Tag Archives: theology

My Catechism: Intro and Q1

I don’t have a Presbyterian background, so I was not taught the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a child. Yet, somehow I learned the first question: What is the chief end of man?

In spite of the archaic use of the words “chief” and “man”, I think it would be clear to most people that this is a question about purpose. A fair paraphrase would be, “What is the main purpose of humanity?” Some might prefer the more common question; “Why are we here?”

Since I’m not a Presbyterian, I don’t suppose it would surprise you to learn that my response to that question isn’t the one prescribed by the catechism. Please don’t click away just yet. This isn’t going to be a critique of the catechism. I’m not going to go on at length about why I think the catechism is wrong in one way or another in an attempt to undermine the Reformed theology reflected there. Instead, I’m simply going to answer each question for myself in accordance with my current (limited and fallible) understanding of Scripture as a sort of exercise. I’m sure that there’s something beneficial to be gained by doing this, even if I don’t exactly know what that might be at the moment.

In future posts, I’ll give the question, my answer and cite relevant passages of Scripture…if in fact I think there are any. Yeah, that sounds strange. If you’re familiar with the catechism (or just the Reformed way of doing things) you know that there are Scriptural references for each response. I concede that not referencing the same (or any) passages may amount to a tacit criticism of the catechism/Reformed theology…and that’s how I’ll leave any criticism-tacit, not explicit.

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end (main purpose) is to be the image of God within Creation, to increase in number, exercise authority over the Creation and to do God’s will on Earth as His will is done in Heaven.

Genesis 1:26-28
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Matthew 6:9-10
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

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The Hardest Thing to Believe

As you might have noticed, I’ve really enjoyed listening to Mark Driscoll as of late; particularly the series of lessons called “Religion Saves + 9 Other Misconceptions“.  In the series Mark addresses a set of questions put to him by the members of the Mars Hill community (and beyond?). By the time I post this, I will have heard lesson #6, but before I do I thought that I would tap out my own response to the question. 

01/27: #6 “Of all the things you teach, what parts of Christianity do you still wrestle with? What’s hardest for you to believe?”

The parts of Christianity that I still wrestle with are the ones that are transparent. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not eschatology (end times), soteriology (nature of salvation) or any other hard to grasp “-ology”. Sure, we could hold forth on the various types of love signified by different Greek words and then try to identify exactly who my “neighbor” is, but in the end we would find that the statement stands as is. Love others  as I love myself. I wrestle with that…and I often lose. There are lots of other teachings that are equally plain like; “husbands love your wives as your own body“, “fathers, do not exasperate your children“, “give to him who asks of you“, “bless and do not curse“, “do not store up treasure on earth“, “be doers of the word and not hearers only” and the list goes on.

As trite as this may sound, the hardest teaching of Christianity for me to believe is that God loves me. When I first began to think about what I would write in this post, this thought didn’t occur to me. Originally, I thought that that the hardest thing for me to believe was that God is more interested in my conforming to the likeness of Jesus than my “sound doctrine”. Then I asked myself why I spent so much energy on “getting it right”, that is pursuing right-thinking and I realized; at a gut-level, I still think that God will love me (more? better?) if my theology is right/good/sound. In short, after more than 20 years of belonging to Jesus, there’s a place deeper than my intellect where I don’t believe that God loves me…really…”Just As I Am“. While I know that God loves me (and all of His creation), this truth has not so fully penetrated my heart that it keeps me from emphasizing “sacrifice” over “mercy”. 

Check back with me in another 20 years and maybe by then I will have finally gotten it.

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Talking Theology on Tuesday

I like to blog these stories shortly whenever they come up, if for no other reason than to have them recorded for posterity…to be brought out many years later and shared!

As I was taking Son 1 and Son 2 to school this morning, we were listening to the Karen and Kids podcast.  Hearing someone say something about Jesus and Him saving us, Son 1 asks me from the backseat, “How will Jesus save us?” Pouncing upon the opportunity to summarize the four theories of atonement discussed in this book reviewed by Trevin Wax, I started out by saying…

No. I didn’t. I did what I normally do when my kids ask me such questions. I smiled, took a deep breath and took my best shot at answering. This is something akin to what I said:

There are many ways that Jesus saves us, and one way is when he comes back to be King on the Earth. When he comes back, he will take all of those people who are happy to see him, who love him and want him to be King and he will take away all of their bad stuff. He’ll take away all of their sins, all of their bad thoughts and their sickness and make them good. He will take away every bad thing so that those who love him can be with him forever.

