas as our living in the world.  Nietzsche and Foucault do not ultimately present us with another alternative. That is to misunderstand them. They argue for the dead end of the cognitive priority. This is what postmodernism variously boils down to. Each in their own way, these faithless philosophers are saying the same thing--if there is common ground, it is not in ideas.

Philosophy does have three rock solid rules of truth.  All reasoning, including religious thinking, is susceptible to the weight of these rules.  How well does a hypothesis correspond to the data?  Does a hypothesis appear to be logically coherent internally?  Does a hypothesis seem to help us function in the real world?  Against such there is no law.

I believe there is room for Christian faith in all these developments. What we can't do what Gregory seems to want to do, to somehow become pre-moderns again.  I guarantee you that his understanding of the otherness of God is not the understanding he seems to think Anselm and the medieval church had.  Even Hegel knew that.

Book Review 2: "Relativizing Doctrines" 1

Last week I posted on the introduction and chapter 1 of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, which the Monday reading group is working through. His basic thrust, as I see it, is that one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation was the secularization of society.

Today I'm posting on the first half of his second chapter, "Relativizing Doctrines."  His underlying thesis in this chapter, as I see it at this point, is that the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) is directly responsible for an unintended pluralism of answers to Life Questions in contemporary times.

First, there is some of what I consider recycled stale stuff in here:
  • Back in his introduction (19), he tried to recycle the old, "the denial of all truths is to make at least one truth claim." I think he messes it up (common) because he's talking about a denial of all norms and values (ethics) not a denial of all truth claims (epistemology). Denying all norms and values is not the same as denying all truth claims. Similarly, you can deny universal norms without considering such a denial a value.
  • On the other hand, he probably is making a fair observation that most scientific types are not particularly good philosophers of science. To describe the big bang, at least at this point, does not seem to answer questions about what is behind the big bang. He is probably right that Occam's Razor can be used to exclude a spiritual dimension to things that might very well be present--secular approaches tend to seek minimalist explanations.
  • I couldn't help but think he was a hypocrite when he criticized social scientists for using metaphorical language of humans being "constructions."  This line especially stood out to me: "they should adopt a clearer idiom to make their unobjectionable points" (79).  I wrote in the margin, "verbose physician, heal thyself."  Communication does beg for simplified language.  But, really, if you can't understand the profundities of someone else's discipline, then butt out of it!
Second, we get to the stuff:
  • Before the Reformation, there was an institutionalized worldview, a combination of sharp limits to orthodoxy combined with a wide diversity of local traditions and practices.  Gregory believes that, on a lay level, the 1400s were more devout than any preceding century in Christianity (84-85).
  • He argues that the Protestant Reformation was not about reforming the church but a rejection of Roman Catholicism period, even at its best (86).  I personally don't think this is true of Luther. I do not feel ready to argue back, but I believe Gregory is drawing too stark a line, one that evolved and was far more concrete than ideological.
  • Nevertheless, he does demonstrate by a pastiche of quotes from Reformers like Luther, Melanchthon, and Zwingli that the Reformers did use the rhetoric of sola scriptura as a weapon to try to undo the parts of the Roman Catholic church to which they protested. And once an idea gets in a certain type of person's head, s/he will follow the idea through. 
  • I suspect he is right, however, when he says that there was never a point in the Reformation when anti-Roman Christians agreed among themselves about what scripture said and God taught (91). Whether we like it or not, any objective observer can see that the idea of sola scriptura has never worked, not even from day 1 of the Reformation. 
  • The closest "sola scriptura" came to reality was the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, when Luther and Zwingli agreed on 14 out of 15 points.  The scoundrel Zwingli, whom I don't expect to be in heaven, couldn't live with that much disagreement.
  • Zwingli is an excellent case in point. He was happy to split vehemently with the RCC--and to die  going to war against them. And he was happy to drown Anabaptists in the river, who thought they were following the Bible alone in teaching believer's baptism.
  • He is right in zinging the high Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists in their attempts to make out Anabaptists and pietists as departures from their "true" idea.  No, he rightly strikes.  The Anabaptists were following the same non-functional principle of sola scripture that they were.  It never worked, the Protestant principle is simply that group after group, thinking they are simply following the Bible alone, will endlessly multiply as they follow the whims of their own interpretations. The pluralism of Protestant belief is a natural by-product of sola scriptura.
At this point I usually express thanks that the Methodist and Anglican traditions came from a different line than the high Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists. There was always more of the small "c" catholic left in the Anglican tradition than in the high Protestants.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Practical Theology 1

Anyone who reads this blog knows how it goes with me.  I have an idea. I blog for a little while. I lose interest or think I could do better or get tired of attacks or figure other people just aren't interested.  My latest idea is to run through theology with a view to its practical implications. It's a play on the phrase, "practical theology," which normally refers to theology as it relates to practical ministry. This would be systematic theology as it relates to practical life.

