The Importance of Theology to Christianity

Since I have grown weary of hearing (some) pastors dismiss and even disparage the task of theology from the pulpit, I decided to post three insights from P.T. Forsyth on its integral, constructive role in the Christian church.

“The root of all theology is real religion; of all Christian theology, and even apologetic, it is Christian religion, it is saving faith in Jesus Christ. It is justifying faith, in the sense of faith in a forgiving God through the cross of Jesus Christ. But this religion cannot be stated without theology. If theology can be shewn to be irrelevant to a living and evangelical faith, then the Church can afford to treat it with some indifference, and to leave its pursuit, like philosophy, to the Universities. But the Christian religion is theological or nothing.” (3)

“A Church must always have a dogma, implicit or explicit. A cohesive Church must have a coherent creed. But it must be a dogma the Church holds, not one that holds the Church. The life is in the body, not in the system. It must be a dogma, revisable from time to time to keep pace with the Church’s growth as a living body in a living world. The study of theology must go on and go forward.” (213)

“It is only when the ministry despises theology and sacrifices it to a slight and individualist idea of religion, that the Church immolates intelligence and finally commits suicide. It parts with staying power in order to capture a hearing, and surrenders faith to gain sympathy.” (293)

Forsyth, P.T. The Person and Place of Jesus Christ. 4th ed. London: Independent Press, 1930.

Example of a Theological Analogy Drawn from English Literature

The congregational minister P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921) was one of the greatest English-speaking theologians of the early twentieth century. His thought frequently unfolds by means of metaphors and analogies. On the one hand, this aspect of his style makes his writing more “suggestive than systematic” (as Donald Dawe observed in The Form of a Servant 131). On the other hand, it seems to me that this aspect makes his insights more powerful and enduring. The following is an example of a theological analogy drawn from English literature. In this particular analogy, Forsyth seeks to express the mystery of the incarnation — the unity of being between the Father and the Son. I am repeating it here because I would like to see more of the same. That is, I would like to see more contemporary pastors and theologians illustrating their points with examples from literature and classical culture.

To compare great things with small, that powerful genius Emily Brontë makes the heroine in Wuthering Heights say, “I am Heathcliffe. He is always, always in my mind; not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself; but as my own being.” Borne on the current of her passion, she goes on to say, “I love him because he is more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” And did not the insight of the Church go on to say the like sub specie eternitatis of the Son’s relation to the Father? Is unity of being not the postulate of a love so engrossing and complete as the genius of the Church’s faith realised that of Father and Son to be? It is not only in theology that passion gravitates to metaphysic. (241-42)

Works Cited

Dawe, Donald G. The Form of a Servant: A Historical Analysis of the Kenotic Motif. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1968. Print.

Forsyth, P.T. The Person and Place of Jesus Christ. 4th ed. London: Independent Press, 1930. Print.

Should Christians Strive for Personal Salvation?

Should Christians strive for personal salvation? The majority of Protestants will likely answer this questions with a resounding, “No!” Most will support their response by citing one of the main Reformation slogans, which asserts that Christians are justified by faith alone (sola fide). Many will go on to quote Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2.8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (NIV 2011). However, an adequate theological response requires a bit more nuance. For, James says in his epistle that “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (2.24). Moreover, even Paul concludes his thought by noting that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2.10).

Now, it is well known (at least among biblical scholars) that James does not actually contradict what Paul says in Ephesians because James is using a different sense of the word “works.” That is, James is referring to works of love done as an expression of genuine faith whereas Paul is referring to works of the law done to earn salvation. But, the point is, James’ discernment still stands – sincere, saving faith cannot be separated from faithful living. As Augustine articulated it, “Paul said that a man is justified through faith without the works of the law, but not without those works of which James speaks” (On the Christian Life 13, cited in Blomberg 397-98).

The Reformers, of course, were very familiar with Augustine’s works. What they meant by sola fide was “a faith in divine promises of salvation in Christ, a faith that always led to sincere, grateful, determined endeavors to live wholeheartedly for God” (Payton Jr. 130). For instance, Luther wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works. . . . Righteousness does not consist in works, although works neither can nor ought to be wanting” (cited in Payton Jr. 124). In other words, the “teaching that faith can be solitary — that it can stand alone, without any diligence to serve God and others” is a serious misrepresentation of Luther’s insight on justification (Payton Jr. 129). Again, to be clear, saving faith always generates works of love out of grateful obedience to God. Thus, the contemporary notion of “solitary faith” is a semantically slight but spiritually significant distortion of sola fide, one that has spawned disastrous impressions of “easy believism” and “cheap grace.”

