Resourcing Discussions Concerning Racism, Privilege, and Contextual Theology

I was asked to provide a list of resources I have found helpful in thinking and shaping issues concerning racism and privilege. I’ve added resources that also deal with contextual theology because we all read from a place, a position, a framework. Privilege is often assumed and is typically hidden from our eyes, especially when we benefit from those systems. As such, it is helpful to be made aware of our position and its underlying assumptions.

Many of these titles have been very formative for me. Some of the ones I will list have been good to read just to hear dissenting voices from my own. I don’t necessarily agree with every position taken in every book, but I have learned something from each one and therefore offer them as helpful starting points to further conversation and learning. I will also try to categorize each book so that they can be held together with other books that approach privilege, racism, and contextual theology through a particular lens (i.e., preaching, community development, etc.). Some of these resources do not deal with privilege directly, but I certainly see application and overlap. I hope these are helpful!

PREACHING

  • Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope by Luke Powery
  • Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil by Christine M. Smith
  • Toward a Womanist Homiletic: Katie Canon, Alice Walker, and Emancipatory Proclamation by Donna E. Allen
  • They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas (A development of Dr. Henry Mitchell’s Celebration and Experience in Preaching)
  • Listening to Listeners: Homiletical Case Studies by John McClure
  • Decolonizing Preaching: The Pulpit as Postcolonial Space by Sarah Travis
  • Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World by Otis Moss III
  • The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence by Richard Lischer
  • The Liberating Pulpit by Justo Gonzalez
  • The Word Before the Powers by Charles Campbell
  • Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World – And Our Preaching – Is Changing by David Lose
  • Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art by Leonora Tubbs Tisdale
  • The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching by Kenyatta Gilbert
  • Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall by Courtney Pace
  • Dietrich: Bonhoeffer and the Theology of a Preaching Life by Michael Pasquarello III
  • African American Preaching: The Contribution of Gardner C. Taylor by Gerald Lamont Thomas

HERMENEUTICS/INTERPRETATION

  • Reading from this Place, Vol. 1 by Fernando F. Segovia (collection of essays)
  • Soundings in Cultural Criticism: Perspectives and Methods in Culture, Power, and Identity in the New Testament by Francisco Lozada, Jr.
  • Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning by Paul Riceour
  • Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith

COMMUNITY DEVELOP/ PARISH MINISTRY

  • When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett
  • Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development by Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Spark
  • The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings by Wendell Berry
  • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry

Theology/Ethics/Memoirs

  • Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
  • The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings
  • Naming the Powers by Walter Wink
  • Unmasking the Powers by Walter Wink
  • Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink
  • Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley
  • Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church by William Cavanaugh
  • Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William Cavanaugh
  • Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time by William Cavanaugh
  • The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender, and the Quest for God by Sarah Coakley
  • The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics by Stanley Hauerwas (collected essays)
  • Prayers for a Privileged People by Walter Brueggemann
  • Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings
  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
  • Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores by Dominique DuBois Gilliard
  • The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved by Emerson Powery and Rodney Sadler, Jr.
  • Can “White” People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission by Love Sechrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, Amos Yong, et al
  • A New Sense of Direction” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi
  • God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu
  • The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings
  • “The Content and Method of Black Theology” by James Cone (The Journal of Religious Thought)

MISSIONS

  • Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem Revisited by Jonathan Bonk
  • Cross-cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission by Mary T. Lederleitner
  • Going Global: A Congregation’s Introduction to Mission Beyond Our Borders by Gary Nelson
  • Serving With Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-term Missions with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore
  • Ministering Cross-culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by Sherwood Lingenfelter

FICTION

  • Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
  • A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

POP CULTURE

  • Decoded by Jay-Z (preachers should read this)
  • Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz

DOCUMENTARIES/FILMS

  • “Just Mercy”
  • “The Banker”
  • “Hidden Figures”
  • “13th”
  • “Schindler’s List”
  • “Le Chambon: La Colline Aux Mille Enfants”
  • “Of Gods and Men”
  • “Roots”
  • “The Mission”
  • “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom”
  • “Selma”
  • “Mississippi Burning”

Sermons

(start around 30:38 mark)

The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley

I’ve read through this book twice in the past couple of years.  This is a very basic primer to John Wesley’s theology.  It is very accessible and easy to read.  Harper does a great job of introducing the reader to a short biography of Wesley and walking the reader through the basic thought of John Wesley’s theology as it pertains to salvation.  I would recommend this as a great way to become acquainted with Wesley.

John L. McKenzie – Old Testament Theologian

Life and Times of John McKenzie

John L. McKenzie (1910-1991) was born and raised inTerre Haute, Indiana.  “[John] received his training in Jesuit schools in Kansas and Ohio and at Weston College,Massachusetts, where he received his doctorate in sacred theology” (Flowering of the Old Testament 170).  Ordained in 1939 as a priest, McKenzie taught at West Baden, Indiana; Loyola University; the University of Chicago; the University of Notre Dame; and DePaul University (Flowering of the Old Testament 170).  Also, McKenzie served as the president of the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature (Old Testament Theology 140).

Theologically, Roman Catholic theologians of this time, as in times past, relied heavily on “dogmatic” or “systemic theology” (Flowering of the Old Testament 169).  McKenzie, however, did not follow the traditional approaches to theology.  In fact, being an astute scholar and theologian, McKenzie often challenged “systematic” theologies.  Before McKenzie’s interactions with theology “the nineteenth century saw the rise of the historical and literary criticism which has dominated biblical studies up to the present time” (20).  This paradigm shift influenced how scholars examined the Bible during the Great Wars, particularly World War II, which was one of the most influential of these events that shaped Old Testament theology in the twentieth century.  Reventlow stated:

“…the altered intellectual climate resulted in the revival of a direct interest in the Bible on the part of Christian believers.  This movement, which began shortly before and during the Second World War in Great Britain, combined a concern for a commitment to faith to the Bible on all parts of believers with a marked interest in all its aspects, so that the question of theological significance of the Old Testament and its relationship to the new played a major part in the discussion (1).

This concern shaped much of John McKenzie’s theology in being committed to the “faith of the Bible on all parts” (1).  His work would push this concern throughout his Old Testament theology and shape a new perspective with which to encounter the text.

John McKenzie’s Theological Methodology

            McKenzie wrote, “The task of Old Testament theology may become easier and be more successfully accomplished if we remember that it is precisely the theology of the Old Testament, not the exegesis of the Old Testament, not the history of religion of Israel, not the theology of the entire Bible, which is the object of the study” (Old Testament Theology 141).  In other words, McKenzie desired to view the Old Testament as a theological statement of the community of faith and their “total experience” of Yahweh.  Unlike Roman Catholic theology, which often had “messianic” interpretations of the Old Testament, McKenzie wanted to divorce the Old Testament interpretation from New Testament impositions on that interpretation (Old Testament Theology 142-43).  This has been extremely important in the ensuing studies of Old Testament.  Ollenburger notes the shift, “Several writers later in the century show greater sensitivity to the tie of the Old Testament with Judaism as well as with Christianity” (Flowering of the Old Testament 47).

McKenzie did not believe that Yahweh could be “rationally systematized” but was a Being “consistent as a person” (Flowering of the Old Testament 52).  However, he did believe that the Old Testament could only be studied through thematic study of the material.

On this basis, McKenzie focuses on the cult, revelation through authentic spokespersons of Yahweh, history, nature, wisdom, institutions, and the future of Israel although he thought the last not to be a real topic of Old Testament theology.   For McKenzie, the primary principle for the selection of topics is the amount of coverage they receive in the text  and in the totality of the experience ofIsraelin addition to their ‘profundity’ (Hayes 253).

The focus on the reality of YHWH was and is a foundational key inIsrael’s overall experience with YHWH.  Overall, the experiences which influenced the beliefs of the Israelites were recorded in the Old Testament, which leads one to understand the role of Old Testament theology today to be, in part, to present a synthesis ofIsrael’s experience.  This experience was not a means, for John McKenzie, to compose “a set of ideas for doctrine” (Flowering of the Old Testament 52).