Son 1 said that he loves Jesus and that he wants him to be King. Son 2, who was listening and finding it hard not to interrupt with his own questions finally got his chance and asked, “When Jesus comes, where will he sleep?”

Obviously, he’s welcomed to crash at our place.

Yea, crash Lord Jesus!

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God, Show Yourself

I started this post three weeks ago and have been so busy with life outside the blog that I haven’t been able to finish it. Now that I’ve got some time, I’m not sure that I should even try.

It all began with this post about Phillip Pullman’s views on God as he’s expressed them in various interviews. When asked whether or not he was interested in theology, he said that he was. Pullman commented that he was very interested in the “big questions” of theology such as “Is there a god?” I made the point then that I think theology’s first question is not “Is there a god?” but rather “Who is god?” Originally, I had planned a post that would expound on that question. I did some very limited reading and then the end of the semester and the holidays came upon me. Today, I looked back at some of what I’d written and realized that I’m not up to the challenge.

Of course, I think I know something  about who God is, but I don’t think I know everything about who God is. I don’t even think that’s humanly possible. Yet, I do believe that it’s possible to know specific things about God. Those specific things are known and knowable as a result of God’s self-revealing actions.

Several years ago, I was having dinner with a self-described “overly-educated” atheist and we were discussing God. He challenged that if God exists, why doesn’t He just show Himself to everyone. This question/challenge comes out in different ways in different circumstances but I think it is rooted in the “Who is god?” question. It’s like saying, “Come on, show yourself so we can know exactly who you are. So we can have someone to acknowledge as existing and real.” My answer to this guy was utterly forgettable (as evidenced by my having forgotten it) yet it occurred to me recently that God has, according to the Scriptures, on occasion done exactly that. God has shown up.

He showed up in Egypt to deliver the descendants of Abraham from slavery. When Pharaoh heard God’s command he responded, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him?” God proceeded to answer that question by systematically undermining the so-called gods of Egypt by demonstrating that it was He who actually controlled the Sun, nature and even the revered Nile. God showed up repeatedly ever after in other ways, but another dramatic appearance was on Mt.Caramel during the reign of a king called Ahab.

At that time, there was a sort of question as to who the people ought to worship. The choice was between God, who delivered their ancestors from Pharaoh, and someone called Baal, a god reportedly imported from along with Jezebel, one of Ahab’s wives. A contest was proposed: Elijah, God’s prophet to Israel, and the priests of Baal would both set up altars to offer an animal sacrifice to their respective gods. The deity who showed up with fire to light the sacrifice would obviously be god. In the end, God showed up and Baal didn’t.

Of course, as a Christian, I believe that God showed up again in the man Jesus. I also believe that my friend will ultimately get what he asked for; that God will show Himself so that everyone will know empirically that He exists. The interesting thing is that God’s periodic appearances in the meantime, as we can see in the Bible, aren’t really enough to bring people to believe in Him. God’s revelation of who He is may move people from the category of atheist to theist, but it won’t necessarily move people to trust in Him, to give Him the honor and respect that are His due. Pharaoh was a witness to the plagues and yet he still gathered his troops and chased the Israelites into the desert. Ahab saw the fire of God consume the water-soaked altar, animal, stones and all and yet continued to defy God until his death. Jesus himself said that His own resurrection from the dead would not change the hearts of some people.

Along side of my former colleague, there is John Humphreys, the BBC journalist that I posted about last week. In his interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Humphreys says that he wants to believe in God, that he has “gone down on his knees night after night” trying to talk to God but he has “failed”. Still, he does not believe. God has not shown Himself to John Humphreys in spite of his prayers. Why? Why hasn’t God put in an appearance for someone like Humphreys who so desperately wants to believe in Him? I have no idea and would not venture to guess. However, based on the examples given above, I can’t help but pose the question for my former colleague, John Humphreys and others, “If God did show up for you personally, would you change? Would you worship Him or would you interrogate Him? Would you follow Him or would you continue to go your own way?”

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Phillip Pullman’s (A)Theology

I will not see the film, The Golden Compass, nor will I read Phillip Pullman’s books upon which the movie is based…until the movie is available on DVD and I can borrow His Dark Materials from a library…perhaps sometime this summer when I’m back in the states on vacation.

