It is claimed that Karl Barth used to tell his classes, “No one dare do contemporary theology until they have mastered classical Christian thought.” I find this to be a very compelling thought. The past forms the land we currently find ourselves in. If we don’t understand how it has developed, we cannot fully understand our present circumstances. Today’s church did not arise out of a vacuum nor do we do contemporary theology in a vacuum. We build upon the great hearts and minds of theologians that have gone before us. The difficulty is undertaking this challenge is the sheer amount of works to be read. There’s Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Anselm, Barth, Brunner, Aquinas, the early Church Fathers, Wesley, Zwingli, Torrance, and others. There is just SO much to read that Barth’s charge is almost impossible. And yet, little by little, I find that eventually, I’ll get there. Not overnight, but slowly nourishing myself with the great theologians that have gone before us and strengthened the church. We need not re-invent the wheel . . . we only need to make it better.
I ended yesterday’s post by pushing for the use of the Father-Children relationship to understand how God relates to humanity rather than the boyfriend/girlfriend metaphor that is more prevalent in the church today. One may push back on me by pointing to the idea that we are the bride of Christ (Paul uses this image; we see this also in Hosea; it may be the most pronounced in the Songs of Solomon). They may say that we need not reject this idea of the lover and the beloved. But, I do have some responses for these objections. First, this metaphor is used primarily in a communal sense. The church is the bride of Christ, not you and me individually. And not just my church or the church down the street, but the church universal. Second, it’s easy to impose our modern notion of marriage on the biblical text. We must remember that marriages were arranged in biblical times. We may claim that real love can’t take place in this context. But the opposite can be true. More on this later. Third, marriage in the Bible is a covenant between people, one that cannot be broken. Our high divorce rates have numbed us in many ways to the sharp statements in the Bible about divorce. Thus, while still remaining a secondary or peripheral metaphor for understanding our relationship to God, it does not surpass the Father/Children metaphor.
There may still be objections raised because we are forced into this relationship. My response: What’s so bad about being forced into a good thing? Being in the tender care of a God who sent his son to die for us. It’s not like we are forced into enslavement of some sort. We are adopted as children – this should be joyous, not depressing because we lost our liberty. We are forced to do many things in our life which we may dislike at the time but we appreciate much more later in life – going to school, doctor appointments and checkups, parents with restrictions and rules to abide by, etc. I bet we can think of many others. I just do see why we would object to being chosen (or even forced for that matter) into something that is for our benefit.
I find myself defending a high Calvinist position often in theology class because I want people to give it a fair hearing. But this brings up many questions with respect to election. Are we forced to come to faith? Are we forced to love God? What about my choice to love another? These sorts of questions are common place in such discussions. I think underlying many of these concerns are our modern concepts of liberty and relationships. After all, we are Americans, which carries with it some semblance of anti-authoritarianism. We want and desire free will; we can determine our destiny with the choices we make. We have rights to not be forced to do things we don’t want to do. That’s the liberty aspect. The relationship aspect elevates the free choice of love to great heights. In some ways this is true. Sometimes we have to choose to love another person even when we do not want to. But another part of the modern idea of love is the promotion of feeling to center-stage. We need to feel good in our relationships and feel the love of another.
What are the implications of liberty and love on the theological doctrine of election? Well, I’m glad you asked. Two things come to mind. First, our initial response to election is we feel repelled. Nobody can force us into relationship with them. We are not automatons – we can make decisions and live freely. Thus, liberty confronts the idea of election. But, the second implication is a shift in our understanding of humanity’s relationship to God. With the rise of the modern concept of love, we primarily think of love being given between two peers, two lovers. This has become the primary metaphor for our relationship with God today and I find it lacking. We don’t pray to God our Lover, but to God our Father. Jesus is our Lord not our boyfriend or girlfriend or adolescent crush. But this is what too many praise and worship songs reinforce today – the love relationship between peers built merely upon feelings.
I said I found this metaphor lacking. Let me tell you why. First, our primary relationship with God is one between a father and his children. I think this is the overarching motif found in the Bible. We don’t choose to be a part of a family. Either we are born into it or we are adopted into it (both biblical ideas again). These are both passive. This is why I think election makes sense. Covenants in the Bible are not voluntary associations one can join on a whim or to make new friends. No, you are chosen to be included in them. I don’t think the new covenant changes in this regard in relation to the OT covenants. The Father-Children metaphor needs to be recovered in the church today, which is difficult because of the often bad relationships children have with their fathers in our society. Nevertheless, we should emphasize this metaphor.
