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Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

I have been reading through Michael Holmes’ The Apostolic Fathers (3rd edition, Greek Texts and English Translations) for my class on Church History, and I am compelled to share a few noteworthy excerpts.  These are, in my estimation, among the most graceful and inspiring words ever penned.

The early centuries of the Christian church were dangerous; the next wave of persecution was always merely a breath away, executed through the command of a hostile Roman emperor.  One of the innumerable martyrs during this period was Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch.

Ignatius was the bishop of one of the largest and most famous Christian congregations, that of Antioch.  Antioch was one of the earliest missional churches, sending Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey.  In Acts 11:26, we learn that Antioch was where the followers of Christ were first called “Christians.”  This congregation was one with a rich, albeit brief, history of following the teachings of their Savior faithfully.

At some point early in the second century, a group of ten Roman soldiers was dispatched to arrest the bishop of this faithful congregation in order to bring him back from Antioch to the Coliseum in Rome, where he would be thrown to the wild beasts.  On the way to Rome, Ignatius wrote a series of letters to churches in cities along the way, who had sent delegations to meet with Ignatius.

These letters are immensely valuable for understanding what concerns a bishop of this time might have for other congregations as well as how martyrdom was viewed by one on his way to such a fate.  My desire here is to simply expose you to some brief passages which I found deeply inspiring.

In his letter to the Ephesians (4:1-2), Ignatius likens the unity of the church to a lyre (a stringed musical instrument–think guitar) and a choir:

(1) Thus it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing.  For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre.  Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.  (2) You must join this chorus, every one of you, so that by being harmonious in unanimity and taking your pitch from God you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, in order that he may both hear you and, on the basis of what you do well, acknowledge that you ar members of his Son.  It is, therefore, advantageous for you to be in perfect unity, in order that you may always have a share in God.

In his letter sent ahead to the church in Rome, to which he is journeying to his death, Ignatius implores the believers there not to interfere in his being thrown to the beasts.  He wants them to allow this to take place in order that he might accomplish a great thing to God’s glory.  He writes in chapter 2:

(1) For I do not want you to please people, but to please God, as you in fact are doing.  For I will never again have an opportunity such as this to reach God, nor can you, if you remain silent, be credited with a greater accomplishment.  For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh, then I will again be a mere voice. (2) Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, because God has judged the bishop from Syria worthy to be found in the west [where Rome was], having summoned him from the east [where Antioch was, in Syria].  It is good to be setting from the world to God in order that I may rise to him.

I think Ignatius’ using the rising and setting of the sun (from east to west) as a metaphor for his journey as a martyr is stunningly beautiful, absolutely breathtaking.

I will leave you with a final excerpt, again from Ignatius’ letter to the Romans (chapter 4).

I am writing to all the churches and am insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will–unless you hinder me.  I implore you: do not be unseasonably kind to me.  Let me be food for the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God.  I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, so that I may prove to be pure bread.

Think on these passages, and always remember that Christians today are united with the same Church that bore these burdens so many centuries ago.  I encourage you to seek out the writings of the early Church; they can be incredibly edifying and inspiring.  The link “Early Christian Writings” on the far right of this page will take you to many of them.  1 and 2 Clement, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch are great places to start.

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Earlier today I came across an article on Yahoo! which was reporting the reaction of a Westboro Baptist Church official to the death of Steve Jobs.  Shortly after my disgust subsided, I had to read Jonah for my OT Survey class.  In light of the above article, I am compelled to briefly discuss the book.  (Before continuing, check out the article and read through Jonah…it’s short, like a ten minute read.)

The book opens with Jonah’s call to go to Ninevah, the capital of the ancient superpower Assyria, to “announce judgment against its people because their wickedness has come to my attention” (NET).  Jonah, however, has other ideas, and he went to the coast and boarded a ship for Tarshish.  The text is very clear that Jonah is being disobedient here, twice stating that Jonah was fleeing “from the Lord’s presence.”

When a terrible storm puts the lives of all those on board in danger, Jonah is found to be the issue and is promptly tossed overboard at his own command.  Jonah spends three days and nights in the belly of a “great fish.”  Finally, Jonah repents and prays to the Lord, who causes the fish to spit Jonah out on the dry land.

When Jonah arrives in Nineveh, he pronounces judgment against the city and, to his great dismay, the king orders his subjects to immediately fast and repent of their evil deeds.  They turn back to the Lord, this terrible city of Assyrian pagans!  There is no deliberation; the text presents the Assyrian repentance as immediate.

Jonah was furious.  The message of an Israelite prophet was hardly ever well received by fellow Israelites, who had received God’s covenant and Law.  From Jonah’s perspective, how much less should these evil Assyrians heed the prophet’s warning!

However, this is precisely what happens, and it is the basis for Jonah’s contention with God in chapter 4.  Now, we learn that Jonah did not flee God’s presence because he was afraid of the Assyrians or unsure of his calling or whatever.  He fled because he did not want to give the Assyrians even a chance to repent.  Essentially, Jonah says to God, “You see!  This is exactly what I was afraid of!  You and all your compassion and mercy!  I’d rather die than witness this!”

So God causes a tree to grow and provide shade for Jonah.  Then, the next day, He destroys it, and Jonah is angry.  This sets up God’s closing statements, which drive home the main theme of the book:

Jonah 4:10-11 (NET)

So the Lord said, “You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow.  It appeared in a night and perished in a night.  Should I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”

God’s point here stems from His being the Creator: “Jonah, you were concerned about a plant in whose existence you played no part.  How much more should I be concerned about all these people and animals, each of whom I myself created!”

