Theology

Theology is first the activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity…. As an activity, theology is a cat’s cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality) and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology).

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), xi–xii.

As usual, Packer is so on point and so clear, but there may be slight room for improvement here. I can accept many of these helpful definitions as written, but a few I would seek to improve slightly.

Here’s my take:

  • Theology: thinking and speaking about God
  • Exegesis: elucidating texts
  • Biblical theology: synthesizing what the Bible says about theology on its own terms, by noting its own order, identifying its own center, and distilling its own story
  • Historical theology: seeing how the faith was stated in the past
  • Systematic theology: formulating and organizing the faith for today
  • Ethics: finding the Bible’s implications for conduct
  • Apologetics: commending and defending the Bible as truth and wisdom
  • Missiology: defining the Christian task in the world
  • Spirituality: stockpiling resources for life in Christ
  • Liturgy: articulating and arranging the Bible for corporate worship
  • Practical theology: exploring ministry as a way of life

An RV Trip through Oregon

Coyote Rock MarinaHaving arrived at our rest, I sat and watched as smoke and mist curled up and past the multi-hued and verdant trees who stood guard over the deep green river.  Evergreens and birches interspersed, rose rank after rank toward the bald eagle who soared away from the mouth of the estuary and up river toward Coyote Rock.

Vespers this night was evensong with a winged choir, all wind instruments and no strings, with God showing up and showing off. An otter popped up his head in curiosity, swimming toward us till I walked closer, my hulking figure appearing behind the willowy girls.

SeagullOnPierShall I describe the smells too? No, my eyes are still preoccupied with white egrets and grey herons, with ducks whose wings whisked the placid river’s surface, and a seagull on the pier patiently waiting to see what we might leave from dinner.

This was just our destination. We left Nampa yesterday, and stayed in Burns last night where we saw crows harass a great horned owl off his perch above our RV, and toured one of three tipis with the friendly proprietor.

On the way toward Bend we saw a coyote wading in the Malheur River, pheasants approaching the road, a mohawked roadrunner, and antelope in bands of three and four, running as they played.Antelope

We stopped at a viewpoint before the landscape changed from red to green where my son caught a lizard with a brilliant azure blue under its neck and striping his belly. Six steps from the road the land fell away into a rocky gorge with gnarled trees clinging desperately to crumbling lava. My daughter commented it could have been the Grand Canyon she’s not yet seen, but I was glad for her wonder and didn’t correct her.

There’s no end of surprises on the road. We stopped to snap photos in front of a shoe-laden tree in the middle of nowhere, wondering who planned a trip to ditch their aging shoes, but glad for their spontaneity, which graced the rugged terrain to travelers’ delight. ShoeTree

The road goes ever on, sun shining in my eyes yesterday afternoon and lighting the tips of a few spindly pines ahead of me this morning as they stretched skyward beyond their brothers blanketing the Western Cascades The 2 Sisters Oregonas we left Sisters, OR in our wake. Now instead of gazing upon vast vistas our eyes peered through a tunnel of trees with beams of sunshine winking through as we whipped past. 

Soon rain misted our windshield as we wound down from 4,800 feet toward Salem. Moss blanketed the trees like green snow and some sort of brilliant yellow lilies pierced through a sea of grass as we pushed toward Tillamook county.

I’m lying in bed as I write, watching my wife blow dry her hair; thankful for the convenience of power and water amid the wild beauty around us. As she wraps up the cord, I can hear the burbling of the rivulet breaking out of the steeply angled woods across the river.

Morning Prayer on Sunday enjoyed the same choir, with choristers rarely seen except when they flitted from tree to tree. If you’ve ever been in a sanctuary with the choir above and behind you, it was kind of like that. You don’t see the choir you just experience them; one can easily be transported into the heavenly realm.

We left the Oregon Coast and headed toward McMinnville, OR where so many of my ancestors lived. There’s a park here on land donated by my Uncle Tuck. It’s been a weekend of worship and my heart is full as we head home on I-84 along the Columbia River.

Waterfall  3 Teepees White Egret  LaGrange OR lizard

This entire experience was made possible by Rent For Fun RV, and we recommend them to you as honest, friendly, reliable, and generous people. Hop on over to their site and see if you can rent an RV for your next memory creating event!

I Am Valued – a poem

Scorned and disdained,
I am chosen by the King.