I’m pretty sure that the film will be released here in the host country (possibly severely edited, possibly not) but my wife and I find it too hard to go the cinema now that we have four children aged 6 and under. As for the books…well, there are no good libraries here for us and I don’t think I care to the own books until I’ve read them. Nevertheless, I’ve taken some interest in the controversy that both the film and the books have stirred up. Consequently, I’ve spent this week visiting Pullman’s website and reading the interviews that he has linked there. Predictably, he has made some interesting comments in those interviews.

In one interview, Pullman is asked “Are you interested in theology?” and he responds in this way: “…yes, it’s an interesting question. The most important questions of all are the big religious ones: Is there a God? What is our purpose? And so on…” Today, that part of my brain which was processing this comment suddenly announced to the other parts of my brain, which were focused on getting a good cup of tea, that this is not actually the question that most people on the planet are asking. In fact, most people living today (as well as those who were living yesterday and the days before) do not ask the question “Is there a god?” but rather “Who is god?” (At least, that’s how I understand this.)

Yet, Pullman’s question remains: Is there a god? Of course, he’s thought about this a great deal and he has an answer ready should anyone ask. In the interviews linked to his website, the answer varies just a bit according to how the interviewer phrases the question. To one person who asked “Do you believe in God?” Pullman replied that he doesn’t see any “evidence for his existence”. However, confessing the limits of his own knowledge, Pullman conceded that god might very well exist. To another person who asked “Why do you hate God?” Pullman responded that he does not hate god but rather simply doesn’t believe he exists. In another interview, in answer to a separate question , Pullman offered that his “own belief is that God is dead”, which I guess is another way to say that God doesn’t exist.

Another comment from the interviews available at Pullman’s website which my brain has been processing this week goes like this:

“The Christian story gives us human beings a very important and prominent part. We are the ones who Jesus came to redeem from the consequences of sin, which our parents – you know. It is a very dramatic story and we are right at the heart of it, and a great deal depends on what we decide. This is an exciting position to be in, but unfortunately it doesn’t gel at all with the more convincing account that is given by Darwinian evolution – and the scientific account is far more persuasive intellectually. Far more persuasive.”

I’ve been wondering why it is that someone, who is as devoted to good story-telling as Pullman apparently is, finds a scientific answer to “the most important questions of all” more convincing than the highly dramatic Christian narrative? The answer seems to be that Darwinian evolution is more credible intellectually, yet Pullman, like all of us is much more than an intellect. One article I read described him in this way; “emotionally involved. He sits in the shed and makes it up and he weeps, yes, weeps copiously at the tragedies that unfold. He frightens himself and upsets himself and makes himself laugh.” Obviously, Pullman is a man with a heart as well as a brain.

So, I thought “Why would I prefer the scientific narrative over the Christian narrative?” I have an answer, but I confess that sharing it at this point would be unseemly. I’m afraid that in sharing it now, I would leave the impression that I was projecting my ideas onto Pullman, and I don’t want to do that. Generally, I disagree with the practice of attempting to psychoanalyze an author based on his works or even interviews about his work. While I certainly understand the temptation, I just don’t think I should do it.

Instead, let’s just leave off with the observation that, based on his comments in interviews, it’s easy to see how Pullman is a magnet for controversy.

NB: Last night while waiting for my son to finish at a friends birthday party, I sat in a restaurant reading an essay by CS Lewis. In it, I found him to be an unexpected admirer of what he called “the scientific outlook”, a story which is essentially the Darwinian story which Pullman says he finds so compelling. Leading into a dramatic summary of the scientific outlook, Lewis says,”Supposing this is a myth, is it not one of the finest myths which human imgination has yet produced?” I would reproduce the description except that it’s rather long. If you’re interested, you can read it in a collection of essays called, “The Weight of Glory” in the essay entitled “Is Theology Poetry“.

I’m beginning to think that Pullman is actually Lewis’ alter ego from an alternate universe.

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How Theology Matters

For the past week, I’ve been thinking about the question: “What good is theology?” I started thinking about it after skimming this post by Michael Spencer. Later, when I had the time, I went back and read what he said more closely and began to think about a similar (yet rhetorical) question that he posed: “How does theology matter….” particularly to Christians?

I think one way to understand how theology matters is to look at some specific theological positions (opinions, beliefs, etc) and examine their impact. Attempting to answer the question in this manner runs the risk of being perceived as overly pragmatic. By that I mean that some might get the impression that so long as the impact is positive (an admittedly subjective term) the theological position in question is acceptable, without regard for whether or not it is Biblical and / or true. This is not what I think, but I’ll follow this tact and take the chance of being misunderstood.

