Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Theology (Page 4 of 24)

Some thoughts on thinking theologically


In recent years, I’ve become quite passionate about theology. Having recently begun to read Stanley Hauerwas’s latest book The Work of Theology (review to follow in due course), I felt inspired to share a few thoughts about what theology is, or at least what I, from my decidedly amateur perspective, perceive it to be. (I hasten to add that what follows consists solely of my own thoughts, uninformed by dictionary definitions or anyone else’s formal statement of what theology is. So if I say something nonsensical, the fault is entirely mine.)

Semantically speaking, theology is, of course, the study of God. But here we immediately run into a problem, because the very word study for many people implies dusty academic libraries and stacks of impenetrably complex and somewhat abstract books and essays. And study can be these things. But it need not fit the image of tedious labour that it so often attracts. (As for myself, while I’m passionate about theology, I have no formal theological training, though I’d love to remedy this one day, if time and money permit).

I have come to think of theology not just as the study of God in the academic sense but as thinking about God. Not thinking in the way that we might think about that nice holiday we had last summer, or what we might eat for lunch, or how to solve a thorny mathematical problem; rather, theology is deliberate, clear thinking about God.

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Some brief thoughts on fulness of life

The word abundance carved in a log of wood, outdoors on grass and under a cloudy sky

“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
(John 10:10)

This verse, in my experience, surely ranks among the favourite scriptures of contemporary western Christians.

After all, who could not want the abundant life? Who could refuse the promise – from the lips of Jesus, no less – of more and better?

However, call me a cynic (go on, call me a cynic!), but I see a couple of problems here.

First, our idea of what constitutes the abundant life is substantially influenced by the consumer capitalist culture in which we live. Ask any person in the street – or, more pertinently, in the church – what they understand by the “abundant life”, and chances are they’ll respond with something along the lines of more influence, a better job, more money, more status, more possessions, a bigger house… After all, how can an adjective like “abundant” mean anything other than bigger and better?!

In sum, the culture in which we live has exclusively defined “abundant” as clearly meaning nothing other than more, bigger, and better. And a large section of the church – notably the charismatic and Pentecostal wing thereof – has gone right along with this understanding. What else could Jesus have possibly meant? What else can “blessing” mean other than more money, more health… in short, more power and influence?

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Original sin fail

340729493_bf6dbe0ae1_oOne of the foundations of evangelical thought is the doctrine of original sin. We mainly have Augustine to thank for this gem. Thanks, dude.

The idea is that Adam sinned, and thereafter his sinfulness was passed down through his bloodline to all of humanity.

But let’s just think about this for a moment.

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The imperfect Jesus

midimanYeah, I know, some of you might think I’m a heretic just for that title. Or maybe you think I’m just being provocative or going for clickbait. Bear with me.

Many of us Christians have been conditioned to believe that Jesus must have been perfect. But where does this belief come from? Well, it originates from the confession that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. This confession goes back at least as far as the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE, of which it was a central component. While I have no wish to argue with the conclusions of that creed, I do want to challenge the resulting widespread notion that Jesus must therefore have been perfect. Or rather, I want to challenge quite what we mean when we say Jesus was perfect.

The logic is as simple as can be: Jesus was both fully God and fully man; if Jesus was fully God, that must mean he was perfect, right?

The first and biggest problem with this idea is that perfection is an entirely subjective quality. I could play you one of my favourite songs and tell you, “This song is just perfect”. But you might, for whatever reason, find the song awful, in which case you’d be hard pressed to acknowledge its supposed perfection. Since there’s no universally acknowledged standard of perfection on which we can all agree, we’re generally forced to accept that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. And everyone is mostly fine with this.

Except when it comes to Jesus. When it comes to Jesus, we all have to agree that he was perfect. No ifs, no buts.

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The judgement of the cross


“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)

Christians are generally accustomed to speaking of the cross as the place and time where God enacted judgement on the world. But what does this actually mean, and what are its implications?

Usually, the cross as the place of judgement is understood to mean the physical location where God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. Here, wrath is understood as the punishment for our sin which God, in his justice, is obliged to mete out: namely death. And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, gamely hangs on the cross in our place and bears the brunt of God’s implacable justice so that we, in spite of our sin, can escape punishment.

And the cross as the time of judgement is understood as the point in history when God sovereignly intervened in human affairs to solve humanity’s sin problem as described above.

So there we have it: time and place come together at the cross as Jesus bears God’s punishment for our sin. This, then, is the judgement of the cross: a resounding verdict of “Guilty!” pronounced upon the human race by God, accompanied by an unappealable death sentence. The twist is that Christ comes in as an innocent victim to serve the sentence in our place.

This is what I believed without a second thought for most of my Christian life. Until I began, through a process of reading and thinking, to see some gaping holes in it:

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Repost: on love and non-violence

This is a very slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared in May 2014.

3010722547_234ed82d0e_oIn his first epistle, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. To me, this means that if you boil it all down, if you strip away all the metaphysical and philosophical baggage and offload all the man-made religion, you are left with the essence of what God is: love.

But what is love?

In modern culture, of course, love has often been either trivialised into soppy romanticism or confused with lust, with sex as its purest and most exalted expression. Needless to say, neither of these comes close to describing the kind of love that God is.

Here’s what Jesus had to say about love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

I would say it’s pretty clear, then: the pinnacle of love is not romance, sentimentality or even some kind of general fondness or affection; the pinnacle of love is self-sacrifice. This is why the purest expression of the very nature of God – which is love – is Christ upon the cross.

Now, think for a moment about violence. What is violence? Here’s my proposed working definition: violence is the use of force – whether psychological, verbal, physical or armed – either to impose one’s will upon another individual or group or to protect’s one’s family, friends or property.

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On fearing God

FearToday I’d like to talk a little bit about God and fear. Specifically, about how the two are often deeply intertwined in our thinking.

It seems to me that fear is closely associated with our default understanding of God. Indeed, we might even say that for many people, fear is the instinctive emotional response to thoughts of God. Long-established expressions like “to put the fear of God into someone” illustrate just how intimately the emotion of fear is connected with the idea of God.

And, of course, those wishing to draw on the Bible to support the notion that fear is an appropriate response to God can do so with ease. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, we are told in Proverbs 9:10. And there’s no shortage of accounts throughout the text of scripture where God or his angels appear to strike fear into people’s hearts.

So, fear is typically quite ingrained in our psyche as a response to God, and many assume that the Bible validates its appropriateness.

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