Impotent and insolent,
I am humbled by the Potentate.

Dust-born and sin-soiled,
I am envisaged by the Seer.

Bedraggled and disheveled,
I am a canvas for the Artist.

Forlorn and war-torn,
I am upheld by the Comforter.

Beset and bedeviled,
I am rescued by Heaven.

Ragtag and weary,
I am sustained by the Spirit.

Pummeled and bruised,
I am sheltered by the Rock.

Confused and uncertain,
I am wielded by the Healer.

Seen by the Savior,
I find myself in His eyes,
And discover I am valued.

Re-reading MacIntyre and Wilson

from Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame, IN: Univ of Notre Dame Press, 2007 (3rd edition). pp 1-2.

“Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally, a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all they possess are fragments; a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. None the less all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry, and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory, and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realises that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to understand what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.” (p. 1)

“What is the point of constructing this imaginary world inhabited by fictitious pseudo-scientists and real, genuine philosophy? The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, it not entirely—lost  our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” (p. 2)

from Jonathan R. Wilson. Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: From MacIntyre’s After Virtue to a New Monasticism, 2nd ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010.

This book is written under the conviction that the church in Western culture is in grave danger of compromising its faithfulness to the gospel. Of course, such conviction is almost always present somewhere in the church. Nevertheless, because of the enormous changes that are taking place in our culture, such conviction takes on greater significance. This book is also written under the conviction that the changes taking place in Western culture present a wonderful opportunity for faithful witness to the gospel, as the church in the West reexamines its own life and witness and discovers once again the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to redeem humanity. (p. xiv)

“Jesus Christ calls the church to particular practices: making disciples, baptizing and teaching them…. [The] good news is an ever-present, unchanging reality: Jesus himself promises to be with us always…. [T]he redemption of Jesus Christ is a present reality that he is actively accomplishing in our world today. Therefore, the church’s responsibility is to participate in that redemption and witness to it. We are witnesses to Jesus Christ, ambassadors of God’s reconciliation which is being accomplished through Christ. This responsibility extends to all peoples, to bring the gospel to them and educate them in the practices of the gospel—baptizing and teaching—so that they may participate in this redemption and become its witnesses.

     “This gospel and the mission of the church never change, but the circumstances in which we witness to and live out the gospel do change. With changing circumstances comes the need to rethink how the church lives faithfully and witnesses to the gospel. Changing circumstances bring new opportunities for witness, but they also bring new threats to the integrity of the church’s witness.” (p. xv)

“[T]he church faces many threats to its faithfulness. Words are important here: the gospel is never threatened by changing circumstances—God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is being accomplished and nothing can hinder that. All authority has been given to Jesus Christ. However, what may be compromised is the church’s faithfulness to the gospel. Even here, the church may be made a witness to Jesus Christ by God’s judgment. That is, even an unfaithful church may be used to witness to the gospel by God’s judgment upon it. So what is at issue for us is not the gospel or our witness to the gospel, but the church’s faithfulness to the commission given by Jesus Christ.

     “This understanding of the mission of the church must be disciplined by the gospel and firmly grounded in the conviction that ‘relevance’ is an intrinsic characteristic of the gospel, not a demand of the culture. Otherwise, the quest for relevance becomes a quest for acceptance.” (p. xvi)

“We are in danger of failing to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ or of cloaking a nostalgia for the past in Christian language and mistaking its acceptance for acceptance of the gospel.” (p. xvii)

“Since changing circumstances bring new threats, the church must continually discern the characteristics of the particular culture within which it is called to faithfulness. This is true of the church in all times and places.” (p. xviii)

“Such confession and repentance requires an intentionally disciplined way of life that makes such practices integral expressions of life together with God and one another, not a marketing program or public relations ploy.” (p. xix)

“I pursue MacIntyre’s suggestion that we live in a fragmented world rather than a pluralistic world.” (p. xix)

MacIntyre’s story of the mainstream of morality in Western culture and show how the church has compromised its faithfulness by accommodating to that mainstream and how many current conceptions of the mission of the church continue that mistake. (p. xix)

MacIntyre argues that we live in a world in which morality exists only in fragments. These fragments give us only an appearance of morality, not its reality. What the church must learn from this is that our understanding of the gospel, our witness, and our discipleship are also deeply fragmented. We have only a semblance of the gospel, not its reality, at work in our life together. Consequently, “Christians” are deeply vulnerable to ideologies that will use the language of Christianity and make appeals to the gospel in order to co-opt the church for programs and purposes that are contrary to the gospel. We have no firm center in the gospel but are preoccupied with and distracted by peripheral matters that exploit our fragmentation.