Before looking at the impact of specific theological positions, I want to take a moment to explain what I mean when I use the word “theology”. Theology is one of those words that get a lot of use within certain communities where people assume that they’re talking about the same thing but they really aren’t. For example, “theology” to some is an academic term used to speak about a particular kind of study, perhaps even a course or program of study. For others, “theology” is whatever opinions / beliefs that a person has about God and / or religion. Recently, I read one blogger who seems to use the word “theology” to speak about a particular way of living one’s life. For the sake of clarity, I think it’s important for me to state up front that I’ll be using “theology” in the academic sense…unless I decide to use it in the sense of an opinion because doing so serves my purpose. 🙂

Let’s start out by looking at the Pharisees. The theology of the Pharisee articulated an understanding of God as one who loved Jews and hated Gentiles. They characterized God as favoring the ritually clean over the ritually unclean. they also saw God as one who materially and physically rewarded righteousness while inflicting poverty and illness upon the wicked. To put in the KJV vernacular, they considered God a “respecter of persons”. Jesus apparently thought that the Pharisees’ theology mattered enough to address it in both His actions and His speech. To counter their erroneous theology, Jesus touched the unclean, ate with sinners and took on the religious establishment’s misuse of the temple. He also characterized the impact of the Pharisees’ theology as tying “heavy burdens and laying them on they people” while they were not interested in bearing the same burdens themselves. Jesus also said that the Pharisees on one occasion “condemned the innocent” and characterized converts to their religious views as “twice the son of hell that you are.” The theology of the Pharisees mattered because it left people who followed them burdened, condemned and cursed.

Christians do the same thing to each other today with our ill-conceived theology. A contemporary example of a poor conception of God and its impact on Christians can be found in the book, “The Power of a Praying Parent” by Stormie Omartian. One anecdote in the book tells of her teenage son’s survival of a horrible car accident which she credits to her diligent prayers for his safety which began at his birth. Ok. The problem comes when she says;

“Of course, Satan can do a lot of damage if we don’t teach our children God’s ways and God’s Word and help them to respect God’s laws, and if we don’t discipline them, guide them, and help them learn to make godly choices. The Bible tells us, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”. When we don’t do these things, our children can fall into rebellion and make choices that take them out from under the umbrella of God’s protection. Prayer and proper instruction in the ways and words of God will make sure that does not happen…”

While it is entirely possible for a parent to do all of the things stated and still have children who “fall into rebellion”, you don’t get that impression from her. Instead, she leaves the clear impression that God protects those children whose parents do these right things and pray for them. Conversely, it sounds like God won’t protect those children whose parent don’t do these things. Doesn’t it sound a bit like the Pharisees’ belief that God afflicts the religiously deficient and the wicked, while He favors the pious?  So, what happens if the child of the devout parent turns “bad”? Is the fault with the parental training? With the parental prayers?  To be completely fair, Omartian makes a statement in her book that she doesn’t mean to say that failure to pray “against” specific evils in her childrens’ lives will result in God not protecting them. Yet, this is precisely what she seems to indicate repeatedly. God comes across as a meticulous micro-manager whose hands are tied until we say a prayer. Until we do our children are vulnerable. Consequently, when we fail to pray, we are culpable when bad things happen to our children and ourselves. Again, the impact of the theology behind these teachings is Christians who are “harassed and helpless”.

Despite how it might seem, theology does have a positive impact on Christians. Predictably, the best illustration of this is Jesus who fully manifested the character of God when He lived among us. In the miracles of Jesus we see that God is powerful. In His choice of companions, we see that God is welcoming. In the teaching of Jesus we see that God is wise. Through the parables we learn that God is both loving and just. Jesus unburdened those who trusted Him. Their guilt was erased and their shame was taken away. As it was when He lived in a body, so it is today when He lives through His Body, the church…at least, when the Church is at her best. It’s easy to see why Michael Spence advocates a Christocentric theology.

Theology is necessarily limited. Some aspects of God are knowable through nature. Other aspects are only knowable by revelation. Eternity will be spent experiencing other aspects of God’s character which are not knowable by mortals as we are now. Yet, despite our limited ability to comprehend God, theology is important because what we believe about His character affects how we relate to His creation, particularly His “new creations”, our fellow Christians.

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