This emphasis of experience gave way to McKenzie’s principle of “cult.”  McKenzie asserted, “The essential nature of cult as the rites by which the believing community recognizes and professes its identity and proclaims what it believes about the deity it worships and the relations between the deity and the worshipers” (Flowering of the Old Testament 187).  For McKenzie, cult was not a “personal religion” of one person but rather the expression and experience of a “group” as a “profession of faith” (McKenzie 33).  In other words, we are studyingIsrael’s experiences which we must separate from our own biases and presuppositions (i.e. New Testament interpretations) in order to understand the explicit and implicit realities of the text.  “In the cult Yahweh is experienced as the God of Israel rather than as the God of the world and mankind” (Flowering of the Old Testament 186).

One of the most central ideas of cult is rooted in the use of sacred space.  This includes, but is not relegated to the: Jerusalem Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the tent of meeting and other various spaces throughout Israel’s history, including the “high places” (Flowering of Old Testament 182).  “The building of the temple was the climactic act of sovereignty asserted in creation” (Flowering of Old Testament 181).  The sacred spaces of Israelwere a way in which to encounter Yahweh.  According to the Old Testament, “the cult of Yahweh shall be carried on only at the sanctuary which he has chosen” (Flowering of the Old Testament 182).  This sacred space used symbols and “holy objects” to represent the “divine presence”  More than that, “He really dwells ‘in the midst of his people’” (Flowering of Old Testament 178).  There is a delicate balance found in these sacred spaces

Reflection upon McKenzie’s Method and Contribution

John McKenzie’s work sought to view the Old Testament as a work totally separate from the New Testament.  This method recognizes that the Old Testament is a work that can stand alone with its own interpretation apart from the New Testament, especially implicit messianic theology.  The Old Testament, in McKenzie’s opinion, sought to communicate who YHWH was and whatIsraelhad been called to be, namely a “holy priesthood.”  As a result, the Old Testament was not written to explain the New Testament but to documentIsrael’s interaction with YHWH through their entire history to that point.  Hasel argues this point, “the category of operation in McKenzie’s Old Testament theology is ‘the totality of experience’ expressed in the God-talk of the Old Testament.  Since ‘not every biblical experience of YHWH, not every fragment of God-talk, is of equal profundity,’ the object of Old Testament theology is to be governed by the ‘experience of the totality’” (59).  McKenzie believed that all parts of the Old Testament, while varying in depth of insight, must be included in performing the task of theology.

The “cult” is the primary “foundation” of McKenzie’s theology while “Future Israel” retains the lowest position for Old Testament understanding” (Hasel 68).  This underlines the importance of the worshiping community for which these scriptures were written.  The totality of McKenzie’s theology contributes to the ways in which the more liberal fields of theological studies examine the Old Testament text.  For example, McKenzie’s focus on the totality of experience reflects many of the ways that Black theologians view the interactions between their people and YHWH.  Black theology, for example, recognizes every experience is not as profound as the next; however, they recognize that the whole of these experiences shape the way the group defines their relationship to YHWH.

John McKenzie’s approach to Old Testament theology provided a fresh, vibrant perspective.  Rather than simply be confined and restrained by dogmatic or systematic doctrines, McKenzie sought to allow the text to speak of its own accord.  Since the text and its community had a life of its own, it deserved to be treated as such.  McKenzie called the theological community to interpret the text through the lens of the Old Testament community rather than through systematic dogma.  This challenges us to encounter the text as it is rather than impose our own cultural understandings.  It is also a call to experience the text as a whole rather than through singular utterances.  We must deal with the seeming inconsistencies and conflict of utterances so that we may understand scripture holistically.  Lastly, McKenzie urges us to experience YHWH as a community of faith not simply as a personal religion.

 

Works Cited

Hasel, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate. 3rd ed.        Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1972

Hayes, John H., and Frederick Prussner. Old Testament Theology: Its History and             Development.New York:Westminster John Knox P, 1984.

McKenzie, John L. A Theology of the Old Testament.New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Ollenburger, Ben C., Elmer A. Martens, and Gerhard F. Hasel, eds. The Flowering of Old            Testament Theology : A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology,         1930-1990.Danbury: Eisenbrauns, Inc., 1991.

Ollenburger, Ben C. Old Testament Theology : Flowering and Future.Danbury:    Eisenbrauns, Inc., 2004.

Reventlow, Henning Graf. Problems of Biblical Theology in the Twentieth Century.         Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Theology and Ministry: Language in Community

Introduction

Theology is a part of everyday life, whether we acknowledge it or not.  We live, act, and react out of our convictions and beliefs.  Theology has an intricate, integral role in ministry.  You can either do it well or poorly, but either way you will practice theology when practicing ministry.  The question we face is: What role does theology have in ministry today and how we do accomplish that?

This paper will show that theology is language that shapes our ability to relate in community.  We will also explore the necessity of good data and the function of doubt in theology.  Next, this paper will argue that theology targets both insiders and outsiders to the community of faith.  Finally, we will discuss how theology is integrated into ministry, referencing Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  We will see how Experience, Scripture, Reason, and Tradition all contribute to building solid theology which must then be tested in the “crucible of life.”

Language is Relational

Theology is typically how we describe “the study of God.”  The word “theology” is comprised of two Greek words which translate quite literally to mean “God words” or a “word about God.”  Theology, simply put, is the language we use to talk about God.  However, God, by His very nature as God, is transcendent above our vocabulary.  We cannot fully describe God by the use of our words.  He is wholly Other.  If theology is such a tenuous study, then what is the purpose for pursuing such seemingly vain endeavors?

All language is used to describe our experiences in community.  Theology is the language we use to relate to God in community.  We understand that describing God with anthropological terminology has its shortcomings.  Furthermore, to describe God anthropologically, as any analogy, requires understanding the limits of our analogies.  However, it is this very language that allows us to share our experiences of God in terms that can be understood and evaluated by others.  Theology is geared to allow us not simply to make statements about God but to relate intimately with Him.  We can only do so through what we know or experience (in Wesley’s sense), which is deeply informed and influenced by our language, both positively and negatively.

Understanding theology linguistically pertains to how knowledge is used.  Theology is not a knowledge that allows us to manipulate God how scientific knowledge allows us to control our environment.  There is a different knowledge that is intimately connected with theology – wisdom.  Wisdom does not allow us to manipulate and control God but to surrender to Him.  Again, knowledge is relational.  Therefore, knowledge about God should inevitably lead us to deeper connection with God.

Does good data matter?  Theology is not always a matter of right and wrong.  Usually, it is a matter of adequate or inadequate, good or poor knowledge.  For instance, if we were to describe God as Love without referencing His holiness, we might visualize a God who is all mercy and no justice.  In fact, it might even cause us to abuse grace because, we might reason, “where sin abounds grace abounds even more” (Romans 6:1-2).  However, this would not be biblical, as the apostle Paul points out.  Good data is important because it allows us to relate genuinely in community to our Creator.

We understand that our knowledge cannot fully describe God.  If the object of theology is to simply acquire the right data and knowledge about God, the gap between our understanding and our ignorance will be threatening.  In contrast, if the object of theology is to relate deeper with God, then the gap between our understanding and our ignorance is an invitation to grow deeper with God.

We often confuse certainty with Truth.  Certainty is subjective, Truth is objective.  We can feel “certain” about something that is entirely false.  Our evangelical milieu has come to believe that doubt is dangerous.  Doubt seems to threaten our very self and is seen as opposing growth rather than initiating it.  Yet, doubt is a function a faith.  It causes us to wrestle and search, rather than wander haphazardly with little or no motivation to grow.  As such, theology is willing to be honest and humble where Truth should call for examination of our own paradigms.  Doubt is only a threat if Christianity is about obtaining the right information rather than promoting relationship with God.

