Tag Archives: Theology

The evangelical abdication of Truth; or, Two out of three is really, really bad


truth on handsWork continues on my book-in-progress, Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. The chapter with the working title “Passion for theology” has been kicking my butt up and down the street for a few days, but I got up at 4 this morning and the introduction finally came together. Here it is:

In the charismatic church where I came to Christ as a young man, we couldn’t wait for Sunday. Week after week we experienced such rich, life-changing ministry in worship and prayer. Night after night, the altar was jammed with eager worshippers seeking a “touch from the Lord.” And it seemed like He was always there to meet us and put his loving arms around us. After the service, we would leave the building with our hearts bursting with gratitude and joy. We even joked that it might not be safe to drive in that condition! And it didn’t take much prodding for us to evangelize, either: who wouldn’t want to share such riches?

I will always be grateful for those days, and for the divine condescension that worked among us with such power. Some folks accuse charismatics of not giving God or Christ his due. “There’s so much ‘me’ language in their songs,” they grump. And sure, our worship could become self-indulgent. But the critics just don’t “get” why charismatics use the first person so much in church. It’s because they live in constant awe that the God of Creation condescends to save and to love even them. What a God, who meets us in our brokenness and wraps his arms around us like the father with the prodigal son! The charismatic experience of God is like every love song on the radio. Try writing one of those without using the first person!

More than all of this, we loved church because we knew that we came away from it changed. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of imperfection in our lives. But along with the love-fest came real personal transformation: Sins confessed. Grace experienced. Old wounds healed. Broken relationships restored. Release from addictions. God not only loved us—he made us better people. We experienced not only the Beauty of his presence among us, but also the Goodness that came from the operation of his Spirit in our hearts.

But here’s the thing. As the Greek philosophers knew, humans cannot live on Beauty and Goodness alone. There is a third realm necessary for human flourishing: the realm of Truth. And in that area, I sensed that the charismatic church of my twenties was standing on thin ice. Many of our key teachings came from self-taught celebrity preachers who skewed heavily to the topical—and away from the exegetical—end of the preaching spectrum. Their messages were rousing, to be sure. They got the people standing on their feet and coming up to the altar. But by dint of stringing together out-of-context Bible verses with some homespun wisdom, these teachers took us down some garden paths: The prosperity gospel. Blame-the-victim faith healing. Demon-in-every-doorknob spiritual warfare. We fell over ourselves to get to all that wonderful Beauty and Goodness, and we left Truth in the ditch. Continue reading

We must not abdicate the theological task – a word from C S Lewis and the medievals


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux united love of God and attention to theology: he was NOT the opponent of philosophical theology that many portray him as.

Another draft clip from the “passion for theology” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis:

So, Lewis sought wisdom through philosophy, and that wisdom led him on a path to Christianity. But he never stopped being a philosopher—even in writing his famous children’s books. One remembers Professor Digory’s exclamation in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

For us, on the other hand, the temptation is perhaps the opposite—having found Christianity, we see no use for a reasoned exploration of Truth. What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we evangelicals cannot content ourselves with seeking after the charismatic experience of the “beauty of God’s holiness,” or even with the practical pursuit of that holiness in our own hearts and actions. As the classical philosophers taught all subsequent generations, Beauty and Goodness are but two of our proper ends. The third is Truth. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can only remain so if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians would agree with all theists that God is the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.

For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of philosophical theology; that is the job of academic theologians, as it is of the pastors they train to grasp at least the bones and sinews of theology (seminaries certainly have as their primary task the training of theologically intelligent pastors). But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology.[1] Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.

If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of my readers have been formed, philosophy has always been a way of life. So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas . . . and pointing back to these, C.S. Lewis as the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” who  translates their medieval ideas for us.[2]


[1] The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”

[2] By the way, by distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty, so to speak, in a waterfall. And from that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving the search for theological truth, and even perhaps to a degree scientific truth, the early and medieval church history, is not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful.

Theology for workers in the pews


Other 100,000 Hours image from InTrust article

This is the second half of a two-part article that appeared in the Winter and Spring 2013 issues of InTrust magazine. Both parts, with full graphic treatment, appear here. This half focuses on what seminaries and churches can do to help heal the divide between faith and work in many Christians’ lives today.

Theology for Workers in the Pews

In the last issue of InTrust, Chris R. Armstrong wrote that churches are good at helping people find meaning on Sunday morning, but during the “other 100,000 hours”—the lifetime that people spend earning their daily bread — pastors often have little to contribute. This is unfortunate, because when people labor, it’s possible for them to be co-laborers with Christ who both build up the world, helping it flourish, and also grow in grace, learning new disciplines.

Read the full article at www.intrust.org/work.