So we'll see what happens.

1. Is Theology Practical?
Theology is the study of God. It doesn't usually strike Christians as being particularly practical.  "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?"

Of course a theologian might protest that I have picked an obscure issue.  Theology is involved with pretty much every aspect of the Christian life.  How should I discipline my children?  This question involves assumptions on what Christian discipline is about.  Does God discipline us?  Why?  In what circumstances does God discipline us?  Most of us simply do what our parents did--whether they were good "theologians" on such issues or not.

The field of "practical theology" is normally about ministry.  What is the theology behind leadership?  What is the theology behind mission?  In that sense, the title of this series is really a play on words--theology in its practical implications for life, theology as it is practical.

The next series of Sunday posts aim to go through some of the main elements of "systematic theology" with a view to how they impact our lives.  What are the practical implications?  Systematic theology is the systematic study of theology, studying theology in an orderly way that goes topic by topic.

There are different ways to divide up theology logically. You might start with a theology of Scripture and revelation, for example.  Isn't that practical--starting with how we know anything about God?  You might start with Christ, since Christ stands at the center of our relationship with God the Father.

I am going to start with God at the beginning, the traditional place to begin.  Starting with Scripture often signals a fundamentalist approach that is unable to read the Bible in context. Starting with Christ often imports a particular twentieth century theological flavor. In other words, these approaches are usually driven by specific theories.

I consider the beginning of the story a perfectly practical place to start--when God decided to do something. Yes, there are some assumptions involved here.  I'm assuming that common Christianity is true. Somehow it seems too "me-focused" to start with an individual's pilgrimage to know God. That would be very practical, but can we ever deduce things about God entirely without him reaching down to us first?

So we assume Christian orthodoxy as we begin, and we begin with God as creator at the beginning, the classic place to begin.

2. Why Believe in God?

God the Creator
3. God as Other
4. God as Timeless
5. God the All Powerful
6. God the All Knowing
7. God the Spirit
8. Three in One
9. God as Love
10. God as Just

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Grudem 12a: God's "Communicable" Attributes I

It's been over 3 months since I posted on Grudem, not least because I wanted to collect and edit my summary/evaluations of his first section on the Word of God.  Nevertheless, Grudem continues.

I have already summarized/evaluated three chapters of his section on the Doctrine of God.  Today I resume with the beginning of his chapter 12, God's "Communicable" Attributes, Part 1.
12 The "Communicable" Attributes of God, Part 1
Chapter 11 presented God's "incommunicable" attributes, those that largely relate to God apart from the creation, like his eternity.  By contrast, God's "communicable" attributes are ones that have to do with his relation to the creation, like spirituality.

A. Attributes Describing God's Being
1. Spirituality
Grudem presents two attributes as aspects of God's being that relate directly to the creation.  The first is spirituality. By spirituality, Grudem refers to the fact that God is spirit.  "God's being, his essential mode of existence, is different from everything that he has created" (187).  God is not a certain size.  He does not have dimensions. He is not bound by a spatial location.

Here is his official definition: "God's spirituality means that God exists as a being that is not made of any matter, has no parts or dimensions, is unable to be perceived by our bodily senses, and is more excellent than any other kind of existence" (188). Since "God has given us spirits," this attribute is placed in the category of communicable.

We in this universe are really in no position to know exactly what it literally means to say that God is Spirit.  Grudem's description is orthodox and fairly captures what it means when we say it. It connects to God's omnipresence--God is not limited by location.  God is not another being like we are a being.

At the same time, we can wonder whether we are really saying the same thing when we say God is Spirit as when we say people have spirits. We are in no position to say anything about what God's essence is like "outside" this universe. "Spirit" is a metaphor for what God is like inside this universe. "Outside," he is "other."

In that sense, we use "spirit" in relation to human beings to say that we have a part that belongs to the realm of God in addition to our obvious, visible, physical side.  In a sense, while we use "spirit" to refer to the fact that God, while other, is inside this universe, in relation to humans, we use "spirit" to say that we, while inside this universe, have a part that connects to the realm outside this universe.  In both cases, such language is only our attempt to get a handle on matters we cannot possibly understand, and it should not be taken literally.