Although we desire to gain Truth and to understand it, we must not believe that theology is simply the pursuit of right data sets.  Theology, at that point, becomes legalistic and dead.  Not to mention, this brand of “Christianity” becomes very abrasive and condemning, even of other viable Christian traditions, of any opposing Truth claim.  That is not to say that there are not issues that require a solid, moral stance.  But, the pursuit of Truth must be a means to an end, namely promoting right-relatedness.  The purpose is not to have acquired Truth, which we only know in part (1 Cor. 13:12), it is the way in which Truth shapes and permeates our lives daily that is most significant.

The Audience of Theology  

A debate among theologians has traditionally wrestled between two schools of thought: Narrative theologians and Public Theologians.  These two schools, generally headed at Yale and the University of Chicago respectively, argue for two very different audiences that theology targets.  The target audience dictates theologians’ understanding of how language should be properly employed.

The Yale School of Theology believes that theological language is primarily directed at those already connected and integrated into the community.  They argue that outsiders cannot make sense of the language.  The significance of Christian terminology will be lost on those who do not have the interpretive keys with which to understand the language.  Undoubtedly, this is a true statement.  Part of being integrated into any community is learning to comprehend the meaning behind words and phrases, including those used in Christian jargon.  Furthermore, language helps make a community distinct from other communities.  The goal, as they see it, is to make better equipped Christians within the Church.

On the other side of the argument, the University of Chicago school of thought believes that theology should focus on the outsiders.  It is, after all, the Church’s mission to make disciples of all nations.  How is that possible if language does not connect with the outsiders’ points of reference to experience?  How can they possibly understand, unless theology strives to connect Christian concepts with their framework?  In other words, the Christian community is too exclusive with its language, which does not help the Church fulfill its Biblical mandate.

I believe that both sides of the argument have valid positions to offer.  I affirm the necessity for both, which must be held in a constant tension with one another.  Genuine theology will connect the community together through genuine Christian living.  The insiders in the community will only be as connected as their understanding of the language used in that community.  Also, it is imperative that the Christian community can be distinguished from the worldly culture that surrounds it.  Our language is necessary to give us a common set of descriptors by which we can communicate and function together.  The dynamic must be guarded from becoming too washed out by trying to identify with culture.

However, the Church is also a mission driven organization.  The Great Commission calls us to disciple all nations.  In other words, the Christian community is an open community that brings outsiders in to the fold.  How can outsiders relate if they do not understand our language?  To achieve that goal, theology must be employed in a way that connects with common reference points in human experience.  The apostle Paul understood this well when he employed such tactics in his evangelism.  He used a statue of an “unknown god” as an opening for telling the Athenians about Jesus (Acts 17:22-31).  The language we use in the Christian community must not be so “heavenly minded that it is no earthly good.”

This brings up an interesting point.  The Church is often criticized for being hypocritical, saying one thing yet living another.  In addition, studies, such as those written by Barna Group, have recently shown that biblical literacy within the Church has declined dramatically.  Many people do not even know basic stories from Scripture.  If this is true, then how might they be able to understand more intricate theology unless we begin making connection points with the laity on some basic level.  This underlines the importance of discipleship, which helps people navigate through some of these issues of language.

Martin Luther had an intuition about this when he first posted his letter to the Church.  At that time, Latin was used in every service.  That is very problematic in a Germanic country where the laity would have spoken little, if any, Latin.  Luther believed that the Word should be accessible to all.  While our language must be distinct, it must not be inaccessible.

If language shapes our theology and theology shapes our practice, we might do well to seriously consider how theology is shaping the Church and its impact on the outside community.  All of that goes to say, theology should be geared toward both insiders and outsiders.  Theology must reside within this tension.  Language is a very powerful tool by which we construct our community.  But, it cannot be transformative if individuals are not able to grasp what is being communicated.  Ultimately, our theology must be shown to produce genuine Christian living, it must empower both insiders and outsiders to move toward that telos: right-relatedness with God and others.

Integrating Theology with Ministry

From what point or source does theology start?  How do we determine what is theologically appropriate or inappropriate to say?  Perhaps counter-intuitively for those in the Christian community, we do not start at Scripture but with an intuition that God is transcendent.  I believe it is our experience of the created order that helps guide us in this endeavor.  The created order, as Romans 1 affirms, declares that there is a God who has made Himself known through nature.

After asserting that there is a God, we must next ask who this God is.  The created order cannot fully reveal the nature and character of God.  Therefore, we must either be like Locke and say that knowledge has reached its logical end and can go no further.  Or, we must say that there is another authority that speaks about “trans-sensory” realities and that it has an authority on par with empirical experience.  However, these “trans-sensory” realities are not separate from empirical realities.  They impact one another.

For Christians, the Bible is the other source of God’s self-revelation.  The nature and character of a testimony, which is the very essence of Scripture (testimony about who God is), helps determine what we deem important in theology.  Martin Luther believed Scripture to be the sole authority, not tradition.  While this may indeed be a great starting point, Scripture cannot simply stand alone because it can be twisted to people’s whims.  Luther, although he did not explicitly state this, understood that experience too must help weigh the validity of our conclusions from Scripture.

Since, for Wesley, experience needed to be practical as an experiment, it is little wonder that “trans-sensory” realities were not divorced from empirical realities.  In other words, experience became the great testing ground.  Experience was the venue in which theological perspectives could be assessed.  However, experience was also subject to Scripture for correct interpretation.  Experience and Scripture were two balancing authorities, dependent upon one another for mutual correction.

Furthermore, reason serves as a tool which allows these two authorities, Scripture and experience, to interact on level ground.  This is owing to the fact that all Truth is God’s Truth and will not be contradictory, according to the rules of logic.  As such, there are good ways to get information to fit together that are conducive to relationships.  When you approach theology linguistically, words may only be constructed in particular ways.  Truth statements require a certain formula.  If you are talking about God and the world in terms of certainty, it requires diligence and humility.

Furthermore, theology is a dangerous task because we are essentially using analogies with our words to understand a transcendent Being.  Now, the Christian faith also believes that God has made Himself immanent, especially through Jesus the Christ.  However, that in no way diminishes the fact that God is beyond our words.  So, the analogies we use are often tentative and can only be stretched so far.  And, we must be mindful of the analogies we are using, making sure to explain them adequately.

For instance, the analogy that love is like a rose can be either a good or a poor analogy.  Love, it could be said, is like a rose because it is beautiful, delicate, and vibrant.  However, Love might not be best described as a rose if it is thought to be short-lived, thorny, and painful.  Our lived experience may even cause us to have difficulty with analogies we use of God, making it more difficult to relate to Him.  For example, God is our Father.  We can assert many positive attributes of a Father to God.  We can say that God is loving, protective, corrective.  However, some families experience abuse from their fathers, making “Father” a difficult connection for some to make with God (and, in some cases, deterring them from God).  Logic helps us see how metaphors connect and can be used correctly.

Tradition allows us to orient our knowledge on a trajectory.  It is not a source.  It is merely interpretation of those sources: experience and Scripture.  We don’t believe it because someone has simply said it.  However, it does give us a hermeneutic to evaluate truth claims.  It allows us to see how Scripture, reason, and experience connect, hopefully, in practical ways in the lives of those who came before us.  And, it helps us think beyond ourselves, allowing us to access the communal experience of Christians throughout the centuries preceding us.

Karl Barth contended that theology is a conversation among students of the past and present.  Every predecessor of today’s student has already attempted to understand and explain the Scriptures – in his own period, in his own way, and with his own limitations.  To study theology means not so much to examine exhaustively the work of earlier students of theology as to become their fellow student… Serious study means to permit oneself to be stimulated by the views and insights they achieved and proclaimed, and to be guided – by their encouraging or frightening example – toward a perspective, thought, and speech which are responsible to God and man.

