On Working Out a New Theology

Last year a bright friend of mine who is a missionary in Jordan found himself realizing that big parts of the theology he grew up with could no longer be sustained by the Bible. This was causing him a pretty grueling experience of trying to sort it all out. I sent him this note:

On theology: several times in my life large chunks of my theology exploded in front of me. It felt like safety to run back and dive in to what I had formerly believed, but it would have been intellectually dishonest and fake, because I knew it had too many holes in it. I couldn’t “unlearn” the new facts that had shot holes through my former theology. It’s ok for it all not to come together again right away. Some times it took me several years. I stuck doctrines (or how several fit together) in the “pigeon hole of suspended judgment” and kept reading, talking and thinking and let it take as long as it took to piece together something new. Sometimes it was several years. Each time a piece clicks into place it’s very encouraging. I know the (for me frustrated) feeling of not being able to express what I believe about something even to close people like my brother in law, because I’m not sure what to say and how to even fit it together or even what it is. That’s all fine. Growth takes time. Wiser, smarter men than us have been through this in other generations and now it’s our turn to be faithful to go thru it. As long as you keep loyal to Jesus throughout the process, the doctrines can wax and wane, come and go, piece together or be full of gaps – I think it’s all fine with God. He knows if I love Him or not.  People get loving God and loving doctrines confused. It’s easy to feel like a heretic when you are on your way to a new theology. It’s not heresy, it’s just that you are still looking for what the new theology is that takes into account the “externalities” that blew up your former one. The road to a new, honest theology that brings glory to God is pretty cloudy and foggy while you walk it (unless it’s not for geniuses, but I’m not one). Stuff will start fitting together as time goes by. What I would hate to see you do is shut down the process out of anxiety and “go back” to believing something that you may have seen has some serious holes in it. It’s an understandable psychological move people make – but it’s dishonest about what they’ve learned about the bible – sort of like sticking their head in the sand in order to avoid the tough work of sorting something new out. You are too gifted, too bright, too all kinds of things to be wasted doing that.

Your theology is in its 10th revision

Or fourteenth. Or twentieth.

Some people, when they hear talk of new theology or new work in theology, start talking as if their own theology is the original, Biblical theology and all new work in theology is illegitimate. But no matter what brand of Christian theology you hold to, it’s been through many revisions. Since the earliest centuries Christians have worked, tweaked, revised, changed their theologies as their understanding of God and the Scriptures developed. For example, Calvin (16th century) used and modified Anselm’s ideas (11th century). Anselm had used and changed Augustine’s theology (5th century). Augustine was deeply influenced by many Greek philosophers (400 BC ff) and the theology of the Council of Nicea (325 AD). Of course there were hundreds of other philosophers and theologians influencing Calvin and the Reformers, not just the ones mentioned. This is the way Christian doctrine has developed over 20 centuries. In fact, Christian theology has also been influenced by Muslim and Jewish theologians across the Middle Ages (Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides, etc). If this last fact bothers you, remember that Paul said people figure out things about God even aside from the Revelation in Jesus (Romans 1: 18ff).

No, no, some people insist, but I just hold to the Biblical theology – you know, what they believed in Jesus’ day. Really?  Within Second Temple Judaism of Jesus’ day, which theology do you mean? The Zealots’ theology, or the Saduccees’? The theology Rabbi Gamaliel  held, Hillel or Shammai? The separatist theology of Qumran or the Hellenized theology of Pharisees like Paul, who quoted Greek poets and philosophers? It’s clear that most New Testament Jewish theologies had been majorly influenced by Greek thought, and before that Jewish theology picked up many ideas from the Persians. The same thing was going on in New Testament times. A variety of theologies abounded, and they had been modified and revised as time went on.

So when Christians continue the on-going work of theology (“words about God”), we are simply doing what Christians, Jews and Muslims have done for our entire history. Theology didn’t start or end with Calvin or whoever your favorite might be. What people think of as “I hold to a simple biblical theology” is really the culmination of thousands of years of tweaking, revising and modifying. It isn’t going to end this side of the Age to Come. It’s ok. We are still learning, stretching, growing, being taught by God’s Spirit who makes the written words come alive in us.