     In these circumstances, we have much work to do to overcome our fragmentation and recover a coherent, more holistic practice of the gospel. To do this will require hard, persistent work by communities rooted in a provisional understanding of this fragmentation. This understanding must be provisional because the very character of fragmentation means that those whose lives are fragmented only perceive that fragmentation indirectly, through unease or an initially inchoate sense that something may not be quite right.

     With this provisional understanding of our fragmentation, these communities will then set for themselves an intentional commitment to a way of life that seeks greater coherence and congruence in their life of discipleship. This again will require hard work, a commitment to stable relationships over a long period of time, and a willingness to share life together (commune) in such a way that this shared life is centered in Christ so that the fragments are pulled together by the gravitational pull of this center. In all of this, these communities must acknowledge and celebrate the grace of God as a power that reveals and heals the fragmentation of our lives. (pp 14-15)

“If we lived in a pluralistic world with relatively intact multiple communities, then the recovery of Christian faithfulness would entail the strengthening and maturing of those communities. We would simply need to work with the social arrangements that we currently have to direct them properly.” (p. 15)

“If we live in a fragmented world, then we do not have relatively intact communities of discipleship in the church. Instead, we have fragments of discipleship in fragments of community. But we persist in the belief (and often the self-deception) that we have a good understanding of discipleship and good communities.” (p. 15)

“In other words, as we inchoately sense and vaguely see the fragmentation of the gospel in our lives, the recovery of wholeness in our understanding of the gospel and our life in Christ may be found in God’s gracious calling of [newly Gospel-oriented communities, thriving upon the environment of grace and the foundation of torah, or the divine application of God’s character to human experience]. (p. 16) *

* beginning with the word “newly” in the last sentence, these are my revision and my perspective on the idea suggested by J.R. Wilson’s words, which are, “…gracious calling of new monastic communities.

The Architecture of Habits

“So I was way too busy, totally overcommitted, and living with a chaotic, packed schedule. But I thought I was different because I had a calling. After I saw that protester arrested, I had become consumed with the idea of how important law and economics are in shaping the culture we live in—for better or for worse. Only in retrospect did I realize that, while the house of my life was decorated with Christian content, the architecture of my habits was just like everyone else’s. And that life had been working for me—until it collapsed.”

Justin Whitmel Earley. The Common Rule (p. 4). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Another Way to Read Scripture

Recommendation: re-read Romans 7-8 out loud.

What I’m suggesting is not a replacement for studying the Scriptures, nor for any other method of reading, but an alternative I’m suggesting can bear fruit from time to time.

On this occasion, read not with an eye to understanding what on earth Paul is trying to say in Ch 7, but with an eye to what happens to Paul as he contemplates God in the process of explaining to the believers in Rome.

By the time Paul gets to the end of Ch 8 he is enraptured by the character of God: caught up in delight at the recognition of the profundity of Who God is and what He does.

By the time he gets to 8:31 the quill of his amanuensis has begun to sing, the scratches on parchment become rhythmic, and in my mind’s eye, by the end of the chapter Paul is standing, arms trembling, voice crescendoing, and then he collapses to his knees as his spirit and the Spirit commune in adoration, before he has calmed and can resume penning what would become known as chapter 9.

All true theology is doxological.

Midlife Reflection of a Mature Christian

When unchallenged and unconfronted by people who know us, one inevitably becomes uncorrected and imbalanced, and lacunae develop in one’s introspection. One’s mind becomes pre-programmed to avoid these mostly unexamined and consequently sensitive areas, and it permits oneself to sally forward “assured” of our own righteousness.

Why “sensitive”? Because to examine these lacunae forces one to acknowledge a tension between the comfort our introspection has provided and the reality of our own need for repentance and forgiveness: for reformation.

As humans we seek to live a managed life, but God seems to insist that we live a formational life, and He will orchestrate circumstances to ensure that no blind spot remains unchallenged. The solution is not to exert greater control, but to confess, repent, receive forgiveness, and embrace new learning with humility and gratitude.