For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity is an extra-biblical concept.  It is not formally developed until the Council of Nicea in the 4th century A.D.  However, in order to best understand the Biblical account of who Jesus is, the Christian tradition postulated the Trinity.  Over the centuries since Nicea, many have tried to further understand how Trinity must work.  It is very much a work in progress today.  Traditions, such as the Trinity, help us to understand how others have struggled with the Biblical witness and have synthesized its content.

Miroslav Volf’s book, entitled After Our Likeness, is an excellent example of how each piece of the hermeneutical circle can function together.  In this study on Trinity, Volf closely outlines the Roman Catholic and Orthodox conceptions of Trinity and their resulting ecclesiology.  Interweaving Scripture, experience, and logic together, Volf critiques each of the historical understandings of Trinity.  Next, he uses the hermeneutical circle to re-formulate a working concept of Trinity that coheres with the Free Church tradition.

Scripture and experience are the two sources from which we gain our data.  Tradition and reason allow us to interact between these two sources of data.  Reason helps us piece the puzzle together.  Tradition allows us to see how others have tried to piece the puzzle together, as well as, the benefit of seeing the ensuing results of their theology.  Scripture and experience are two balances on the scale of theology.  If something is Truth, it will be Truth in both arenas.  Finally, theology, as Wesley aptly understood, must lead to genuine Christian living.  If it does not, we must once again wrestle in the hermeneutical circle to refine our theology.

CONCLUSION

Language is the tool we use to relate in community.  Theology is not simply about acquiring all of the right data sets.  Theology is only good insofar as it achieves the goal of deeper relatedness with God and others.  However, that does not mean that good data is not important to theology, since better information should lead to better relatedness.

Our language, used as a tool to relate, necessarily needs to be understandable.  That does not mean that it should become indistinct from culture.  Our language has two functions: to communicate to the insiders and proclaim the Good News to the outsiders.

Theology can be a dangerous tool.  It requires deep thinking (logic), weighing it against life (experience), constant conversation with past sojourners (tradition), and a consideration of the testimony of who God is in the world (Scripture).  All four elements are important in promoting and building sound, balanced theology.

Tradition and Theology

What is the role of Christian tradition in Christian theology?

The role of the Christian tradition in Christian theology has been one of debate for centuries.  How much influence should this tool be allowed in our quest for understanding God and His character?  And, how might we correctly employ this tool for theology?  The answers to this question greatly vary across the centuries, especially given the tendency for human institutions to be broken and fallen.  Despite this fact, Wesley maintains it is necessary to affirm the Christian tradition’s role in theology while providing it with a means of accountability.

For some, the Christian tradition holds sole authority for interpreting Scripture and experience.  Moreover, many believe that the Church alone speaks as the very mouthpiece of God.  The problem with this mentality is that it led some to believe that the task of theology could be accomplished through the power of the Church alone, sometimes ignoring the Spirit.  Moreover, it often ignored the way in which the world influenced the Church negatively, pulling it away from its foundational principles.  The Church, especially after Constantine, became an extension, in many ways, of the government and culture.  Christianity became a way of affirming cultural values rather than allowing culture to be informed by Scripture.

Unfortunately, that often meant that there was little if any accountability for the Church’s power.  The Crusades are an ugly example where the two mixed horribly and forever marred Christianity in the eyes of many.  This misuse of authority ultimately made people skeptical of the Church and do not willingly submit to the Church.  In theology, tradition cannot be said to be the ultimate authority because it too can ultimately be swayed by ulterior influences.  It must have a counter-balance for its interactions with the world.  Scripture provides the measure by which the Church is guided.

However, to totally ignore tradition would be a sad loss for Christianity.  It would seriously limit our understanding of Christianity, as well as, the consequences when our preaching does not match our living.  Karl Barth believed that the Christian tradition was a conversation between students, each successive generation learning from the previous generations.  I believe this is a good way to look at the Christian tradition.  It maintains that we are all learning together and that we are dependent upon one another as well.  Therefore, in each generation of the past we can learn from both their successes and their failures.

Christian tradition can also be used in conjunction with experience as Wesley saw it.  It allows us to see the collective experience of Christianity and employ it as a tool for assessing whether or not we have been true to Christianity.  Furthermore, it is important that Christian tradition is not limited merely to historical events and thinking.  Rather, Christian tradition also has a future aspect to it.  It is passed to each successive generation.  The Christian tradition is the unbroken succession of giving away the Gospel all the way from the apostles to present day believers.  Hopefully, we continue to pass on a faithful rendering of what it means to live as a Christian in our world.

One example of tradition’s invaluable influence can be found in the doctrine of the Trinity, which is not explicitly outlined within Scripture.  However, after much deliberation and debate on the exact relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the Church formulated that they were three-in-one.  This doctrine sought to make sense of what Scripture was saying, even though it was not explicit in Scripture.  Initially, this was just a simple formula for talking about God.  In generations since, it was built upon to explain it more accurately.  There have been other doctrines set out by tradition that worked to provide a framework by which we might comprehend Scripture accurately and faithfully.  As Barth asserts, tradition captures the voice of fellow students and teachers by which we can seriously think through issues.  We continue that tradition to not only know but understand.

John Henry Newman believed that Church doctrine, as an idea, would ultimately develop as we searched and learned more.  It is open to revision and improvement.  This is especially true if we believe that God is continually revealing Himself, not that His revelation changes, but He guides us into all Truth.  Tradition is therefore the process of theology growing and building upon that which was laid before.  Theology, therefore, has a responsibility to listen and interact with tradition.  Tradition does not have the last Word in the conversation, but it is an invaluable voice in the discussion.

Creeds, many of which are a valuable part of Christianity today, preserve earlier generations’ assessment of the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  These have helped guide future generations on correct, essential doctrine.  That is not to say that they are above Scripture, but succinctly sets forth what Scripture affirms as necessary doctrine.  Christian tradition, like the creeds, can serve as a way of grounding our faith back to the essential elements of the faith.

Where the Christian tradition becomes problematic is where it oversteps its role, assuming an authority equal to Scripture and experience.  The result too often is a power that has no balance or accountability.  When it is allowed that type of power, as is the case with most human institutions, it becomes tyrannical and legalistic.  Furthermore, reason is not allowed a very prominent role in discovering Truth.  Rather, Truth becomes affirmed by tradition and is not open for interpretation or revision.  A close-minded dogmatism then is used to control people rather than free them.  Logic serves as a corrective device for such narrowness.

For this reason, it is necessary that the Christian tradition be looked at and studied carefully.  The Christian tradition is subject to the authority of Scripture and experience.  Does it hold before these two authorities as genuine?  Next, does it maintain under scrutiny of logic and reason?  If it does not, it must be called into question as to the validity of its assertions.  That does not mean that the Christian tradition does not still have something to offer even when it is found wanting.  Instead, we can use that as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and sins of others.

As such, I believe the Christian tradition holds a great deal for us in theology.  It allows us to study history and learn from true followers of Christ and we can also learn from failure to live Christ-like and not make the same mistakes.  I believe this shows the dependency that tradition has upon experience, Scripture, and reason.  Tradition is simply a tool.  It is not the ending point.

 

 

 

 

Scripture and Theology

What is the role of Scripture in Christian theology?

In dealing with theology, Scripture is the starting point and its foundation.  Scripture is the revelation of God to us, apart from which we could not know God.  The Word of God perfectly and fully reveals the salvation of God for humanity.  Furthermore, it is the call of God to broken humanity, enabling them to live, through the power of the Spirit, in such a way that is pleasing to God.

We could know nothing about the nature of God if He did not reveal it to us.  We might possibly be able to assess things about Him through our empirical senses.  For instance, we could attribute all of creation to a Creator and could arrive at such a conclusion using our senses.  This might allow us to see that God exists.  And, we might be able to make some assumptions based on this conclusion (i.e. God is sovereign and powerful).  However, we could not know whether God is loving, hateful, gentle, merciful, conniving or otherwise without the revelation of the Divine by the Divine.  Scripture, as the Word and Revelation of God, is such a book that allows us with our “spiritual senses”, as John Wesley called them, to see God’s nature and character.  It is for this reason that we must start with Scripture as the provider of data by which we can begin to talk, learn, and know who God is.