In this companion article, Armstrong describes how schools and organizations are making connections between faith and work. In some cases, organizations are helping business leaders to think ethically and theologically. In other cases, they’re helping clergy to engage more intelligently with business leaders in congregations.

Let’s take as given that work matters—it matters to God, and it is most people’s primary arena of discipleship. And let’s agree that the primary role of seminaries and theological schools is to form pastors and scholars who teach and lead people in discipleship. Therefore, it makes sense that theological education should serve a vital role in making the connection between faith and work.

Yet most theological schools are not doing this well. Continue reading

Shipping unwanted theological books around the world: The Theological Book Network


Folks, something very, very good is happening in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with potential to impact the Christian Church worldwide. Two articles in a city newspaper explain:

KENTWOOD — Talking amid shelves of books in a warehouse littered with huge boxes of even more books, Kurt Berends offered one perspective on the work of the nonprofit organization he started four years ago: “We’re waste removal.”

Of course, that’s only half the story. The real magic of Theological Book Network comes in turning academic trash from U.S. libraries into treasure for under-resourced areas in other parts of the world.

The small but growing operation takes unwanted books from U.S. schools and ships them to schools in Africa, southeast Asia and eastern Europe. Continue reading

What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man. Continue reading

A little guide to Augustine’s thought on sin, freedom, and grace


TolleLege

"Tolle Lege" - Augustine's famous garden conversion, in a later, fanciful rendering

Following up on a previous post, this is something I cooked up while working as a “preceptor” at Duke–that is, leading seminars for students taking a course (in this case Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation), in which we interacted in more depth with the primary documents.

This one’s on that Great Brain of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. It includes a few “notes to myself” about how to lead such a seminar, since as a doctoral student I was still wet behind the ears on this important matter of pedagogy. I wish I could remember which sourcebook we were using for the Augustine quotations. I could go try to figure it out from old syllabi, if anyone’s interested:

A pronunciation suggestion

One of the first and most basic problems we have to deal with when we talk about this great North African theologian is this:  [write on board]  Is it AUG-us-teen or au-GUS-tin?  It makes no difference to me which we say, but somewhere along the way, I was told that if you want to make it at a party with a bunch of church historians, you need to use au-GUS-tin for this man from Hippo, and reserve AUG-us-teen for the archbishop installed in England by the Pope around the year 600, who tried to bring the Celtic [or is that SSSeltic?] church into line.

In any case, it doesn’t matter to me how we pronounce it today.  Saying AUG-us-teen won’t lower your grade…much.

Getting into Augustine’s thought:

1.  Write on the board:  “posse non peccare,” “non posse non peccare,” “non posse peccare.”

2.  Start with the background from Latourette, to put Augustine in context with (1) the E/W distinctions S. has made, (2) some other “fathers,” (3) Augustine’s own personal history.

3.  Deal with quoted sections from Augustine, below, one by one, allowing conversation to develop as it will.  If this serves to jumpstart the process of “dealing with Augustine on freedom,” well and good.  I needn’t return to the quotations.  If things slow down, however, I can reopen with, “what about this statement: [quotation].  What is Augustine saying here and what do we think about it?”

4.  Throughout the process, resist going too far off into either what we think about Augustine (though that’s inevitable) or, especially, whether Wesley (Calvin, Luther, Joe Blow) would have agreed with Augustine.  It is OK to do this now and again, but as in a Bible study, let’s return to the text.  We need to discipline ourselves to do that because it is often so much easier to talk about our own opinions or those of our church traditions, than to confront and work through the thought of the person we are studying.

5.  For the second half (or third, or quarter, or last five minutes) of the class, survey Augustine’s thought on (1) the status, (2) person, (3) and work of Christ, as well as (4) the Holy Spirit, (5) the Trinity, (6) the Church, (7) the Sacraments, and (8) the Last Things. Continue reading

A little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon representing the Council of Nicea

Back in the late 1990s, when I was a doctoral student at Duke, they used to give us PhD hopefuls “preceptorials.” That meant you helped a senior professor in their courses, as a teaching assistant. The professor did the lectures, and you led discussion in weekly seminar sessions for the same course.

Digging through some old files the other day, I found this little talk I gave to a group taking Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation, on the day of their first seminar session. Dr. Steinmetz taught in the mode of “intellectual history”: opening up to his students some of the more important, and often difficult, theological discussions that engaged the great minds of the early church.

This talk of mine is intended to give students who didn’t necessarily have any background in historical or theological studies some strategies to get through the experience of the course, and to learn and grow along the way. Part of it is in “talking ’em off the ledge” mode, recognizing that the study of early Christian theology can look pretty arcane and intimidating. And part of it suggests some intellectual and practical strategies to get the most out of their studies. 

If I had to do the talk today, I’d make some changes–and indeed I do cover some of these things in my courses now. But other things I had forgotten, and will be reviving in my courses. So here it is: a “little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners”: Continue reading