In my theology class, we have recently gotten into the infamous Calvinist/Arminian debates. These debates start to get old after a while, especially with Scriptures being volleyed back and forth at each other to prove a point. Probably the most debated aspect of Calvinism is the idea of limited atonement. Everybody loves to pull up the verses that Christ died for all (this, of course, is to combat the idea that Christ did not just die for the elect). As one swimming in the Reformed tradition, I have found a helpful distinction that must be discussed in order for limited atonement to do justice to both the Bible and to Reformed theology. This is the sufficient vs. efficient distinction. Thus, I think even a five-point Calvinist could say that Christ died for all, but the effects, i.e., the atonement, only impinge upon the elect. In class the other day, a fellow student and I debated this distinction. He is more in the line of Arminius. Anyways, he denied this distinction, both in Calvinism and in Arminianism. I pushed him on this saying that if Christ’s death is only efficient with respect to the atonement, then all are necessarily saved. He accused me of using a slippery slope fallacy which I conceded at the time. But as I reflected more on our exchange, the more I think that this distinction is vital no matter where one falls in this debate. For a Calvinist, it helps make sense of the Scriptures that Christ died for all while maintaining the consequences only affect the elect. For the Arminian, denying this distinction leads to one of two options. Either one becomes an universalist or one adds a caveat – Christ’s death is efficient for all but needs an impetus (namely the coming to faith or conversion) in order for the atonement to have its effects. I think both of these options may lead us down paths we do not want to go down. We can easily become universalists or works-based faith proponents when this distinction between sufficiency and efficiency is neglected.
So sometimes I can be a little disparaging towards apologetics. However, I do not think we need to rid ourselves of the exercise. Maybe the focus of apologetics needs to change. Instead of seeking to win arguments in order to win people to Christ, I think we need apologetics for Christians to take seriously the intellectual side of the faith. A conversation the other day illumined to me what may seem rather obvious: Christians in the marketplace (all those who work outside the of the church or non-profit ministries) have a much greater and deeper knowledge of their area of expertise than their Christian faith. Thus, their Christian faith may not have influence or impact on the decisions they make in their daily lives. We are often inch-deep Christians but mile-deep businessmen and businesswomen. The practice of apologetics should be to train people to think in a distinctively Christian manner with the Christian worldview as a backdrop. I think the scope of influence would grow with this slight change of emphasis or focus of apologetics. Maybe I’ll say more on this later. For now I have nothing more to say, just unformed thoughts floating in my mind.
One of the difficulties of reading the Bible in search of the theological perspectives of the biblical authors is that we have been taught that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Thus, when we come across a passage we have trouble making sense of, we turn to other passages that may illumine this particular passage. This is allowed if the author has that passage or book in purview. But I’m afraid that we import certain perspectives across books of the Bible even if the author of a particular book did not intend it. For example, the Johannine literature is where we find the majority of the substitutionary atonement passages. I find that people import John’s understanding of the atonement into say, Paul’s atonement theory. Instead of taking each other on their own terms and listening to their own perspectives, we try to synthesize when maybe a kaleidoscopic view of the atonement is allowed by the biblical witness. This happens in my theology class when we begin to argue which theory of atonement is more biblical when a number of them all seem to be biblical. Instead of being forced to simply choose one, why can’t we allow the mosaic of the biblical witness shape our understanding? The Scripture interprets Scripture hermeneutic allows one to mix and match with biblical metaphors and understandings in a way that one finds or constructs what they wish. Why does John’s view of the atonement outweigh Mark’s view? The idea of the clarity of Scripture (or perspicuity to demonstrate that I am indeed attending seminary) does not connote that the Bible portrays views in their simplest states (one unified view opposing all other understandings). But it does suggest that the witness of the biblical authors is clear. And even if different authors may view the atonement or any other doctrine in different ways does not mean we have to choose one or the other or be forced to synthesize the views into a simplified unity. Rather, it may suggest that our theology needs to expand and make room for these different perspectives within the biblical witness. Then again, sometimes there is no room in the inn, and we are forced to the manger.
This semester, I am involved in a Bible study on the gospel of John. I am not leading this group simply attending it. I am also currently taking a class of systematic theology at the seminary. Those may not seem all that related for now but I hope they soon will. So, the other day we started going through the gospel of John, specifically the prologue (1:1-18). Throughout our time, the pastor asked a variety of questions to the 20 or so people participating in this study. His intent was for people to be in the text. There were several times throughout the evening that he posited a question which was followed by a quick response. The problem was, the text was not saying that. At times people were recalling passages from other gospels. Or their theology was infiltrating how they read the gospel, so much so that they were reading things into the text. In theology, especially systematics, we try to reconcile the entire biblical witness into a coherent system. A difficulty arises from systematics when we no longer read the biblical authors for what they wrote. Rather, our theology paints a certain picture in the literature. This is frustrating to me at times. The four gospels are unique each written with a particular purpose and I posit, a particular theology. These theologies are not antithetical, but I think we do a disservice to the Bible that we say is our authority when we manipulate it through our theology. This is easy for us to do. Hopefully an awareness of it will foster better habits in which we take each biblical author for what they are trying to express. Then and only then, can we attempt to systematize.