Doodle: Blogs, Theology, and Woolworths

Woolworths FoodThere are hundreds of thousands of Christian blogs out there, reflecting the wonderfully broad spectrum of our faith; you are reading one of those right now. With the advent of the digital age more Christians from across the globe are able to share the truth in love, engage in meaningful conversation, pursue theological enquiry to the praise of our God, and encourage one another to persevere – well, that is at least how Christian blogging could be done. But with the overwhelming number of options available where should we start, which blogs should you frequent (apart from Rekindle)?

Before answering that question I would like to speak about Woolworths, with the hope that its significance to our question above will become apparent. Woolworths Food has revolutionised the middle class South African’s kitchen, mostly in demanding more fridge/freezer storage and less counter space for preparation; “Eat in for under R150,” “Heat and eat in less than 20 minutes,” and “Organic” cry out from the aisles of our local Woolies, adulating their lord and ours: convenience. As you can tell, I have enjoyed my fare share of Woolworths’ food and will unashamedly continue to do so. But it is undeniable that convenience has supplanted cooking, and by cooking I mean more than heating the oven to 180˚C while you defrost a readymade lasagne in the sink. Preparing meals from recipes and working with raw ingredients is a dying art in many homes, though my numerous attempts at actually cooking – with varied degrees of success – have nearly always resulted in something tastier than what I get out of a container. And though we hate to admit it, we know that culinary effort does not only produce better meals but much healthier dishes too.

ReadingBut what does that have to do with blog posts, or theology for that matter? Am I going to answer the question from our first paragraph, listing recommended theological blogs? No. I want to make another point: blogs are indicative of our bondage to convenience and resistance to putting the time or energy into thinking about theology. What you can find on blogs, is not that dissimilar from the aisles of Woolworths: already packed and par-cooked thoughts; microwavable musings; and Calvin’s entire theology in 5 simple points. Do not mishear me. Please keep reading Christian blogs (especially Rekindle). But do not leave all of your engagement and interaction with deep, rich theology to someone else that will neatly pack it for you online, replete with eye-catching images. Do some hard work, delve into doctrinal ideas, tackle theological tomes, and invest intellectually in reaching your own conclusions. Sure, sometimes you will have to grab something off the shelf and gobble it down. But that cannot be your staple: it is unhealthy, lazy, and the opposite of thoughtful Christian discipline.

Some Dangers of Theological Study

Theological studyI applied myself more than usual, and had an article posted at IX Marks challenging pastors who have a low evaluation of theological study and highlighting the importance of systematic theology for Bible teaching and local church ministry. In this post I want to briefly touch on some dangers inherent to theological study, both at college and in local church. My reason for doing this is balance: I may not undervalue theology, but could find myself at the other pole, where theology is self-indulgent and fails to serve God’s people. Another reason for writing this post is because, as Helmut Thielicke notes in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, love and truth are seldom combined when it comes to academic learning. And this cannot be the case for those who are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

In an old post reviewing my recent reads, I joked that I could be accused of loving books more than people, and I fear the same could sometimes be said about my enjoyment of theological inquiry. Though I do not share his sentiments, Dr Manhattan, from The Watchmen, unwittingly expresses the dangerous lure of theology, “I am tired of Earth, these people. I’m tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives,” only instead of an ivory tower he retreats to Mars. Theology is an enriching pursuit, which should be undertaken by every Christian, but we must be aware of the ease with which it can become an escape. I cannot deny the pleasure of sitting down with a cup of freshly brewed tea and Herman Bavink’s Reformed Dogmatics, but I can work hard at directing my studies to equip me to better teach and train other Christians. As former Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, in The Christian Priest Today, the church’s hold on the faith is dependant on its ministers’ ability to develop their own theology. Christian theology should never be disconnected from life, for it is the means of understanding it.

Theology cannot become a pursuit in itself. In his essay Learning in War-time, C. S. Lewis quotes from the Theologica Germanica, where the anonymous author warns against becoming lovers of knowledge – or our knowing – above the thing (we might add person) known. There are two problems with this; both are incongruent with Christian theology. Firstly, developed and deep studies can puff up, causing pride. There is a tendency amongst the learned to become condescending. This is a travesty, since true theology cannot but create humility as we reflect on our creatureliness, God’s glorious holiness, and gospel of unmerited grace. Secondly, theology can become idolatry if we love our knowing more than what is known, our Lord and God. As Lewis says, the intellectual life is not the only pathway to God, it is a treacherous path beset with dangers to carefully consider. What does it profit a theologian if she authors numerous works, earns a tenured professorship, and is awarded more PhDs than he can fit on her office walls, if she loses her soul?