When the Bible speaks in terms of God as a spirit or us having spirits, it is giving us a picture we can understand.  It is not likely a literal description of God or our make-up.

2. Invisibility
"God's invisibility means that God's total essence, all of his spiritual being, will never be able to be seen by us, yet God still shows himself to us through visible, created things" (188). God does sometimes make himself seen in various ways, mostly by analogy. The "beatific vision" (190), a seeing of God face to face, is an experience Moses is said to have had. The Old Testament mentions several "theophanies," appearances of God on earth.

We can wonder whether to say God is invisible to us is really to say much more than the implication of what we are saying when we say God is spirit. Certainly mainstream Christians have always believed that God can make himself visible on earth and spiritually present to his worshipers.  Neither of these claims suggest that God's "essence" becomes visible. Apart from Christ, a theophany is simply an embodied analogy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Practical Theology?

I had a spark, maybe.  I think most practical theologies are oriented in ways like "theology of leadership."  That's theology oriented around the practice of ministry.

But has anyone ever done a practical theology, that was practice oriented around theology, and not just practice of ministry but Christian living in general?

So what if someone were to go through the great topics of systematic theology--God, creation, sin, redemption, etc--with a view to Christian living and practice?  So Christians believe God is omnipotent?  Fine. But what does it have to do with Christian practice?

Just an idea...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Pope is Catholic!

By now anyone reading this will know that the new pope is from Argentina and has taken the name Francis.  Presumably the point is that he values poverty and humility. I hope this bodes well for reform of the Vatican bank.

As you all know, this is a shift to the southern hemisphere and perhaps a move toward decentralization.  This move seems good given that the local grip in Italy might be part of the catholic problem that led Benedict to resign. He is 76, which doesn't suggest the kind of strength for battle Benedict may have preferred. He is a moderate, but no one expected big changes in theology.

I do want to use this as an excuse to talk about how compatible catholicism is with Wesleyanism.  For example, could a Roman Catholic of a particular kind teach at a Wesleyan college?  I'm pretty sure it has already happened.  In non-theology areas, it seems as plausible to me as having a Baptist, Pentecostal, or Lutheran teach at a Wesleyan school.

Several of us worked through the RC catechism last year and you can see our notes here.  I think our main take away was that you had to believe a lot more things as a catholic rather than that there were a lot of areas where Wesleyans flatly disagreed.  Here's why I think a particular kind of Roman Catholic could potentially teach at a Wesleyan college:

1. The most important value/qualification for a Wesleyan is a personal, active relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord.  We are a revivalist tradition more than a creedal tradition like the Reformed. A Roman Catholic can be entirely sanctified just as well as a Christian from any other tradition.  A Christian of any denomination who has completely surrendered him/herself to God and has received the fullness of the Spirit might easily trump many card-carrying Wesleyans in this category.

2. The second most important value/qualification should be a life lived with the fruit of righteousness and the Spirit.  Does a Christian of any denomination demonstrate the Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? A Roman Catholic with a vibrant faith of a certain sort should trump a Wesleyan who never goes to church, never prays, and treats others like dirt.

3. But are there any Roman Catholic beliefs that are so in conflict with Wesleyan theology that it would preclude a RC, as at Wheaton? Certainly I don't think you would want a RC teaching theology or probably even church history full time at a Wesleyan college. But most of the "red flag" issues people raise usually involve a misunderstanding of some sort.
  • Most Roman Catholics today don't pit the Bible against the Church.  They simply see their tradition as the best interpreters of Scripture--which is what Wesleyans, Baptists, Lutherans, and pretty much everyone else does.  Would we hire a Missouri Synod Lutheran minister to teach at IWU? They are supposed to listen to what their church says the Bible means just as much as a RC is supposed to. A RC can believe the Bible is inerrant just as much as a Wesleyan.
  • Most of the differences in RC belief are "added" rather than contradictory. For example, nothing would keep a Wesleyan from believing in transubstantiation.  The overwhelming majority don't, but this is an example of where RCs do more while not really contradicting.
  • RCs don't worship Mary or the saints.  They "venerate" them.  If a RC did worship them, they would be in violation of RC theology.
  • RCs don't always agree with everything the RCC teaches any more than the Wesleyans in our megachurches that drink moderately.
4. Here are some instances where we are closer to the RCs than to other Protestants:
  • We believe that how you live has a potential impact on your final salvation (we're thus closer to the catholics here than to Baptists, Lutherans, the Reformed, or Presbyterians).
  • Wesleyans have practically the same view as RCs on human freedom (as opposed to the Reformed on predestination).
  • Wesleyans have a similar view of abortion and homosexual practice.
I am not at all saying that all Roman Catholics could teach at a Wesleyan college.  I only suspect that there are some RCs out there who would be a better mission fit than some Wesleyans and certainly more than many a fundamentalist.