Next time: what it’s like to be on your way to a new theology

God describes Levi

In Malachi 2: 4-6, God says this about the ancient Israelite Levi:

4  I am telling you this, so I can continue to keep my agreement with your ancestor Levi. 5 I blessed him with a full life, as I had promised, and he kept his part of the agreement by honoring me and respecting my name. 6 He taught the truth and never told lies, and he led a lot of people to turn from sin, because he obeyed me and lived right

Not a bad description, short and succinct, of the kind of life to aim for.

10 Reasons Men Should Not Be Ordained

Found this on Tom Oord’s site, it’s making its way around the web.   Dig it!
•10. A man’s place is in the army.
•9. For men who have children, their duties might distract them from the responsibilities of being a parent.
•8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.
•7. Man was created before woman. It is therefore obvious that man was a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment, rather than the crowning achievement of creation.
•6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.
•5. Some men are handsome; they will distract women worshipers.
•4. To be ordained pastor is to nurture the congregation. But this is not a traditional male role. Rather, throughout history, women have been considered to be not only more skilled than men at nurturing, but also more frequently attracted to it. This makes them the obvious choice for ordination.
•3. Men are overly prone to violence. No really manly man wants to settle disputes by any means other than by fighting about it. Thus, they would be poor role models, as well as being dangerously unstable in positions of leadership.
•2. Men can still be involved in church activities, even without being ordained. They can sweep paths, repair the church roof, change the oil in the church vans, and maybe even lead the singing on Father’s Day. By confining themselves to such traditional male roles, they can still be vitally important in the life of the Church.
1. In the New Testament account, the person who betrayed Jesus was a man. Thus, his lack of faith and ensuing punishment stands as a symbol of the subordinated position that all men should take.

The Zen of Surf Fishing

Every year my family takes a pilgrimage for a week or two to one of two barrier islands on the North Carolina coast.  Topsail Island and Holden Beach are quiet places with mostly just houses. This is not your boardwalk kind of beach. Instead of T-shirt shops and noise, this is a tranquil juncture of sand and water, sky, dune, sun, the sound of waves, gulls and the wind. We go in the off season (bring wetsuits!) so we mostly have the place to ourselves. We can set out surf rods, swim, snorkel, hunt for shells and shark’s teeth, swim, surf and cast spoons all at the same time without worrying about crowding anyone.  The houses we rent sit right on the dunes themselves, you walk off the back porch and onto the sand.  Paradise. Oftentimes we go with my wife’s extended family, all of us great friends, so it’s also a reunion event.

One of my chief pursuits while there is the surf fishing. Mullet, pompano, flounder, redfish, drum, blues, sea trout, and shark cruise the shorebreak. I could do this from morning til night and never get bored. Sheer delight. And although I love the fish, both on the line and in the skillet, the experience isn’t dependent on the catch.

It’s the zen. The rituals of preparing the rods and tying rigs are done slowly, meditatively. “Like a samurai putting on his armor,” my teenage son intones. He understands it. Standing  at the edge of the continent I am totally peaceful, my mind at ease, I am just there. The wet sand underfoot, the sound of the waves, the view out to sea, sunlight on my body, the sound of gulls, terns, kittywakes,  there is a quiet that settles in on me. And God is all around. Calm, my mind empties. I am in this place of sun, water and sky, just God and myself. Totally immersed in the natural world that God made. Henry Beston, who wrote The Outermost House in the 1920s after spending a year living in a shack on a remote stretch of Cape Cod, captures better than I can the soothing solitude and natural rhythms of this part of Creation. I cannot summon the words to adequately describe the experience. After years of doing it, it takes only a moment for my mind to unwind once I am standing there with the Daiwa rod in hand, finger on that 17 lb. test Cajun Red.

The things needed for me to do in my regular daily life mean I couldn’t live this way 24-7. However, like Isaac out in the fields meditating (Genesis  24:63), I recommend getting alone on a regular basis, daily if you can,  and calming yourself, getting centered in God; praying without hurry. Surf-fishing for a week  gives me a long, wonderful, luxurious dose of that. It is an example of the long Christian tradition of ‘retreat’.