So, should Christians strive for personal salvation? Does it require moral effort? The paradoxical answer seems to be both “Yes” and “No.” Ignatius of Antioch wisely wrote, “It is not a matter of promising now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith” (cited in Payton Jr. 130). In his introduction to Christian belief, Roger Olson astutely characterizes the paradoxical nature of the Christian consensus about personal salvation as “both gift and task — with the priority of grace over works” (300). That is, “Christians all together believe that salvation as reconciliation with God and inward renewal from the corruption of inherited depravity and toward the restoration of the image of God is wholly and completely a work of God’s grace while at the same time also an event and process involving human agency” (Olson 301-302).

Two biblical passages seem to supply sufficient evidence for this consensus of belief. First, notice how salvation is described as both gift and task in 2 Peter 1.3-11:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (emphasis added)

Second, and lastly, observe how Paul succinctly summarizes the paradox of salvation in Philippians 2.12-13:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed . . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

Works Cited

Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts Through Revelation. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006. Print.

Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. Print.

Payton Jr., James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.

Civil Resistance to the Presumptive Nominees

The two major political parties (aided and abetted by the media) recently narrowed the field of candidates for president of the United States; in so doing, they revived the applicability of the following goad from Thoreau:

Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only available one, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. (968)

Thoreau, Henry David. “Resistance to Civil Government.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2012. 964-79. Print.

Political Language

In the midst of what appears to be the craziest campaign season in the history of American politics, I think it is wise to revisit the following insight from George Orwell regarding “Politics and the English Language.”

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemisms, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” (2617)

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” The Norton Anthology of English       Literature, Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: Norton, 2012. 2610-19. Print.

Recommendation of Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts

Miracles coverKeener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. Hardcover. 1172 pages. $65. ISBN 978-0-8010-3952-2.

In this magisterial two-volume work on miracles, Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, argues for the following two theses: 1) massive numbers of contemporary eyewitnesses from around the world do offer the kind of miracle claims attested in the Gospels and Acts; consequently, based on the principle of analogy, the miracle claims in the Gospels and Acts should be considered historically plausible and 2) supernatural causation should be respected as a viable interpretive option for many cases of miracle claims, especially since it appears to be the best explanation in some cases. For what its worth, I think Keener substantiates both his primary and secondary theses. What’s more, along the way, he uncovers the circular and biased construction of Hume’s argument against miracles; reveals the complexity and uniqueness of agent causation; deliberates ancient, modern, and contemporary approaches to natural law; propounds perceptive worldview analysis from cross-cultural perspectives; and advances an agnostic or philosophically neutral historiography that assumes neither metaphysical naturalism nor supernaturalism. Although the 884 pages of content is rather repetitive in places, the two-column, small font, 166-page bibliography is truly phenomenal. It is a researcher’s paradise. The copious bibliography coupled with an additional 114 pages of indexes makes the work an indispensable reference. I highly recommend Keener’s extensive collection of research on the subject of miracles, which remarkably began as a footnote in his commentary on Acts. Who says the devil is in the details?

The Principle of Analogy and the Concept of Worldview

Walter Wink brilliantly observes the interdependent relationship between the principle of analogy and the concept of worldview in the following article:

Wink, Walter. “Write What You See: An Odyssey by Walter Wink.” The Fourth R 7.3 (May-June 1994): 3-9. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

Here is an excerpt of wisdom that deserves to be read and implemented.

“Historical research depends on analogy to understand the past. If we have limited analogues – if for some reason our life experience is truncated, or too narrow, or filled with anxiety about overstepping the permissible, then our capacity to understand the past will suffer as a result. A person raised in a rationalistic, scholastic religion, a religion circumscribed by deadly fears of heresy and dogmatically confined to an oppressive orthodoxy, is not going to be able to enter empathetically into the spontaneity and boundary-shattering milieu of the early church. . . . Historical discussion is often made to bear the weight of what are essentially differences of worldview, which cannot in principle be settled by historical method. Worldviews are constituted by what one believes about the nature of reality, and therefore by what one conceives to be possible. People with an attenuated sense of what is possible will bring that conviction to the Bible and diminish it by the poverty of their own experience. Consequently, one of the best preparations for historical work on the Bible is continually to expand the horizons of our experience, especially our experience of spiritual reality.”