Dr ManhattanAbove, I mentioned Thielicke’s unassuming but profound book. One of my lecturers at college encouraged us to read and reflect on it annually, and I am grateful for his counsel. In fact, I am tempted to say the book is worth owning for Martin Marty’s introduction alone. In it, he makes a few painfully incisive points about studying theology. He challenges the alienating piety of those who claim to know more than any reasonable finitude allows, and calls out the abstraction and aloofness that characterises many theologians and their relationship with the local church. But, in my opinion, his best point is on the odium theologicum, “The pettiness of little men who care much about big issues.” As I conclude, let us remember that theological study is when little creatures claim to understand an infinite God, let alone big issues. We can barely afford pettiness, must learn humility, and are failing if our knowledge does not move us to worship God and serve his people.

More from Robert Alter: Theological Observations

The art of biblical narrativeI recently posted some gleanings from The Art of Biblical narrative by Robert Alter, highlighting his convincing exhibition of a literary approach to Old Testament narratives and a selection of his critical engagement with modern textual criticism. In this post, I am going to briefly relate some of the helpful conclusions Alter reaches with regards to Old Testament theology. And to keep this post from being nothing more than a compendium of quotes, I have tried to supplement and develop the author’s thoughts with others’. In brief, we will cover an aspect of God’s nature, the human condition, an intersection of divine will and human failure, and the need for faith.

(1) Yahweh is not manipulated. After working through Numbers 22-24, in which Balak, the fearful king of Moab, hires the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel, Alter concludes: “Paganism, with its notion that divine powers can be manipulated by a caste of professionals through a set of carefully prescribed procedures is trapped in the reflexes of a mechanistic worldview while from the biblical perspective reality is in fact controlled by the will of an omnipotent God beyond all human manipulation” (p134). Yahweh is omnipotent. He is neither conquered nor controlled. That was the unavoidable conclusion reached and application made when I preached 1 Samuel 5-7, when the Philistines capture the Ark. First, Israel thought that carrying the Ark to battle would thwart the Philistines (4:3-4), only to learn Yahweh is not controlled as they are defeated (4:10-11). Secondly, the triumphant Philistines set up the Ark in the house of their God, Dagon (5:1-2), signifying they had conquered Yahweh. But as the story unfolds the Ark is passed from town to town with alacrity for Yahweh’s hand is heavy against his enemies (see 5:6, 7, 9, 11; 6:3, 5). The reader thus observes how both the Israelites and the Philistines misunderstood Yahweh’s omnipotence. As Alter says, Yahweh is beyond all human manipulation. To quote D.A. Carson, in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God: “He is unchanging in his being, purposes and perfections.”

Wood carving - Joseph(2) Old Testament anthropology. Because the dominant communicative vehicle of Old Testament stories is dialogue and narrative we are not privileged to introspection and the thoughts behind characters’ actions, characterisation is difficult and quite often unclear. For as Alter says: acts are performed and words are pronounced. That being said, he convincingly shows how Hebrew narrative provides fine insight into the abiding perplexities of man’s creaturely condition (p220). In my previous post I highlighted one of Alter’s more novel points; he argues that whoever gave shape to the integrated Hebrew text may have chosen to combine different versions that on the surface appear contradictory but actually reveal something conflicted about his subject (p181). He models this in his brief commentary on the story of the patriarch Joseph and summates, “the Bible brings us into an inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions, and the strong but sometimes confusing threads that bind the two” (p219; more of this below). Wonderfully worded, he describes mankind’s inner turmoil, “Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man” (p183). The lives of God’s people repeatedly bring out this conflict, within each person and before Yahweh.

(3) Yahweh’s election and human failings. Flowing from the above point to the intersection the omnipotent God and his rebellious creatures, “One of the most probing general perceptions of the biblical writers is that there is often a tension, sometimes perhaps even an absolute contradiction, between election and moral character” (p147). In contrast with competing ideas in the ancient world, the Hebrew conception of man as free in God’s image is fairly unique; God affords his creatures great dignity in placing them as viceroys over his world. Only, as we know, man uses his freedom to rebel against the divine will, which would suggest a irreparable breakdown between creature and Creator, as well as an unworkable incongruence of interest. For man is not only free and rebellious, but even the elect are morally imperfect and worryingly ambiguous characters. Yet, Alter writes, “The human figures in the large biblical landscape act as free agents out of the impulses of a memorable and often fiercely assertive individuality but the actions they perform all ultimately fall into the symmetries and recurrences of God’s comprehensive design” (p141). This point is picked up by Michael Horton in Introducing Covenant Theology, “[Abraham and David’s] personal mistakes (amply recorded) are incapable of thwarting God’s purposes”, not only because of Yahweh’s omnipotence but also because by his unilateral and unconditional promises. Though God’s elect often exhibit questionable morality, inconsistent with their call, neither their status nor God’s electing purposes are endangered by the failure of God’s people.

