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Archive for the ‘theological debates’ Category

Do you ever hear of people or institutions described in the following way:

“Don’t get me wrong, their theology is straight down the line. They’re faithful, biblical, solid, orthodox, sound as a pound. You couldn’t fault them on their teaching… It’s just… Well, they’re not very loving. In fact they’re pretty closed. Cold even. Harsh actually. Come to think of it they’re some of the most hard hearted people I’ve ever met.”

It’s quite common to hear, isn’t it? What do we think is a good response?

My immediate reaction is: Where are these total-gospel Christians with diamond-hard hearts? What kind of gospel must this be? How could ‘solid, orthodox, faithful’ theology produce loveless believers? Do we really think they’ve got their theology right, they just happen to be bearing no gospel fruit?

And what remedy would we propose for such cool-headed, cold-hearted Christians? Do we assume that they already know the gospel and therefore need to be inspired to love via other means? What means?

No. Next time you hear someone say “He/She/They are solid theologically, they’re just not loving”, say “Pish, Tosh, Codswallop, Bunkum and Balderdash!”

They cannot be solid theologically. Maybe once they were. But our gospel is revealed far more clearly in our lives than our credal subscription.

I’m not saying that in depth study of the Athanasian creed guarantees warm-hearted gospel love.  I am saying that we should question the common-place label of ‘cold but sound.’  What do you think?

 

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About 10 years ago I wound up in the office of a Christian counsellor.  I couldn’t believe I was about to confess to depression.  Me, a church worker!  Me, conservative evangelicalism’s next big thing!

The cause?  Several very stressful things were happening in my life, but the tipping point into depression was a frustration with the gospel that was being preached around me.  And I fell flat on my face in despondency.

My counsellor took me to Jeremiah 2:13 and said (very graciously) I’d been digging some kind of broken well which had dried up.  Now I was slumped at this false life-source with a mouth full of mud.  He asked what the broken well might be.  In an instant I knew: “I need everyone to read the bible the same way I do”.  Not for the glory of Jesus, but to be right!

I asked “What should I do?”  He said, “Give up on it and turn back to Jesus.”  As soon as he said “Give up on it” my whole flesh rose up and said “Never!”  Instantly I knew that this idol had its hooks in me.  And it shocked me.

My theological paradigm had become my god.  And it was so subtle.  Because here’s the thing: I prided myself on the fact that my paradigm was uniquely Christ-centred.

But when I identified the pride issue a weight fell off my shoulders.  The issue was not the idiots out there, the issue was the arrogance in here.  I’d been thinking of it as a complicated issue of theological debate with no way through.  In fact it was a simple (but very ugly) issue of plain old sin.  And the gospel has a solution for sin.

Someone has wisely said that if you diagnose your problems as requiring anything less than the blood of Jesus for their solution, you haven’t diagnosed your real problem.  My hour with the counsellor cut through to the real problem.  But thankfully the real problem has a real solution.  And it’s already mine.  Or rather, He’s already mine.  I left that office with a massive weight off my shoulders.

Not that I didn’t think the issues mattered any more.  They did matter.  They still matter.  But I looked at them through a different lens.

For one thing, I started pitying the Christ-lite Christians around me – not despising them or competing with them.  But genuinely feeling sorry for them and wanting something better for them.  I gave up on being the one who would crush them in theological debate and started to think more in terms of sowing seeds and trusting the results to God!

I get this wrong all the time and there’s still much of the arrogant young man to me.  But I also think God’s been teaching me some things about how to live and minister among other Christians with whom I disagree.  I’ll share a few thoughts in no particular order:

* I love the saying (which I think goes back to Wesley?) that the way to handle opponents is “to out-live and out-love them, out-preach and out-pray them.”  That’s got to be the way forward. And I think it begins with repentance.  I repent of trusting in my christocentrism.  I turn to Christ!

* If I’m tempted to pride it’s good to turn to Elijah’s example in 1 Kings 19.  And to laugh at myself.  “I, only I am left!!” he says, exhausted by his own righteousness! “Ummm” says the LORD “I think you’ll find there’s thousands like you. Get some rest!”

* I find it very tempting to try and be John the Baptist – a voice crying in the wilderness.  But that’s not our calling.  We’re to get around others with the aroma of Christ.  And the aroma of ‘young hot-prot’ is not quite the same.

* When relating to church leaders, get a vision for what’s already good about their preaching, leading and ministry.  It’s so tempting to look for what they do badly and to miss the hundred things they do well.  Anything and everything we can rejoice in, we should.  Loudly.

* People can change.  Not through grand-standing argumentation.  But through a drip, drip, drip of gospel juiciness.

* I’m only beginning to learn this one:  Usually change happens when people taste the gospel dishes you serve up.  If you consistently serve up Christ-exalting stuff that releases hearts into gratitude and love, then people will ask you about the recipe.  Don’t start with the recipe: “Right, here are the ingredients you need – you’ve been doing it all wrong.  This is the order…”  Start by dishing out gospel goodness – then they’ll want the recipe.