I think the takeaway here is this: the same God who, as Creator, has the prerogative to execute judgment on evildoers is also fiercely compassionate towards the nations, even the supremely evil ones who live apart from His commands.

If the Creator Himself would mercifully offer a warning to Nineveh and, in fact, relent from bringing His judgment, what sort of attitude should we have towards people who have allegedly “[given] God no glory & taught sin”?

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After reading several Facebook posts, and many more blog comments, regarding the promo video for Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins, I decided to check it out for myself.  Before I reveal my opinion, however, I’d like to offer a few comments.

Whenever theological questions are raised, there are at least three potential responses.  One might dive in wholeheartedly, fully assenting to whatever take is presented on a certain doctrine.  One might remain non-committal, perhaps appreciating or disdaining the questions raised, but unpersuaded overall.  One might, finally, reject even the conversation itself outright, fearing that such questions endanger the integrity of the faith.  Unfortunately, my fear is that many have had precisely this final response to Rob Bell’s recent video.

The problem, as I see it, is two-fold.  First, the book isn’t even out yet.  All things written at this point are conjecture, yet some have gone so far as to declare Rob Bell out of Evangelicalism (maybe even Christianity!).  I think this quite premature, even if his questions allude to his questioning the traditional formulation of the doctrine.

Second, this response manifests a distrust towards asking honest theological questions.  The sorts of questions that Bell is proposing are the very questions that cause many people to view Christianity as a narrow-minded, bigoted, arrogant expression of religiosity.  For many, the answers traditionally given are unsatisfying, so Bell wants to reexamine them, to put “hell on trial,” as the summary puts it.

Before passing judgment, think about how much of your own theological-biblical belief system is different than that of the early Church.  More than likely, it is somewhat different both in terms of theological doctrines as well as interpretational methods and assumptions.  The Church only makes significant theological progress by questioning its own beliefs.  In the early centuries of the Church, it did this to itself, not altogether with the best intentions, but due to conflicting factions.  Doctrinal disputes forced the Church to formulate answers to difficult questions.

We must find a balance between commitment to doctrinal purity and continual reevaluation, lest our tradition come to dominate interpretations of Scripture.  These things should interplay, to be sure, but care must be exercised in order that we don’t decide to shut out dissenters, and culture at large, when they raise good, relevant questions.  This is essential to being in the world but not of the world, of being salt and light.

This is why I am thankful to and for Rob Bell.  He is someone who is bridging the gap between Christianity and culture.  He has enough credibility in the secular world to discuss secular things and be heard.  One may disagree with him, however strongly, but I commend him for asking tough theological questions that have traditional answers which deeply trouble non-Christians.  His is an admirable example: one never knows Scripture so well and so certainly that he can confidently dismiss dissenters without engaging them, stubbornly relying on traditionally-formulated answers.  To do so is to spit in the face of the hurting, questioning world to which Scripture sends us.

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I heard a lecture today in Theological Hermeneutics that articulated precisely some of my recent musings.

If Wittgenstein is right, then language is simply a mode of being in the world, a particular way in which we inhabit our reality.  This opposes the view that our language really gets at some objective essence of the things being discussed.

This intersects with some of my recent thinking in that if the likes of Barth and Kierkegaard are right, that is, if God really is “wholly Other” and “an infinite qualitative distinction” exists between Him and us, then what is the ontological status of our talk about God?  To make this more concrete, I’ll frame the discussion in terms of something uncontroversial: perhaps, the Trinity.

God is revealed in Scripture as Father, Son, and Spirit.  But whence do these concepts come?  If Wittgenstein’s critique of Augustine is correct, then we don’t possess some intrinsic ability to divide reality using some private language (a priori concepts of the mind) before we learn a public language (English, German, etc.).  (An important assumption I’m making is that these categories are not essential, but accidental.  In other words, God could have created another world without the categories of Father, Son, and Spirit.  Some sort of world without the reproductive processes and family dynamics that obtain in this world.)

This immediately calls into question the ontological status of our God-talk (really, of other kinds of talk as well; I’m only interested in theological speech here).  If our language isn’t actually getting to some metaphysical essence, but is really just some sort of useful analogy, then it may be the case that our Trinitarian language doesn’t pick out (describe, articulate) the ontological nature of God in Himself, but rather provides some conceptualization of what this “wholly Other” being is like.  God’s accommodation of Himself to human categories through his revelation in Scripture is an inherently self-limiting process, that is to say, (and this is really the heart of my question) if there is no way in which our language can inscribe the essence of God in Himself (and I understand this is an assumption itself, and perhaps overly Kantian), then none of our God-talk actually describes what God is ontologically; rather, it provides humanity with some understanding of what this Being is like, framed in terms which they comprehend.  In another world, perhaps, God the inconceivable might reveal Himself in completely other concepts, for the concepts of Father, Son, and Spirit (which make sense in our world) would communicate nothing comprehensible in that one.

I know that there are certainly holes within this brief survey of my current mindscape.  I’m okay with that.  This isn’t meant to be a thorough defense of this way of thinking.  I’m merely in the process of working these things out in my own mind: theology, hermeneutics, biblical studies coming together in some (I hope) coherent way.  Please accept these few paragraphs with the humility by which they are attended, and I look forward to the insights of any thoughtful person who reads this.

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