Faith and vapour(4) Man must live before God. The biblical narratives, properly read, “tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). We read in Ecclesiastes that life is a vapour, impossible to grasp and uncontrollably transient, always slipping through our hands. It is in these snatched lifetimes that, “Every human agent must be allowed the freedom to struggle with his or her destiny through his or her own words and acts” (p109). Every individual, “in the evanescence of a single lifetime” must untangle the twisted and knotted fibres of “intentions, emotions, and calculations” that constitute our human personality (p110). Alter thinks that the power and enduring appeal of biblical narrative is the translation of this human experience into story, dialogue and event, “Almost the whole range of biblical narrative…embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others” (p24). The answer that the Old Testament narratives supply, to how we might live in this unstable and ambiguous world, is starkly ingenuous: faith.

Redeeming Origen: The Godly Heretic

Early church fathers - OrigenIf you know anything about Origen, then chances are that it’s one of two things: he emasculated himself in striving for sexual purity, and his theology undergirds Rob Bell’s universalistic enterprise. Simply put, he was harmfully ascetic and perilously heretical. But I fear the modern perceptions of Origen ignore that he was a man of uncommon zeal, who possessed the rare combination of intellectual brilliance and genuine humility. Church historian Williston Walker says there was no man of purer spirit or nobler aims in the early church than Origen. In Origen we meet a man who desired to present the Christian faith in its splendid array of practical truths which capture whole people for Christ.

The scope and reach of his theological works are unparalleled for his time; including the Hexapla, commentaries and notes on most of Scripture, apologetics, practically rich sermons, and one of the earliest systematic theologies in Christendom, De Principiis. The necessary qualification to make regarding his list of achievements is that he was for the most part consistent with the church tradition and teaching of his age, this included a rudimentary Trinitarianism and the view that Scripture was inspired. But being a child of Alexandrian thinking, Origen was heavily influenced by Hellenistic philosophy. This meant that beyond the literal meaning of Scripture he believed there was a deeper and more spiritual meaning. So Origen popularised allegorical interpretation. His emphasis on the place of philosophy in theology, coupled with the desire to add knowledge to faith, was both the strongest and weakest aspect of Origen’s writing.

De Principiis - OrigenAn entire blog post could be, and many probably have been, written studying the relationship between Origen’s Christian theology and Platonic philosophy, or his contemporary, Plotinus. I will leave it up to you to write or read those posts, elsewhere. It will suffice to say that ultimately Origen’s theological structure collapsed because it was largely built on Platonism. His Platonic view of humanity concluded that our entire life, as pre-existence creatures who suffer in the shadow world, Plato’s cave, is a kind of purgatory, and therefore salvation meant returning to the spiritual reality. This demonstrates his theological method, which often overlooked Scripture in favour of philosophy.

It is not difficult to conclude, with many Christians today, that Origen’s speculative and philosophical bent derailed his theological system and imports dangerous ideas into our own. However, I would suggest another conclusion to consider: Origen demonstrates the inquisitive character necessary for theology. Christian theology, the prayerful study of our infinite God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and his Son, is carried out by fallen and finite creatures. Therefore, as Kelly Kapic says, we must avoid the path of pride burdened by defensiveness and unmoving self-assurance. Even a brief survey of church history reveals a maze of treatises, doctrinal formulations and theological debates that urge us to be weary of being too dogmatic. Of course, Scripture remains foundational and biblical exegesis must drive our systematics, but we are fools when we put aside inquisitive thinking out of rigid preference for what is already established.

There is, I think, another valuable lesson to learn when we study Origen: though we might disagree with other Christians’ theological positions (and there is a place for publically challenging divergent schools of thought) we should be slower to condemn Christians on the basis of their theology and rather observe God’s transforming grace in their lives. Origen was a great man who lived before God, actively pursuing a life of obedience and ultimately dying for the glory of Christ. How quickly we forget that God desires right hearts before right theology. Donald Macleod, in The Person of Christ, writes that Evangelicalism has always recognised that, “Someone may have little knowledge of the great creeds and yet have a real, living faith in Christ” meaning that while it is sometimes necessary to denounce a man’s heretical teaching we should also pay full tribute to their piety. That is the difficult path that we must navigate today.