Sola Scriptura” was the cry for many of the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, as they sought to correct the waywardness that they perceived in the Church.  Tradition, for some at that time, was considered just as important and equal in authority to Scripture.  Thus, some fallacies arose within doctrine, such as indulgences which were said to forgive sins through the Church.  Luther believed this was theologically inaccurate and therefore called for a re-commitment to the sole authority of Scripture.  It alone could stand as the evaluator of the Church’s actions… the Church was not independent of that authority.  As has been rightly judged, we cannot speak alone by our own authority.  Scripture is the lens by which we assess the worth of our theology.

Even John Wesley, who was an avid proponent of the Anglican Church, was willing on the basis of Scripture, to venture against the Church by sending out itinerant field preachers and ordaining ministers so that they could serve the sacraments.  He was supportive of the Church in the essentials of doctrine and willing to step outside of those bounds in non-essentials.  These actions were undertaken because Wesley viewed himself as a “man of one book.”  In other words, Scripture held the utmost authority when it came down to determining proper action, even when opposed to tradition.

The early Creeds even show the dependency of tradition upon Scripture.  The Creeds were written to set forth proper belief against and opposed to the heresies that had popped up.  The Creeds, such as the Nicene, summarized the Gospel, as well as, the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  However, those Creeds that came to be most accepted by the whole Church were those that simply asserted what Scripture asserts – no more, no less.  We see that theology can neither add nor subtract from Scripture’s own propositions.  Scripture sets forth proper orthodoxy, not tradition.  Scripture, as a reasonable truth claim, cannot be self-contradictory and must sit in judgment of itself as well.  In other words, tradition alone does not determine the truth of theology, Scripture is the standard.  It must be consistent.

In Wesley’s mind, the secular and the sacred were not distinct realities but enmeshed together.  As such, Scripture did not simply impact the “spiritual realm” but should immediately impact our daily lives.  Scripture was the lens through which Wesley sought to view everything.  All Truth was God’s Truth and would not be contradictory to one another.  And, more importantly, experience and Scripture worked together as mutual components.  Experience’s data can only afford us so much understanding.  Scripture is not merely a supplement to that knowledge, but helps us to enrich and construct a fuller account of reality.

For me, this answers the greatest part of the question: “What is the role of Scripture in theology?”  It is the very starting point of theology and it holds an authority position for determining true, correct theology.  Scripture provides the data and material that can be used by theology.  However, the question becomes how do we interpret correct theology from Scripture, given that there are so many interpreters and interpretations throughout the history of the Church?

Obviously, this is not an easy question.  However, I believe this provides a practical venue for Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  The hermeneutical circle shows us that our interpretation of Scripture is not an independent authority.  Rather, there are other “tests” by which we may try the validity of our “understanding” of Scripture: experience, reason, tradition, Scripture.  As such, theology may be said to be consistent with Scripture, with reason and logic, with the experience of the faithful, and re-producible in other people’s lives.  A particular theology’s validity can thus be tested in the “crucible of life” where reason and tradition are tools and Scripture and experience are sources and arenas for experiment.  They are dependent on one another and must be balanced as such for theology to be consistent, practical, and true.  So, we see that even Scripture’s interpretation must rely on these other parts in order to function appropriately.

As said previously, Scripture provides the data and material for theology… it is the source of theology.  It is the revelation of God to us, which allows us to know Him.  Therefore, in interpreting Scripture, God’s Word and Revelation, it is necessary that God illumines us so that we might fully and correctly understand!  Theology is not done in a vacuum.  We bring many assumptions and “modern” interpretations to the table by which we have been shaped.  We tend to place those upon Scripture when we read and study it.  As biased readers, we must hear once again from the true Author and Perfecter of faith.  And, it is only by the Holy Spirit that we are led into all Truth.  There is only One who may speak about God and that is God himself.  To speak about God without God is to place ourselves in His role… which is idolatry.  So, although Scripture gives us the raw data, we cannot fully grasp its mystery without the quickening of the Spirit.  True theology does not simply interact with the text, but must engage the Spirit of that Letter.

Reason and Theology

What is the role of reason in Christian theology?

Reason plays an integral role in theology.  For those who claim that Christianity is a religion of ignorance, they seriously under appreciate the interaction of logic with experience and Scripture that has been implemented throughout the history of the Church.  Theology is where reason, guided by the Spirit, synthesizes the knowledge gained from both experience and Scripture.  Logic allows us to move from knowledge to understanding.  Jeremiah 3 promises that God will provide such leaders and shepherds to guide his people.  It is by discernment that we evaluate the profit of a belief, as well as, testing to see if it is cogent and sonsistent.

Experience and Scripture provide the information and data with which reason may construct a framework.  Reason, as such, is merely a tool for interacting with that raw material.  It is very much the refining process by which that information may be re-introduced back into the arena of experience to be evaluated.  Reason provides a coherence and consistency as both Scripture and experience are weaved together to express Truth in its many facets.

Of course, there have to be several commitments for reason to play such a large role in theology.  Like Wesley, one must believe that faith impacts reality.  Furthermore, one must believe that both the sensory and the trans-sensory realities work by the rules of logic.  In other words, it informs our experience both positively and negatively.  It defines what we might know and what is impossible to know (i.e. the average height of a unicorn).  As such, reason really helps provide boundaries and framework for our theology.   And, one must have a commitment that the secular and the sacred are really not separated but enmeshed in one another.

If this is true, the secular and the sacred work according to logic, we can assess the validity of truth claims by an “empirical” process.  This renders theology as a very practical endeavor.  It does not simply allow a theoretical, mental bent for theology.  That does not mean, as Wesley tended to think, that a truth claim’s validity rested upon its immediate applicability to reality.  There is room for knowledge that is in the process of being refined and tested.  Additionally, a claim’s worth does not rest on a time frame.  However, it ultimately must be able to be applied to the realm of life and experience.  Or, as Wesley might put it, knowledge and understanding must meet together to produce genuine Christian living.

If Truth is governed by the rules of logic, it is necessary for it to be consistent in its application to both experience and Scripture.  Experience and Scripture cannot be contradictory if they are both held to be authorities of Truth.  Reason provides a tool by which we work between the tension that is often found existing from the knowledge gained in Scripture and experience.  Reason helps us see the connections between the two and allows them to interact with one another, informing each other, giving accountability.

There is an undoubtedly important role that reason holds in theology.  However, reason, like our knowledge is limited in its scope.  Where knowledge is limited, reason, which is dependent upon experience and Scripture, will be limited in what it can assert.  For instance, Scripture only hints at the nature of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Speaking about something that in nature and character is both three and one is beyond the full capacity of reason to explore or understand.  Another example is the humanity and divinity of Jesus.  How is it possible that God became fully man as well?  It is a mystery which is not fully explained by Scripture.  As such, we can only guess and speculate with the information we do have… but this is often unsatisfactory in communicating the full reality of these mysteries.

In relying upon reason, one might tend to say it has the ultimate authority in determining Truth.  The danger in relying solely on our powers of logic is self-deception.  This can render us closed to Truth that other voices might add to our endeavors.  One voice that might be hindered by such pride is the Holy Spirit.  From a Christian perspective, it is only the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand Truth.  Without the Spirit to guide us, it is likely that our theology will be impractical or simply informational, rather than transformational.  Or, we might say that reason must be joined with love, as the apostle Paul exhorts us.  All knowledge and understanding means nothing if love is not present in our engagement with God and others.  Wesley understood this aspect well.  Christian history has attested that logic alone does not provide for Christ-like living.