Book Review 1: Unintended Reformation

This week the Monday reading group read the first chapter of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation. His basic thrust, as I see it, is that one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation was the secularization of society. I suppose when you put it that way, it's not a very profound thesis.  Surely one consequence of dethroning a singular, dominating religious authority is that you not only create a plurality of other religious options, but you create a space for a non-religious option.

Gregory's thesis is more involved, however.  He probably goes a little too far--no surprise that he teaches at Notre Dame and I imagine is Roman Catholic.  I'm trying to work through some of the details in my mind, so let me merely provide some bulleted points of interest to me.

  • His writing is somewhat thick. It's a somewhat heavy style, long paragraphs, high vocabulary. It's not as bad as Christian Smith but reminds one of what I might call a faux-German style. :-)
  • He says some of the right things about his sense of things. "This is neither a study of decline from a lost Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of unintended historical consequences..." (20). So he says... not sure if he does.
  • I'm less confident of this fundamental thesis: "Ideological and institutional shifts that occurred five or more centuries ago remain substantively necessary to an explanation of why the Western world today is as it is" (7).  I don't doubt that the present can take on a certain richness if we understand how we got here. I suspect the richness is primarily in knowing what the alternatives were.  He goes further, "we cannot understand the character of contemporary realities until and unless we see how they have been and are still being shaped by the distant past" (15). Hmmm.
Chapter 1: Excluding God
  • Gregory starts with a quote from Max Weber (1864-1920) in which Weber argues that science is antithetical to religion.  According to Weber, you just can't have a religious worldview any more because the truth of science is "not an option."
  • In effect, this chapter is Gregory arguing that this point of view is an unintended consequence of the Reformation. 
  • The two biggest culprits for the chain of events, according to Gregory, are 1) the "metaphysical univocity" of nominalism and 2) Occam's Razor.  
  • Metaphysical univocity, for Gregory, is a shift from thinking of God as genuinely "other" to thinking him as a being, the highest being.  He becomes a being (ens) rather than being itself (esse). Occam's Razor means that we look for the simplest explanation of data. Gregory believes this approach implies a "methodological naturalism," even if you believe in God. 
  • I'm still processing these last points.  I believe in the otherness of God, not univocity. But make no mistake, there would be no scientific explanation of the universe if the mode of operation was not to look for natural explanations for the physical universe.  I consider Occam's Razor a fundamental principle of good data interpretation.
  • What is peculiar about these culprits in Gregory's argument is that they are not products of the Reformation. They precede the Reformation. So I am unclear.  I think (and this is a point of investigation for me) it is generally accepted that nominalism was a basis for the Reformation. But if nominalism is the basis for the Reformation, then doesn't Gregory's argument fall apart?  The basis for secularism becomes nominalism, not the Reformation.
  • Ultimately ideas are usually epiphenomena. They rarely are the actual causes of things. The real causes of things tend to be more fundamental human drives like power and economics.
  • Another sense is that, without a commonly agreed Christianity, truth questers in the post-Reformation era could not look to religion for questions of truth. They rather sought for natural explanations and reason that they could count on for stability.
I really was not impressed with this first chapter. I do not agree with Weber, but I also don't think we can go back to "pre-critical," pre-modern times. The division of reality into natural and supernatural has been heuristically successful almost beyond comprehension.

I don't know whether God is directly pulling the strings beneath the quarks or if he has delegated that to natural laws of some sort.  But if he is directly doing it, he does it with overwhelming regularity (=natural). So it is not inaccurate heuristically to say that when God does something that is not the normal rule, it is a "supernatural" event. This distinction also allows for the most palatable solution to the problem of evil and suffering.