Clarity

clarityGraham has recently done some thinking on clarity so I wanted to write to clarify my views, not so much for the reader but for my own sake. My major concern with popular articulations of clarity (or, if you prefer, perspicuity) is its limitation to the “gospel”. That is, the definition that goes something like, “Clarity is that doctrine by which we mean the elements essential to salvation are clear in Scripture”. The implication of this definition is that there are parts of Scripture that are unclear and this implication is leveraged as an explanation of why differing interpretations arise from a single passage.

Two important points the proponents of clarity make are (1) Scripture interprets Scripture (the unclear in light of the clear) and (2) clarity is not partial (that is, the “elements essential to salvation” are not only partially clear; they are fully clear). This is because the idea of clarity, if partial, is emptied of meaning: how is the interpreter to know which bit is unclear and which bit is clear? Following this, how is the interpreter to know which bits of Scripture to interpret in light of which others? Both of these points are important Scripture must guide our reading of Scripture and for clarity to mean clarity, it cannot be partial.

focusMy concern, however, is that by limiting clarity to “the elements essential to salvation” we are defining our clarity as partial. This leads, in my mind, to having to say that if we disagree about what is essential to salvation, either we must acknowledge that it is not essential (since it is not clear, and what is essential is clear), or we must conclude that our opponent is not a Christian since he cannot see what is clear. In our day and age we would probably opt for the former and the outcome would be a lowest common denominator kind of ecumenical Christianity but there are those who would err on the other side ending up with a “my way or the highway” type of Christianity. Let me, therefore, articulate the points I would want to make about clarity.

What Clarity Is

First and foremost, clarity is the promise of God to communicate. Scripture, as the revelation of God, is His Word to us; we no longer have prophets but we do have the written Word, the communication of the incarnate Word. If Scripture is not clear, God fails at his attempt to communicate. Clarity flows from the character of God as light, communicating himself to us and penetrating our darkness.

Second, the promise of clarity is not to say that the truth is equally accessible and comprehensible to all though. Rather, clarity is the promise that the truth is there and it can be searched out. Varying interpretations do not testify against clarity as though the commentators were wanderers in the dark. Nor does our clarity mean that each commentator is coming to his own truth as though the meaning is wrapped up in the subjectivity of each reader. Rather, varying interpretations testify to the fact that there is something to be gained by grappling with the text and more so in community with others who approach the same text illumined by the Spirit. Hermeneutics and exegesis are not aimless exercises where anything hit becomes a target; clarity teaches that truth is there to be sought.

informationFinally, the promise of clarity is unique to the reading of Scripture. This means that, where in any other field of reading and understanding, critical and creative thinking are at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, this is not the case when reading Scripture. The telos of the communication of God is not information but transformation. The scientific study that common grace affords the unbeliever does not, therefore, achieve the purpose of reading Scripture. The objective meaning of Scripture does not arrive at the recipient as a quiet guest but as one who would ransack the house of the sinful mind leaving everything on its head.

agree? disagree? tell me what you think…

Review: Five Books From 2013

In my last year of high school, for final assessment, I was summoned for external moderation on my English portfolio. Back then we had to list five books we had read during the year, three non-fiction and two fiction titles. Though that transcended the borders of impossible for my eighteen-year-old self, discovering reading as a young Christian meant that today I engage with more books than ever before but unfortunately have no moderation board to discuss them with. Enter you. In an attempt to atone for missed opportunities I will offer quick reviews of three theological books and two novels I have read this year that, incidentally, I think you would do well to read yourself. (I will include a brief quote from each hopefully to whet your appetite).

God crucified - Richard BauckhamGod Crucified: Monotheism And Christology In The New Testament by Richard Bauckham. To my shame and loss I never investigated Richard Bauckham at college. In God Crucified he presents a sharp and succinct treatment of Second Temple Judaism and why Jewish monotheism did not rule out the possibilities of other hypostases in God’s nature and being, revealed in the Old Testament. Bauckham argues that the early church did indeed possess a high Christology, which was entirely consistent with Second Temple Judaism. This flies in the face of skeptical readers of history and Scripture who believe that the full divinity of Jesus Christ was only reached through a process of creedal developments along with the increasing influence of Hellenistic philosophy and categories. But Bauckham does very well in attempting, very briefly, to show that the writers of the New Testament were convinced that Christ being fully God did not challenge the Jewish understanding of God’s nature. I am very much looking forward to reading his expansion of this work, Jesus And The God Of Israel.

“[The] identity of the God of Israel does not exclude the unexpected and surprising…God’s freedom as God requires his freedom from all human expectations, even those based on his revealed identity…He is both free and faithful. He is not capricious but nor is he predictable. He may be trusted to be consistent with himself, but he may surprise in the ways he proves consistent with himself” (p71-72).