Dr. Crutcher states, “If it is true what Wesley says, concerning a prophetic enthusiast, ‘When plain facts run counter to their predictions, experience performs what reason could not, and sinks them down into their sense,’ then we cannot say experience is always constrained by reason.”  Experience must be allowed to sit in judgment upon the value of truth claims proffered by reason.

Reason cannot be left to the individual alone, lest it become easily corrupted by personal bias.  Tradition, in the sense that Barth discusses it as a dialogue among students, provides a sounding board with which reason can interact.  It allows us to hear the voice of reason found in others throughout the history of the Church by which we might evaluate our own theology.  Again, this is based on the assumption that Truth will be consistent throughout time.  Therefore, reason must be in constant discussion with others to help guide, shape, and refine it.

Another problem that reason can present, given its empirical nature, is the dismissal of personal experience.  Whether those experiences be visions or some other type of activity attributed to the spiritual realm, Reason might not grant any credence to such events.  In fact, it might seek a natural explanation (i.e. delusions, drugs, sickness, or lying).  However, logic cannot necessarily disprove the validity of such events.  In such cases, it is important to understand the restrictions that bind logic.

This, I believe, shows the precarious nature of logic.  Logic is not an innate gift that each person is born with.  Rather, it takes effort and time to develop that ability.  That is also why it is important and necessary for logic to be guided by other “students” participating in the theological discussion.  Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  Logic gives us a level playing field in which to begin the theological discussion.

 

Experience and Theology

What is the role of experience in Christian theology?

Experience has become a buzz word within many churches today.  Advertisements for churches sometimes invite potential members to come to their “worship experience.”  Within our contemporary setting, experience has taken a bent toward subjective, psychological phenomena.  This individualism leans toward a spiritualism that tends to divorce itself from the communal aspect that is strongly attested in Scripture.  It opens itself up to the possibility of relativism, which asserts that Truth is really in the eye of the beholder.  This type of experience is usually viewed as subversive to what Scripture asserts about Truth.

Experience, in contemporary society, has been given a position of authority based on the individual.  In other words, the validity of a situation lies in an individual’s emotional, psychological response to an event.  Although Wesley did not explicitly discount personal experience, it had greater implications than the individual.  Moreover, individual experience can be problematic, as is the case with interpreting Scripture, interpreting the meaning of that experience.  If it is simply a subjective experience, then it tends to be open to any interpretation placed upon it by that individual.  This can be especially problematic where interpretation of an experience differs.  Ultimately, subjective experience cannot stand alone as its own authority.

In reading experience as John Wesley understood it, it is important to understand that experience in the 1800’s had a radically different meaning.  Due to his empirical commitments, Wesley viewed experience in terms similar to our word “experiment.”  In other words, experience was not simply a subjective arena, but ultimately should be re-producible for others.  Therefore, experience was an objective reality.  Knowledge gained from experience mattered little if it did not apply back to experience.  If experience is a subjective reality, then it can hardly be applied to other persons’ lives.

Wesley’s concept of experience was very empirically based.  Anything that we understand or consider knowledge is gained through experience.  This isn’t an individualistic idea because anyone can experience the same reality (i.e. burning sulfur produces a horrid smell, helium produces a high pitched voice).  As such, experience is the source from which we derive our knowledge about life.  However, experience does not simply provide data.  It is also the arena in which we apply our knowledge to see if it is true.  In Wesley’s thinking, any knowledge is only as good as its ability to be applied back to experience.

Even though experience has an authority role for Wesley, he also understood that the knowledge it provides is incomplete.  Using only our empirical senses it is impossible to make assertions about God or the spiritual realm.  Therefore, we must either be like Locke and say that knowledge has reached its logical end and can go no further.  Or, we must say that there is another authority that speaks about “trans-sensory” realities and that it has an authority on par with empirical experience.  However, these “trans-sensory” realities are not separate from empirical realities.  They impact one another.

Experience is also subject to incorrect interpretation.  People can be delusional or unreasonable in understanding their experience.  Therefore, experience must also be subject, as any good experiment, to tests which weigh the worth of a proposition.  By this method, Wesley would often take an individual’s experience and make it objective by holding it to these standards of investigation.  Logic and reason provided such a tool for assessing the coherence of a belief gained from experience.

Since, for Wesley, experience needed to be practical as an experiment, it is little wonder that “trans-sensory” realities were not divorced from empirical realities.  In other words, experience became the great testing ground.  Experience was the venue in which theological perspectives could be assessed.  However, experience was also subject to Scripture for correct interpretation.  Experience and Scripture were two balancing authorities, dependent upon one another for mutual correction.  Furthermore, reason serves as a tool which allows these two authorities, Scripture and experience, to interact on level ground.  This is owing to the fact that all Truth is God’s Truth and will not be contradictory, according to the rules of logic.

Furthermore, the bent toward practical knowledge was due to Wesley’s understanding that knowledge is of little use if it does not go beyond simple information.  Rather, knowledge needs to be transformational, it must lead to genuine Christian living if it is to be of value.  Right thinking is not the end goal.  It has been said that the “Devil is orthodox.”  In other words, Satan does not accompany right belief with right response.  Wesley believed that it was necessary for our beliefs about reality to affect our experience.

However, in saying that knowledge need be practical, Wesley also did not allow for much theory.  If it was not immediately applicable, Wesley held little affinity for such thoughts.  However, this thinking does not allow for theoretical knowledge that has yet to be proven.  Immediate applicability does not always determine the validity of a proposition.  As such, viewing experience in such a way quite possibly limits our receptivity to future knowledge and learning.  It produces and encourages a type of close-minded traditionalism.  And, it quite possibly limits our receptivity to the Spirit’s leading.

In doing theology, it is necessary that we take into account experience.  We must realize that the natural realm is not immediately separate from the spiritual realm.  They both have ramifications for the other.  Theology also must be practical in the sense that it must be conducive to authentic Christian living.  That does not mean that all theoretical theology is useless.  It may take time to work through all of the implications.  However, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is empty.  Ultimately, knowledge must be tested in the crucible of life.  Experience must also listen to the Word of Scripture as a source of authority so that it is not left to its own contrivances.  The inverse of this statement is also true.  Theology must also listen to experience of the collective whole.  To divorce theology from experience is to render theology impractical, overly lofty, and legalistic.

After Our Likeness

Miroslav Volf’s book, After Our Likeness, was not a quick read. However, Volf carefully deals with various aspects of Trinitarian theology and their logical implications for ecclesiology. Ratzinger (Catholic) and Zizioulas (Orthodox) are the two primary theologians that Volf interacts with in his text. Volf, being from the Reformed Tradition, is quick to point out problems with both Ratzinger’s and Zizioulas’ views on Trinity. However, the author is not overly zealous, which allows him to also affirm where other traditions’ views are true. This book covers a range of issues within ecclesiology, including Protestant predicaments that arise. Overall, this book was philosophically and theologically well constructed. There is a link to a short paper I have written dealing with Trinity and the Church as community. It is hardly comprehensive; however, it does give an indication as to what I believe.

INTRODUCTION

Shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the early Church began to wrestle with Jesus’ divinity and humanity, as well as, what it meant to live Christ-like lives.  How could Jesus be both fully man and fully God?  Moreover, what was Jesus’ connection with God?  What was God’s essence and what did that mean for the Christian community?  A number of beliefs and viewpoints were proffered trying to explain the substance or essence of God: Gnosticism, Docetism, Modalism, Pelagianism, and Binitarianism, to name a few.  It finally came to a head in the early part of the fourth century.

The word “Trinity” used to describe God is an extra-biblical marker.  The doctrine of the Trinity was not formalized until the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. in response to Arianism (Barron 42).  The Nicene Creed helped concretize the doctrine of the Triune God for the early Church.  At that point, it became a formalized, solidified statement of faith for Christians.  Although the recitation of the creedal statement has been uttered by churches for millennia, the implications of various Trinitarian conceptions of God have not always been clearly drawn out.  The creedal statement did not settle the issue.  It merely affirmed God’s Trinitarian nature.