Wink’s entire article is well worth reading and can be found on Westar Institute’s website: Write What You See.

Review of The Upside-Down Kingdom

The Upside-Down Kingdom coverDonald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Rev. ed.). Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2011. Paperback. 319 pages. $11.09. ISBN 978-0-8361-9513-2.

In the sequel to his gospel, St. Luke records the accusation leveled against Jason and some of the other disciples of Jesus in Thessalonica, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7 NRSV). In The Upside-Down Kingdom, sociologist Donald B. Kraybill embraces the underlying truth of this first-century accusation (namely, the potentially subversive nature of Jesus’ mission and message) and presents its ongoing, contemporary relevance as his central thesis: “the kingdom of God announced by Jesus was a new order of things that looked upside-down in the midst of Palestinian culture in the first century. Moreover, the kingdom of God continues to have upside-down features as it breaks into diverse cultures around the world today” (9). Accordingly, the argument of the book hangs on the following three hinges: what Jesus really did, what Jesus really taught, and what faithful witness to the way of Jesus really means in today’s world. (And, yes, Kraybill contends contemporary people really can discern these things.)

In the initial chapter, “Down Is Up,” Kraybill defines the meaning of the kingdom of God, explains the overarching image of his central claim, and addresses five “detours” or reasons that are frequently given by people as a means of circumventing the claims Jesus’ teachings make on their lives. First, the kingdom of God is the “dynamic rule or reign of God” (18). As such, it entails a collective order or a collectivity (an interdependent group) of “persons who have yielded their hearts and relationships to the reign of God” (19). The point is the kingdom of God is inherently social such that “[i]t involves membership, citizenship, loyalties, and identity” (18). Second, the upside-down imagery is intended to convey the way the kingdom of God challenges the prevailing social order – how the values of the kingdom stand in an inverse relationship to the values of the world. That is, what is highly valued at the top of one order ranks at the bottom of the other (17). Third, the surprising, upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, which often reverses the way things are in startling ways, is uncomfortable. Consequently, people frequently attempt to get around Jesus’ call by asserting one or more of the following propositions: “Jesus Is Lost in History,” “Jesus Is Wrapped in Culture,” “Jesus Goofed on the Timing,” “Jesus Only Spoke of Spiritual Things,” and “Jesus Only Addressed Personal Morality.” Of course, Kraybill astutely argues why each of these claims really constitutes an invalid excuse for avoiding the challenge of Jesus’ radical message.

In chapters two, three, and four, Kraybill unpacks the meaning of the upside-down kingdom by contrasting it with the “right-side-up” political, religious, and economic temptations Jesus faced during his forty day ordeal in the desert – temptations he continued to encounter and thwart all throughout his ministry. To begin, Kraybill shows how Jesus was faced with the right-side-up option of establishing a political kingship using violent force or coercive power (51). And, by way of contrast, how Jesus demonstrated humble service as the new way of ruling: “his upside-down revolution replaced force with suffering and violence with love” (55). Next, he uncovers how Jesus was faced with the right-side-up option of endorsing institutionalized religion and receiving its accolades. And, by way of contrast, how Jesus critiqued established religion from within: “when religious practices grew stale he turned them upside-down and inside out and called them back to their original purpose” (69). Last, he displays how Jesus was faced with the false dilemma posed by the right-side-up options of either responding violently or miraculously to end economic oppression. And, by way of contrast, how Jesus forged a third way to reverse injustice by redefining what it means to be truly rich and calling those with abundance to “stop hoarding and give generously” (82).

In chapter five, Kraybill presents the principle of Jubilee as the center of his argument because it is the core of Jesus’ mission and message. In fact, the broad contours of the book fit neatly into the following chiasm (a special symmetrical order that emphasizes the point in the center):

Political temptations (chapter two)
    Religious temptations (chapter three)
          Economic temptations (chapter four)
               The principle and practice of Jubilee (chapter five)
          Economic affairs (chapters six and seven)
    Religious affairs (chapter eight)
Political affairs (chapters nine, ten, and eleven)

Since the central element in a chiasm is paramount, considering Kraybill’s answer to the question, What is Jubilee? is crucial to understanding his case for the upside-down kingdom.