“What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.”

The secret to avoiding this (practically speaking) is a commitment to community: to knowing and being known. This is a determined investment in the process of becoming vulnerable to being known well and the responsibility of knowing others well. The personal character quality required is humility.

Sacrifice as Portal

Where did life begin? In Eden. In Eden were all the necessities of life: nourishment, shelter, communion, knowledge, purpose, and identity.

What is a sacrifice? The separation of body from life by a blade, and consumption of that body by fire.

What did God put at the entry to Eden? An angel with a fiery sword.

What are we to conclude? Access to life is made via sacrifice, and the life you want is a result of being separated from your flesh, and letting former things be consumed that you might find new life, no longer in the flesh, but in God.

I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1

The significance of an animal offering, the reason why the aroma of the animal turned into rising smoke becalms God’s “burning nostrils” (the Hebraic term for God being angry) is that it represents a complete offering to God, nothing is reserved, all is given, fulfillment is realized in giving up one’s tenuous claim to physical life and finding new purpose in being made living spirit-rising smoke/cloud. We think of it as violence, God views it as total dedication, and in receiving that offering He imbues the animal with spirit (transforms it into smoke, and receives it into Himself, whose glory is always seen on earth as fire or smoke, pillar or cloud).

Please consider the previous paragraph provisional. I’m exploring something here; I know I’m on to something, but I wouldn’t want to be pinned down to defending it as presently expressed.

A Perspective on Grief

In Christ, all death brings about new life.

“You started life in the cozy comfort of your mother’s womb, but then you got squeezed out, screaming. You died to the womb to come alive in the world. Then you had your first day of school, your first date, your wedding, your first child, your first grandchild, the death of your mother and father. Each of these crisis moments is a small death that shatters the world as you know it. If life carries on at all, it carries on with a new, unknown horizon. No wonder life can be terrifying. You’re constantly dying to this to come alive to that.”

Sacrifice is an act of separation, of division. The animal is divided into parts, some of which are laid on the altar, some of which are thrown away, in some cases some of which are eaten and some of which are given to God.

Adam is put into a comatose state, as if he died, and his ribs are separated. When he rises again, God has brought about new life from his side.

Christ is hung on the cross and his ribs are separated by a spearhead, and from his side flows blood and water, which gives rise to new life.

Grain yearns to reach fulfillment by virtue of being separated from its husk, ground and baked, that it might rise to new life as bread.

“Sacrifice is a pathway, a movement through death to new life. In sacrifice, we die to one state so we can rise in an exalted state.”

Are you grieving, Christian? What is dying or to what are you dying? And what is being given new life or to what new life are you rising?

This meditation was inspired by a couple sections of Theopolitan Liturgy by Peter Leithart (including pages 51 – 55). The quotes are from those pages and the ideas are restatements of, or were provoked by, ideas from the book, applied to the concept of grieving.

Confession

Vibrating with rage, the misshapen, bony finger pointed at me. “He is a law breaker,” the Adversary screamed.

I stepped behind Jesus and his shadow fell across me: “I confess, I am blameless,” I said in grateful relief.

Pondering Interrelationship

If “cultures are patterned environments of material things” we must ask, whence arises a zeitgeist? One cannot divorce the two, and yet each material thing itself has no spirit. Together, however, they engender a spirit of the age, which is unmistakably perceivable and formative.

Freedom of Speech

Tim: Prove to me that Freedom of Speech exists.

Nate: Exists in the USA or exists as a God-given right?

Tim: Both.

Nate: How do we know that free speech is a God-given right? God speaks. We are commanded to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1), therefore we must have the right to express ourselves as well.

Does the right of free speech exist in the framework of the United States? Yes. The first amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Note here that the freedom of speech is inextricably connected with the freedom to exercise one’s religion. The civil government is God’s construct; it cannot restrict what He has commanded.

To elaborate on the first paragraph… we have a God-given responsibility to speak. Responsibility invokes authority; one cannot be given a responsibility without also receiving the commensurate authority necessary to fulfill that responsibility. God speaks; God commands us to imitate Him, ergo, we have a responsibility and the inextricable authority to speak: the right to free speech, unrestricted by a construct also given its domain of authority by God. An authority which can never impose itself upon the authority given by God to other created entities, like the right to free speech, or the unregulated exercise of religion