The concept of the Triune God is more than a faith statement made by the Church universal.  As theologians, like Saint Augustine, have understood, this doctrine gives us insight into the nature and character of God.  To understand the Church’s nature and character, we must comprehend God’s character.  In this paper, I hope to make it evident that a proper understanding of the Trinity inescapably shapes the nature of the Church as God’s sacrament to the world.

I will commit to this task in several ways.  First, we will explore the implications of the imago Dei.  This exposition will allow us to glimpse God’s design for true humanity, which is fully embodied in Jesus Christ.  Secondly, we will put forth a working definition of Trinity, as well as, what it means to be human in light of Scripture and our experience.  Next, we will define sin and its effects, which twists God’s initial purpose for humanity.  Finally, we will comment on how the Church should reflect the Trinity in its calling.  This will basically confirm the priesthood of all believers, as well as, the necessity of the Church for our faith.  Let us start at the “Beginning.”

CREATION: IMAGO DEI 

The stories of Genesis 1 and 2 relate the creation accounts.  God brings forth all of creation by simply speaking a word, creating everything, ex nihilo, from nothing (Gen. 1; John 1).  The apex of creation is humanity, both male and female, made in imago Dei, the image of God (Gen. 1:26).  To understand true humanity, we must comprehend the implications of being created in this image.

Dr. Timothy Crutcher has suggested six ways to understand the full implications of the imago Dei.  Essentially, being created in this divine image means that humanity is characterized as: laborers, stewards, composite creatures, moral creatures, communal creatures, and with gender equality (my personal notes).  This was God’s intended design for humanity because it is the very nature and character of God.  In essence, God is the light which we reflect.  As such, when humanity lives out imago Dei, they are fully re-presenting God back to the world.

To help narrow the scope of our discussion, I only want to concentrate on three of these aspects: laborers, communal creatures, stewards, and gender equality (which I employ for equality between all humanity).  Furthermore, I want to discuss these aspects in the context of Love, which I believe is an appropriate term to describe God’s communion within the Trinity and God’s engagement with Creation.

God labors in the Garden of Eden for six days, resting on the seventh, which is the Sabbath (Gen. 1).  God starts creating ex nihilo but then uses the raw material of creation to make the rest of creation.  For instance, he forms man from the dust and woman from the rib of the man (Gen. 2:21).  God labors over creation thus adding further value to what is already there.  However, God does not keep this task to Himself.  Rather, God invites and empowers humanity to labor in the Garden so that it might produce vegetation (Gen. 2:15).  In fact, the passage suggests that plants have not grown because humanity is not around to till the soil.  Although God is the Creator, humanity participates as laborers with Him to add value to creation.

In the first creation narrative, humanity is given the task of governing over creation (Gen. 1:28-30).  Labor was a gift of God to humanity.  Labor pains increased after the introduction of sin to the Garden.  However, that does not imply labor was not difficult before sin.  Despite the difficulty that sin imposed upon our labor, we are still called to be productive, adding value back into God’s world (Gen. 3:16-17).  When we are committed to God’s creation as He is committed, it becomes an intense labor of love, whereby loving God’s world results in loving God too.

That is to say, we are merely stewards, not owners, of God’s gifts (i.e., Creation).  In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber suggests that how we treat someone’s personal belongings reflects our relationship with that person.  In the same way, how we use, or misuse, God’s creation speaks a great deal of our relationship with our Creator.  Let it suffice to say here that improper “governing” of God’s gifts often means that we lose those gifts.  For Adam and Eve, it was the loss of the Garden.  Later in history, Israel loses the gift of land due to disobedience.  God’s gifts must be used on God’s terms.

The second creation drama, however, presents a glitch: man has no suitable helpmate (Gen. 2:20).  It hardly seems appropriate to say that God’s creation is “not good”, as if He poorly constructed creation.  Rather, man is incomplete because there is no suitable helpmate.  Why is this “not good?”  Simply put, humanity without community is contrary to the nature of God, as fully represented in the Trinity.

In light of this fact, Genesis views the relationship between man and woman as one of total equality.  Woman is taken from man’s side, as opposed to his foot or head, which indicates equal status between these two humans.  Man and woman are like one another, albeit not totally the same.  However, it is that very difference that allows a man and a woman to become one flesh, diversity in unity.  This is the very thing we see in God, diversity in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet there is a unity of Love that inextricably binds them.

If it is true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and if God’s character does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; James 1:17), then it can be said that God’s very essence is communal.  After all, love must have an object of affection.  Furthermore, true love (agape) is not a power-structure relationship, but is one of equality.  It is the seeking of good for others first.  This love is a constant interpenetration of the Father, Spirit, and Son; so that when one acts they all act as One.  Love is not a static reality.  It is constantly moving, both toward and from each of the Persons in the Trinity.  To describe God as Love is to place God in relational categories.

God, it seems, has always been concerned about creating a community.  He promised to make Abraham into a great nation (Gen. 12:2).  He called Israel out of Egypt, calling them “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).  That same imagery is used in 1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 5:10 to describe the Church.  Leviticus 26:12 states, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (NIV).  1 Corinthians 12 uses the image of the body and John 15 the image of the vine to express the dynamic of God’s people being united to the Father through Christ Jesus.

“Just as a person cannot arise, develop, and live apart from her relationships with others, neither can a Christian exist as a Christian before entering into relation with other Christians; she is first constituted as a Christian through these relations” (Volf 178).  We are adopted and infused into the Body of Christ when we receive God’s gift of salvation.  And, as1 Corinthians 12 notes, it would be ridiculous for one part of the Body to say that it does not need the other parts of the Body or that the whole Body does not need it!

Miroslav Volf’s scholarship on the Trinity, After Our Likeness, argues:

(1) that the church is not a single subject, but rather a communion of interdependent subjects, (2) that the mediation of salvation occurs not only through officeholders, but also through all other members of the church, and (3) that the church is constituted by the Holy Spirit not so much by way of the institution of office as through the communal confession in which Christians speak the word of God to one another (224).

The Church as an institution is a necessity, despite its obvious failures at times.  Within our own Protestant circles, some have come to believe that the church as an institution is contradictory to the Spirit of God.  Miroslav Volf asserts, “If this view were correct, then resolute ‘pneumatic anarchy’ would be the only appropriate ‘structure’ for a charismatic church.  This view, however, is prejudiced, and anyone sharing it fails to recognize both the character of ecclesial institutions and the way the Spirit of God acts” (234).  God’s Spirit is not a Spirit of chaos, but one that brings structure and unity, as evidenced by the creation accounts.  To put it another way, God’s Spirit is not divided among believers, but remains One Spirit thereby bringing all people in Himself together as One Body.

In such an individualistic society, such as the United States, the mentality of Christianity has become “it’s just me and Jesus.”  As such, many “Christians” have divorced themselves from the Church failing to recognize the importance or the necessity for Christian community in their daily walk.  As a result, the typical layperson does not take responsibility for their role in the Church.

Much of this problem can be contributed to a consumer mentality: “the Church is here to serve my needs.”  This mindset tends to negate one’s call to serve others as service to God.  Hebrews 10:25 reminds us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (NIV).  James berates his audience for similar thinking: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (NIV 2:14).  Our relationship with this Trinitarian God does not allow for us to neglect engaging our world!

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians outlines the purpose of the Church.  In chapter 12, we are told that the multiplicity (parts) is brought into unity (Body) through the Spirit under Christ.  Each body part has a particular function, so that every part is equally important in the ministry to each other and to the world.  In fact, when one part of the Body suffers, the entire Body suffers.  Furthermore, God has created the Church so that “there should be no division in the body” (1 Cor. 12:25).  If God designed the Church to be united, then how do we justify separating ourselves from the assembly of God’s redeemed people?