In short, the natural-supernatural distinction, whether it is literally the case or not, has been overwhelmingly fruitful and generative. Occam's Razor works, and we use it in common sense every day over and over.  Science works.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ten Common Mistakes about the NT

I did a PowerPoint presentation yesterday at the theological research seminar on the first chapter of a book I have coming out probably first of next year with Fortress, A New Perspective on Hebrews.  The presentation  gave background on "New Perspectives on Christian Judaism."  I went through 1) new perspectives on Paul, 2) the third quest for the historical Jesus, and 3) the partings of the ways.  These are all part of the late twentieth century re-examination of early Christianity in the light of Judaism.  The reappraisal of Judaism was inspired by the Holocaust and discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Here are what I consider 10 fairly clear insights that have not fully trickled down to the popular level:

1. The Jews were not trying to earn their salvation by good works.

2. Paul did not struggle with a guilty conscience, either before or after he believed in Jesus as Christ.

3. Paul saw works as an element in final salvation. What he did not believe were required for justification were "works of Law," especially those aspects of the Law that separated Jew from Gentile (e.g., circumcision).

4. Romans is not primarily about how to get saved but about how the Gentiles can be included alongside the Jews in the people of God.

5. The Law in Romans is the Jewish Law, not some abstract moral law.

6. Paul did not change religions when he believed on Christ.  He probably changed Jewish sects. All the early Christians saw themselves as Jews. The Gentile converts saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism. It would be more accurate to speak of Christian Jews than of Jewish Christians in the earliest church.

7. The Pharisees were all strict but they were not all legalists in the sense of only caring about rules for their own sake. Jesus puts them in the "healthy" and "righteous" category, at least initially, in several parables. Some of them became believers without leaving Pharisaism.

8. New Testament theology is theo-centric (God the Father centered) rather than Christocentric.

9. The best approach to understanding the historical Jesus locates him within first century Judaisms on a trajectory to the early church (double similarity).

10. The earliest Christians did not see ethnic Israel as replaced but in a temporary state of unbelief.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Function of Rights

The set up of the US Constitution--and all modern democracies--is brilliant.  It/they balance two important principles:

1. Majority rule
2. Individual rights

1. Majority rule
The idea of majority rule in itself is a great privilege, although not without potential pitfalls. It is a privilege because we are not ruled by a dictator who can oppress the majority. Its danger is mob rule, where the majority rule in a self-destructive way or a way that oppresses a minority group.  This is why it is important to have an educated majority that understands the nature of self-governance.

2. Individual rights
"The greater good for the greater number" (utilitarianism) is the fundamental assumption of a democracy. It is important to balance this ethical principle out with a second, "without violating individual rights."  The Bill of Rights, the first amendments to the US Constitution, provide protections for these rights.

They include famous rights like 1) freedom of religion, 2) freedom of speech, 3) freedom to keep arms, 4) right to a speedy trial, 5) etc...

The rights aren't absolute.  Judges have to decide which is more important in certain certain circumstances. Judges also have to decide when they trump majority rule. Also, rights do not apply to all citizens. Criminals, for example, can have certain diminished rights.  The government can also institute martial law in a time of chaos.

These dynamics are all in play right now on a number of issues. I doubt we have done a good job as a nation teaching these principles to the populace. My impression is that Americans use whichever principle works for what they want: "I've got my rights" and "Majority rules."  What they don't have a good sense of is how these two connect to each other.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Flexibility of a Christian Worldview

I'm reading The Unintended Reformation with the Monday reading group and will probably post about it regularly for the next month or so.  I came across a good point today that I wanted to emphasize:

"Because the central claims of Christianity were not based or dependent on any philosophy but rather on God's putative actions in history, inherited assumptions and practices provided a framework for the testing, debate, and discriminating assimilation of philosophical ideas compatible with the faith" (39-40).

Brad Gregory is talking about the late Middle Ages here and about how Christian thinkers could appropriate elements from Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, even Epicureanism without also adopting their clearly non-Christian elements.  It is also true that "inherited assumptions and practices" at that time would have included a good deal of Roman Catholic ritual and tradition.  One of the reasons the Anglican church can house such a diversity of belief (from charismatic to evangelical to Anglo-Catholic to Sea of Faith non-literalists) is because they all share the liturgy in common.

All of that is introduction. What I want to jump on is the "because" part.  The central claims of Christianity are based in God's actions in history, not on a philosophical system.  This fact has historically made it possible--and I believe continues to make it possible--for there to be some flexibility in the philosophical framework within which Christian faith is housed.

Are there some basics to a Christian worldview?  Yes, I believe there are.  For example, a Christian worldview believes in a God that literally exists, created the world, and acts in the world.  But the basics are event-focused and a relatively short list.