And now, for the real wisdom on these issues – check out the comments… (don’t let me down guys)…

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Not if you ask Dave Bish

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Oh, and Daniel Blanche has written a gem of a Christmas post.

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Get this.  Here’s Clark Pinnock as quoted by Mike Horton here:

I cannot deny that most believers end their earthly lives imperfectly sanctified and far from complete.  I cannot deny the wisdom in possibly giving them an opportunity to close the gap and grow to maturity after death. Obviously, evangelicals have not thought this question out.  It seems to me that we already have the possibility of a doctrine of purgatory. Our Wesleyan and Arminian thinking may need to be extended in this direction. Is a doctrine of purgatory not required by our doctrine of holiness?

Now, I don’t usually engage in Arminian bashing.  (Usually when I see such beat ups I want to side with the Arminian even if I agree with the critique).  But, with this quote… come on.  Seriously?  A protestant starts thinking that their theology requires a doctrine of purgatory?  Because evangelicals haven’t properly thought about it??  Really???

At that point, if not years sooner, shouldn’t Pinnock wake up and say “Hold on a minute.  I think I’ve become one of the baddies!”

…Like in this scene (perhaps Mitchell and Webb’s only funny sketch – though obviously Peep Show is untouchably awesome)…

This is not my attempt at a reductio ad Hitlerum.  I just relate to the whole process of waking up on the wrong side of a battle.

I remember my early days at a certain church where I found myself saying of a certain preacher that he really shouldn’t preach Christ so much and definitely not from certain Scriptures.  Let the reader understand.

At that point I had my own “Am I a baddy?” experience.  I’ve had others too.

What about you?  Have you had an “Are we the baddies?” experience??

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Further to the discussion here

1. The early church taught a substitutionary, propitiatory, sacrificial death as the key to Christ’s ‘sweet exchange’ with sinners.

e.g. For Irenaeus, Christ’s filling out of Adam’s distorted image necessitates a ‘filling up of the times of his disobedience’ (Ad. Her. III.21.1).  In taking on Adam’s substance, He took on Adam’s curse, satisfying it at the cross, ‘propitiating indeed for us the Father, against Whom we had sinned’ (V.17.1) and ‘redeeming us by His own blood’ (V.14.3).

For Athanasius the curse of Genesis 2:17 is key.  The Word becomes incarnate in order to take a body capable of death “so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished.” (De Incarn. 8)  Moreover this death is specifically a sacrifice (ch9; 10; 20) made under God’s curse (ch25).

2.  Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) cannot mean a disruption to the Father-Son love since God’s wrath is an aspect of His love.  Perhaps if we thought that wrath was some other thing, divorced from love, then we might say that God’s wrath poured out at the cross breaks the Father-Son union.  But no, if God is love and if this wrath is a reaction of love to the sin that Christ had become, then there is no danger of breaking the homoousios.

3. PSA means God saves us from God.  It says that the ultimate problem facing humanity is not death or corruption or sin or the devil but God Himself.  Sin is not our real problem – wrath is. We need to be saved from the Judge Himself.  And we can only be saved by the Judge Himself – the Judge judged no less.  Certainly Christ ransoms us from all those lesser powers (and therefore certainly there is a place for Christus Victor etc).  But that’s not the ultimate meaning of salvation.  It’s a divine curse, a divine judgement, divine wrath from which we must be delivered. PSA takes this with the seriousness it deserves.

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In a previous post I asked for feedback on this quote:

And so the biblical mindset starts with the assumption that God is the center of reality. All thinking starts with the assumption that God has basic rights as the Creator of all things. He has goals that fit with his nature and perfect character. Then the biblical mindset moves out from this center and interprets the world, with God and his rights and goals as the measure of all things.

No prizes for guessing this comes from John Piper.

In the comments of the last post people mentioned lots of the same issues that I have with it.  Let me go through my beefs.  I’ll post this in stages.  Today I’ll just talk about the first sentence.

1) In the first sentence we are encouraged to be God-centred.  Good.  But which God?

Cue groans from across the blogosphere.  I know you’re thinking ‘Glen, go and drink some beer, shoot some pool and cut the man some slack.’   But before you think I’m just being nasty or pedantic, let me just say there’s nothing wrong with this sentence and I don’t at all begrudge Piper saying it.  You’ll find such sentences on my own lips.  I’m just picking up on this phrase to highlight some of the things that go on in theological discussions.

Here’s the point.  The person who cries ‘God-centred’ the loudest is not necessarily the most biblical.  (Nor is the person who cries ‘biblical’, but that’s another story).  The absolutely key question is what kind of God is central to our thinking.  And that question is not resolved in the slightest by saying He’s central.  In fact to say that ‘God’ is central to our theology is basically a tautology.