Typically, the ministerial task has been relegated to a relative minority.  Clergy have not always helped this trend, seeking to maintain power and control over congregations.  There is a tendency for such power to elevate people over and against one another, which is not conducive to community (at least not healthy community).  In addition, laity have often been under the assumption that ministry is a task for clergy, thus perpetuating the problem.

Although power is not a bad thing, we tend to handle it poorly.  This may, in part, be related to a hierarchical viewpoint of God.  For instance, Ratzinger’s concept of Christus totus inevitably leads to a power-structured church.  Even though the laity may be considered important, they are secondary to the role of officeholders (Volf 53-61).  Such a view elevates clergy to a “higher” service than the laity.  From a lay perspective, this sends a clear message that ministry is the clergy’s task.  As a result, laypeople may feel inclined to leave “ministry” in the hands of clergy.

However, the task of the clergy is service to the Body of Christ.  Jesus re-constitutes leadership for his disciples in Matthew 20:25-28: “’You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (NIV).  Leadership within the Church is outward focused, not for personal gain.  Jesus’ view of leadership was servant-hood, not power games.

“Indeed, participation in the Trinitarian life (i.e., to love and to know God – and his creation in him – the way he knows and loves himself, i.e., with a common love, both ‘actively’ and with ‘fruition’) implies a selfless way of acting in and towards the world” (Nieuwenhove 97).  This type of lifestyle is called of every believer, not as an option, as a natural overflow of our relationship with God.  A deeply intimate relationship with God does not allow us to sit idly by, relegating our service to Him in only words or with academic assent.  “But the loving spirit cannot rest in this, for charity and the inward stirring of the grace of God do not lie still” (Nieuwenhove 100).  God’s Spirit of Love moves us toward one another and sends us out into a broken world to re-present that Love.

SIN IS ANTI-RELATION

            Sin may seem like a very irrational category to discuss.  However, sin’s definition can ultimately inform us about God’s, and thus the Church’s, redemptive engagement in the world.  Our primary source for discussion will be Genesis 3, which narrates a creation both before and after sin enters the world.  This passage shows us what we are aiming for and combating against as the Body of Christ.

Walter Brueggemann comments, “In God’s garden, as God wills it, there is mutuality and equity.  In God’s garden now, permeated by distrust, there is control and distortion.  But that distortion is not for one moment accepted as the will of the Gardener” (51).  Prior to the entrance of sin in the garden, Adam, Eve, and the created order are in proper relationship with one another.  In fact, the man calls the woman “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), indicating equality and likeness.

However, sin dramatically altered humanity’s relationship with one another, God, and the created order.  In fact, when confronted with their disobedience, humanity points the finger of blame: (1) at God, (2) at each other, and (3) at the created order (serpent).  In addition, Adam only names Eve, an act of governing over, after sin is introduced into the Garden (Gen. 3:20).  Sin, as evidenced by this narrative, is primarily a relational disruption of community.  Now, humanity is solely concerned about self-preservation rather than promoting the welfare of others, which seems to be utterly contrary to God’s original intention for Creation.

Self-preservation is fear and distrust, not Love.  As 1 John 4:18 states, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (NIV).  According to the same epistle, “God is love.”  If love is not found in an action, God cannot be said to be in that action because “in him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5).  Thus, sin is anything that disrupts communion with Love.

Sin, in essence, is not a tangible thing.  If it were a tangible thing, it would follow that God created evil, however, Scripture simply does not support this view.  In fact, Augustine believed that “evil exists only in the weak sense that evil is the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light” (Serafini 40).  We might formulate this similarly by saying sin is the absence of Love.  This, I believe, is why Jesus affirms that the central commands are to love God and to love others, “for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).  God’s concern has always been right-relatedness, which is seen only when true agape is demonstrated in our lives.  It is obedience to God and the desire to promote the welfare of others.

Therefore, we cannot formulate that “to err is human.”  God created humanity without sin and this is the end to which He is now working.  In other words, God is redeeming the broken relationships, establishing righteousness, between God and His creation.  Where sin seeks to tear community asunder, God seeks to bring humanity under one Head, Christ.  To that end, the Church, as a “holy nation and royal priesthood”, is God’s sacrament to the world, a means of grace.  The Church is the eschatological people of God (Volf 128).

THE CHURCH’S SALVIFIC ROLE

Jan Van Ruusbroec writes, “Our created being does not become a creature, for we are created to the Image, that is, created so as to receive the Image of God, and that Image is the uncreated and eternal Son of God” (Nieuwenhove 89-90).  If sin
twists this Image within man, then salvation and sanctification restore and re-create the divine image within us.  Christ lives within us (Gal. 2:20)!  Christ is the fullness of the imago Dei.  He brings the Church into Himself, thereby bringing us into communion with the Trinity (Col. 1:15-23).

We are empowered to live by God’s Spirit in community, where before we could only live in fear and isolation.  The Church is an extension of the fellowship within the Trinity – by the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.  1 John 4:13-17 reads:

We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him (NIV).

The Church as a reflection of the Trinitarian communion must re-present such Love back into the world.  “Love demands love from Love and from the lover in a constant seesaw between love directed towards the world by God, towards God by the world, in between elements of God/Love, and towards the world by human lovers” (Boon 498).

Love cannot be held, as if we might own it.  Rather, Love is only ours insofar as we allow it to flow through us.  Mark 11:24 reads, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (NIV).  If that is true, then we are called to be conduits of God’s love.  It means that the love of God must always be given away.  To not give Love away is to cut yourself off from receiving Love.  It is the stewardship of God’s gifts.  We can only hold God’s gifts insofar as we live on His terms.  In other words, we do not own God’s grace, we merely become caretakers of that gift.

Furthermore, since we have all been created as equals in the divine Image, the task of participating with God in the world is not relegated to a minority.  Quite contrary to that thought, we must live in Christ as He lives in us.  There is only one Body, one Spirit, and one Lord (Eph. 4:4, Phil. 1:27).  In other words, the Great Commission (Mark 16:15) is given to the entire Body of Christ, of which we are all a part.

As such, we all have equal responsibility to that mission.  Luke 10:2 states, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (NIV).  As an equal community of laborers, we are called to add value back into God’s world by working with Him in re-creation.

CONCLUSION

            As has been noted, humanity has been created in the imago Dei.  This divine image imprinted upon us cannot help but shape what it means to be truly human.  We have been created to add value back into the world as laborers.  Secondly, God created humanity as equal partners, essential parts of the Body of Christ.  As such, the Christian community is equally responsible as God’s royal priesthood to engage in the Great Commission as the Church.  Finally, we have been created as a reflection of the Trinitarian community, from and toward one another.  As a result, the Church is not simply an option for our faith, but is an integral part of the work of God in the world.

As we are brought into the Church through Jesus, we become the very Body of Christ extending God’s love to the world.  We add value into the lives of others.  The Church can only function properly as the whole Body of Christ working together.  The fellowship of believers re-presents God to the world through the relationships we cultivate with one another.  And, we find that in participating with God’s redemptive work in the world, we ourselves are being saved, redeemed, and renewed to the glory of God.

Works Cited

Barron, Robert. 2007. “Augustine’s Questions: Why the Augustinian Theology of God Matters

Today.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture 10, no. 4: 35-54. Academic

Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2010).

Boon, Jessica A. 2003. “Trinitarian Love Mysticism: Ruusbroec, Hadewijch, and the Gendered

Experience of the Divine.” Church History 72, no. 3: 484-503. Academic Search

Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2010).

Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982.

Buber, Martin . I and Thou. Paperback Edition ed. New York: Scribner’s, 1970.

House, Zondervan Publishing. Zondervan NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002.

Serafini, Anthony. A History of Philosophy. Newton Abbot: International Scholars Publishers, 2001.

Van Nieuwenhove, Rik. 2000. “Ruusbroec: Apophatic Theologian or Phenomenologist of the Mystical Experience?” Journal of Religion 80, no. 1: 83. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 28, 2010).

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church As the Image of the Trinity (Sacra Doctrina).

Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.