So, then, What is Jubilee? According to Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, the Jubilee was part of the Hebrew calendar. In the creation story, God instituted the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day. This divine pattern of work and rest was extended beyond the weekly cycle. The seventh year was commemorated as a sabbatical year and the seventh sabbatical year (the forty-ninth or fiftieth year) was celebrated as the Jubilee. The sabbatical year contained three significant practices or “shake ups” that turned social life upside down: 1) land was allowed to rest or lie fallow, 2) slaves were set free, and 3) debts were canceled. The Jubilee year contained an even more substantial provision or social “shake-up”: real estate reverted to its original owners (86-87).

Why is the Jubilee crucial to understanding the kingdom of God? The short answer is because Jesus ties his messianic role to this grand “shake-up.” Indeed, in the inaugural message of his public ministry, Jesus summarizes his mission by quoting from the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”
(Luke 4:18-19 NIV).

If the connection is not readily apparent, look again: “The ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ refers to the Hebrew Jubilee . . . . The sermon is, in essence, a Jubilee proclamation” (85). What’s more, “the Jubilee vision permeates Jesus’ teaching, not only at Nazareth but throughout his entire ministry” (97).

The theological principles of the Jubilee form the framework of the upside-down kingdom. In the second half of the book, Kraybill expounds the social consequences/radical repercussions of this vision as he revisits Jesus’ teachings on economic, religious, and political affairs. Here is a short sketch of the significant subjects he sheds light on: the dangers of greed and wealth as well as the ways they distort our theological beliefs (chapters six and seven), the pitfalls of pompous piety (chapter eight), and the calls for enemy love, nonviolence, just peacemaking, inclusive hospitality, social equality, and self-giving service (chapters nine, ten, and eleven).

Given the favorable nature of this review, it probably goes without saying that I highly recommend this book. I certainly concur with the caution on the cover: This Book Could Change Your Life! However, in keeping with Kraybill’s final chapter on active obedience, costly commitments, and determinative decisions, I want to leave readers with an even more definitive alert: God Will Change Your Life! The kingdom of God is already breaking out on earth as it is in heaven. Lives are being changed in response. God is actively welcoming recruits and frustrating rebels: paths are being straightened, “detours” eradicated.

“The LORD watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turns upside down”
(Psalm 146:9 NKJV).

“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
(Isaiah 55:1a NRSV).

Recommendation of Christians at the Border

Christians at the Border cover

In the midst of unprecedented waves of migrants pouring into Europe from war-torn Syria and increasingly hostile political tirades about Hispanic immigration to the United States, there is no better time for Christians to pause and ponder the biblical perspective on the matter of immigration. In order to discern what the Bible has to say about this complex issue, I highly recommend  the following work by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas), distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary:

Carroll R., M. Daniel, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013. Paperback. 170 Pages. $17.99. ISBN 978-1-58743-351-1.

In chapter 1, Carroll provides a brief, but very beneficial, historical overview of Hispanic migration to the United States. The first chapter also tackles two of the most common concerns about undocumented immigrants, namely, their alleged adverse effect on national identity and the economy. Lastly, the initial chapter raises the relevant, but often ignored, role of Christianity in the lives of the majority of Hispanic immigrants. In chapters 2 and 3, Carroll examines Old Testament teachings that pertain to the issue of immigration such as the image of God, migration stories, exile narratives, the practice of hospitality, and legislation concerning sojourners. In chapter 4, he considers some germane guidance from the New Testament. Specifically, he investigates a few examples from Jesus’s life and teachings, the foundational metaphor of Christians as foreigners and sojourners in this fallen world, the continuing practice of hospitality in the church, and Paul’s teaching about submitting to authorities in Romans 13. In the final chapter, Carroll draws together all the implications of the biblical material for today, which were offered throughout the book, and concludes with a challenge to embrace the “other” – “the majority by the Hispanic and the Hispanic by the majority culture” (134).

My hope is that Christians will allow the Bible to unequivocally inform their politics and courageously pursue this kingdom way of living in the world.