As Simone Weil says:

“No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving some good outside himself towards which his thought turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope. Consequently, the only choice is between worshipping the true God or an idol.”

We’re all God-centred.  The question is, which God?

I have little patience for theologians or bloggers who claim a superiority because they are ‘God-centred’.  Often it’s accompanied by the accusation that their opponent is ‘Man-centred’.  (And one of these days I’ll write a post about how they’re both wrong – we should be ‘God-Man (i.e. Christ)-centred’).  But really, in Simone Weil’s sense, we’re all ‘God’-centred.  What we really have to do is sort out who this God is who is central to our thinking.

But let’s note well:  the fact that our theology should be (and, in a sense, always is!) utterly consumed by and radically focussed upon God, in no sense tells you whether God Himself is consumed by and focussed upon Himself.  Those are two entirely separate questions.

One is about our theological method, the other is about the ‘theos‘ who, of necessity, stands at the centre of it.

Of course we should have our hearts and minds fixed on the living God, and of course if we fixed our ultimate affections elsewhere that would be idolatry.  Ok, great.  What bemuses me is the claim that God Himself must fix His affections on Himself lest He be an idolater too.  Do you see how theo-centrism as a theological method gets confused with theo-centrism as a doctrine of God?

And, more dangerously, do you see how such a method is in fact anthropocentric? It’s an argument that says ‘We would be idolaters to set our affections on lesser beings, so God must be an idolater if He did that.’  It’s a theology from below.  And yet I find it on the lips of the very people who want to accuse all around them of man-centredness.

So let’s be clear – everyone is already God-centred in their theology.  The real issue is what kind of God we’re talking about.  And the question of theo-centric method does not at all settle the question of God’s own being.  While we must be theo-centric, we have to admit that God Himself is higher than the ‘musts’ that apply to us.  The theologian who says God “must” love Himself higher than the creature has actually followed a theo-logic that is less than God-centred.

We do not by nature know the kind of being that God is.  And we cannot reason it out from the basis of how we find life as creatures.  To tell a person that ‘God’ must be at the centre of their thinking will not tell them anything really.  God cannot be assumed from the outset, He must be revealed.

The fact that all the gods of human religion are self-centred means nothing.  The fact that we are called to be ‘God-centred’ means nothing for God’s own life and being.  It neither means that God should be centred on us, nor on Himself.  The question of His own being is the key question and it can only be resolved as God reveals Himself.

Now I’m not saying that this first sentence from Piper commits him to any of the things I’ve outlined here.  As I’ve said, you could find the same sentence on my own lips.  I’m just trying to clear some ground and say what being ‘theo-centric’ is and isn’t and how it can and can’t be used in these discussions.

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More to follow…

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A friend and I were discussing the negative impact of a certain theologian on the evangelical landscape.  (No, not him.  Nor him.  I haven’t blogged about this guy).

Anyway my friend brought up an aspect of his personal life that exemplified the problems in this theology.

I said, “Yeah, but when discussing this publicly, you can’t raise that.”  He said “Why not?”

Hm.  Good question.

I found myself falling back on a sporting analogy (which is a sure sign you’ve lost the theological argument).  I said “Well, you need to play the ball and not the man.”  There was a pause on the other end of the phone line.  My friend’s thick Welsh accent came back:  “You’re not a rugby player then?”

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rugby tackle.

See, in  rugby you watch the ball and you take out the man in possession.  You take him down with a ball-and-all tackle and you pile on.  And if the ball goes to someone else, you take them down.

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51219904CS007_Eel_v_Pan.

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You don’t play the man without the ball – but if he’s got the ball, your orders are to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice.’

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My friend continued… “Just read the theological debates of the reformation.  They played the ball and the man.  You can’t separate them.  Theology is personal.”

Well, what could I say.  I’d been exposed.  I could only pray he wouldn’t ask me what sports I did play.  You see my winter sport was hockey.  And not ice hockey – that would be a fine Lutheran pursuit wouldn’t it?  You can just imagine a huge body check on Erasmus, face pressed into the plexiglass.

No, my winter sport was field hockey.  You know – the game where the referee blows foul every 30 seconds because of some kind of obstruction, stick check, foot violation.  It’s the most clinical of sports.  You play the ball only.

And my summer sport?  Cricket.  This abstracts man from ball by a good 22 yards.  But actually it leads to a very passive-aggressive atmosphere.  You bowl the ball, and it doesn’t matter who’s at the other end.  But off the ball, in between deliveries, the fielding side take the opportunity to cast aspersions on the batsman’s technique, girth and sexual orientation.

The lesson?  Never debate a cricketer.  They’re all clinical and polite on the surface – dressed in white for goodness sakes.  But you just know they’re dissing your momma behind your back.

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Anyway, what do you think?  Do we take the man out along with the ball?

And how do your sporting experiences shape the way you engage theology?

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