Discipleship of the mind - James SireDiscipleship Of The Mind by James Sire. Most coffee dates in Cape Town with my friend Marcus included some discussion of Christian worldview. And Sire’s book was always mentioned as the key work in laying foundations for engaging with our world, its thinkers, philosophies and ideas. Having read Discipleship Of The Mind I can now echo Marcus’ recommendation. Sire does not attempt to critique other worldviews in this volume, as he does in The Universe Next Door , but instead provides crucial and pointed distinctives of the Christian worldview, which inform our engagement with other worldviews and also give confidence in the terra firma of Christian intellectual endeavor. This should be a set work for any theological student and prescribed reading for every Christian, not that those two groups do not overlap.

“Knowledge and belief are in the same categories. Both have to do with matters of truth…When a claim is made for the truth of the Christian religion, the response comes back, “It’s true for you. But it doesn’t have to be true for me.”…Countering this view is very difficult. The “value” of tolerance is so ingrained on campus, that any exclusive claim is rejected before it is considered rationally. Of course, it follows – as night follows day – that if the God of the Bible exists, he exists…His existence is fact. So is any moral orientation he may have” (p101).

Holiness - John WebsterHoliness by John Webster. In usual fashion I came late to the party and only latched onto John Webster in my fourth year of theological study. That was perhaps providential since his writing is very, very demanding. Holiness was helpful in writing my dissertation on sanctification and this year I was able to give it some undivided attention. Despite its brevity I am tempted to say that Webster’s offering is too difficult to distill, probably because I still have not fully comprehended it. The introduction establishes the grounds of Webster’s work: dogmatic and Trinitarian. These are vital distinctions because from the outset Webster is free to present Christian theology, traditionally and historically, as well as ultimately scripturally, on its own terms; and most basic to these terms are God’s self-revelation and presence as Trinity. In the rest of the book Webster provides an invaluable argument for God’s holiness, which is both positive and negative, he shows how Christians enjoy ‘alien sanctity’ (to borrow Barth’s language), and how important these aspects of holiness are for Christian life. Webster also has a chapter on ‘Scripture as holy’, the sanctified creaturely word. And this is where most Evangelicals will part ways with Webster, as well as where I need to seriously engage with his arguments (Carson has done this in Collected Writings On Scripture). Webster’s writing is rich, refreshing and required.

“But, if fellowship is a condition and not merely one possibility for my ironic self to entertain, then in building common life – in culture, politics and ethics – I resist the relationlessness of sin into which I may drift, and, sanctified by Christ and Spirit, I realize my nature as one created for holiness” (p97).

The shining girls - Lauren BeukesThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. For the first time in my short history of reviewing books I can say I am on the cutting edge as this title was only released last month. I was spellbound from the first page. When you look past Beukes’ fascinating observations about people, the way they think, and life in general, you are encountered by a grippingly complex thriller moving backwards and forwards through 60 years, and between compelling characters. Though less futuristic and otherworldly than her earlier works Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes retains the mysterious and vivid collision of grittiness and the ethereal that made those titles so intriguing. But to that she has added a familiar landscape, setting the narrative in Chicago, anywhere between the depression and vibrant 90s. While less imagination is spent on conjuring up the unrecognisable future, more is required in trying to solve the genius of a murderer who is not bound by time, except perhaps his future.

“He is tracing his fingertip over the lines drawn between the stars transfixed. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. Ursa Major. Orion with his belt and sword. But they could just as easily be something else if you connected the dots differently. And who is to say that is a bear or a warrior at all? It damn well doesn’t look that way to him. There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might be random. He feels undone by the revelation. He has the sensation of losing his footing, as if the whole damn world is stuttering” (p252).

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo IshiguroNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Lastly, Ishiguro and his story that I unfortunately encountered on screen (in the 2010 film adaption, screenplay by Alex Garland) before paper. Somewhat of a desperately hopeless gauntlet from beginning to end, Ishiguro’s sparse style matches aridity of the narrative. His characters are engrossingly developed but never over-complicated. The combination of this and Ishiguro’s matter-of-fact writing leaves the reader wanting more from every page, either because the haunting simplicity of reality expressed is disturbing or merely that each scene, conversation and reflection begs for expansion. This is a book that you will abhor and adore simultaneously, both for good reasons. If you fail to feel the overwhelming sense of loss and wishful longing – which is often understated as ‘a sad novel’ – then you have failed to let the narrative sink in.

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end we can’t stay together forever” (p282).