What this means is that those who talk extensively in terms of biblical or Christian worldview are really doing what Augustine did with Platonism or Thomas did with Aristotelianism or Luther or Calvin or Van Til have done.  They are not presenting the biblical or Christian worldview but presenting a Christian worldview that places the core events into some philosophical framework that is not actually part of the core.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Post-Conservative, Post-Liberal...

I had an interesting call from a new friend out there in blogland. He was interested in how I would categorize myself and mentioned some fairly recent terms, "post-liberal" and "post-conservative." Both of the terms tend toward each other somewhat in the middle, the biggest difference being the direction from which they're coming.

"Post-liberal" is a term whose origins trace quite a bit back to Yale in the 80s (e.g., Lindbeck, Frei).  A lot of people at Duke and Princeton have some of that influence.  These are people who've come from a more or less liberal background who have rejected the faithlessness of former liberalism. They are "unapologetic" about faith (versus apologetics). Think radical orthodoxy. This sort of person seems to really like Barth.

"Post-conservative" is more appropriate for people who don't like the way previous generations of conservatives have framed a lot of issues.  Roger Olson favorably quoted this description from Steven Sherman:

"Basically, they [postconservative evangelicals] compose a loose coalition of thinkers who are seeking to facilitate a number of ‘beyond’ moves, theologically: beyond the agenda of the modernist/fundamentalist dichotomy toward what they see as a more holistic theology... beyond concentration on rationalism toward incorporating additional ways of knowing; beyond inerrancy debates and concerns toward an instrumental use of scripture; beyond academy-centered theologizing toward ecclesial and community-oriented thinking; beyond gatekeeping on boundary-setting doctrinalism toward a generous orthodoxy with pietistic emphasis; and finally, beyond what they view as a fixation on the concerns of modernity often motivated by a fear of liberalism, toward a more positive view and selective appropriation of postmodern insights."

To me, that really sums up Wesleyan well, by which I mean the spirit of Wesley across Wesleyan denominations like the Wesleyans, Nazarenes, and Free Methodists.  It is an excellent description of the thought ethos of the religion division at IWU in the 00's.  I am convinced that the previous paragraph will describe the broader Wesleyan thought-leaders of the days to come.

Monday, March 04, 2013

First Grudem Review Self-Published

I've taken my reviews of the first section of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, his section on the "Word of God"; I've edited it; I've self-published it in both Kindle and print-on-demand format.  The print version is about 85 pages long.

Print version

Kindle Version

Here's the blurb I put on the back:

"Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology is widely influential. It is well laid out, easy to understand, and has components that make working through it a spiritual experience. The problem is that it is wrong at a number of fundamental points.

"This is the first of seven booklets summarizing and evaluating Grudem's theology. This first booklet evaluates his theology of Scripture, whose underlying problem is that it is riddled with anachronistic thinking. Grudem neither fully knows how to read the books of the Bible in context, nor is aware of how fundamentalist Reformed influences have skewed his interpretations of Scripture."

Now on to his section on the Doctrine of God...

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Quo vadis, Bloggens?

I suppose it's a good thing that my blogging well is running dry.  I do intend to continue blogging through Grudem on Saturdays as I'm able. In fact, I've self-published a Kindle version of my evaluation of Grudem's first section on the word of God and I'll do a post when the paper version is approved.

The Monday reading group is reading Unintended Reformation and I imagine I'll give some blog posts about it.  It's basic thesis, as I perceive it, is that secularization was an unintended consequence of the Reformation. Gregory is more nuanced than that, but I think that's the bottom line. I suspect that I at least would want to be a lot more careful about how Gregory thinks the distant past impacts us.

I have a book contract from Fortress, which will motivate me finally to finish a book I've written parts of, A New Perspective on Hebrews. Those of you who have been asking how to quote some of the informal papers I've written on the date and ethnicity of Hebrews' audience will finally have something to cite.

I know I was doing a biblical theology series that at least a few of you found interesting.  I like to use Sundays as venues to create things I later self-publish.  I thought about doing a series "Theological Artifacts," in which I give my theology in dialog with its historical interlocutors.  I thought about writing a very simple "Biblical Worldview" booklet. The presuppositions of the title are riddled with ignorance, but better to lasso it than let the ignorant continue to use it as a tool of stupefication.

One thing I really want to start doing more of is reading through some famous books and then self-publishing my summary evaluations, like I'm doing with Grudem.  I was thinking, for example, of doing some Kant.

So there's a little nothing for a Sunday morning...