Archive for September, 2005


September 30, 2005 1 comment

On Emergent Village forum I posted the following this afternoon…


I don’t know how this will be received, especially since I’m new here, but I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring…

In Scientific Theology Volume 1: Nature, Alister McGrath writes the following:

“The assertion that the natural sciences are able to offer an empirical approach to reality which is independent of culture, gender, class, and language poses a formidable challenge to the postmodern rejection of universal truth.  It is therefore easy to understand why so much effort has been directed by the academic left towards the demonstration that the natural sciences represent culturally-conditioned opinions, in common with other disciplines.

It is therefore important to note that the postmodern critique of the natural sciences has achieved a very limited degree of success.  It has not been especially difficult for natural scientists to argue that the explanatory and predictive success of the natural sciences rest upon a real connection to the way things actually are… The natural sciences are thus a serious headache for those who have difficulties with the idea of a universal objective reality which may be, at least in part, apprehended and described.” (Scientific Theology Volume 1, Pgs. 122-123)

A little background will probably be helpful.  McGrath, who is trained both in the national sciences (Biochemistry) and theology is proposing that the best dialogue partner for theology is not philosophy or the social sciences, but rather the natural sciences.  In other words, McGrath seems to want to argue (much as T.F.Torrance did before him) that science and theology can inform one another as they have a common subject: God’s works (in the case of science) and God’s Word (in the case of theology).  As McGrath puts it, “The Christological dimensions of the doctrine of creation are such that the divine rationality – what this is conceptualized as logos or as ratio – must be thought of as embedded in creation and embodied in Christ.  The same divine rationality or wisdom which the natural sciences discern within the created order is to be identified within the logos incarnate, Jesus Christ.  Creation and Christ ultimately bear witness to the same God, and the same divine rationality” (S.T. v. 1, Pg. 24-25)

If we can assert that there are universal objective realities, being always subject to revision based on new evidence, in the natural sciences is it possible to assert universal objective realities in theological science without collapsing into dualistic epistemologies?  In other words, can we make referential statements concerning God that are non-metaphorical but really speak of what and who God is but that are not reducible to the language we use to describe them?  If so, how does this effect theological articulation within the Emerging Church which (as I see it) needs to critically engage the Postmodern world?  


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A Reply

September 30, 2005 3 comments

Over on Presbyweb linked to a list of 12 important things for the Postmodern church that he was introduced to in his Presbytery.  Here was my reply…

What I don’t see on that list is what I think is the most important: the ability to articulate our faith to a post-Christendom world.  

The majority of PCUSA churches that I have worshipped in are designed for people who are already familiar with a liturgical service to participate in.  Assumptions are made regarding people’s know that a number next to a title denotes picking up one of two books in front of you, that comments in parenthesis saying “debts and debtors” should clue you in as to what to say during a prayer, etc.  We continue to sing hymns written in a beautiful and poetic language, but one that sadly has lost contact with a generation that didn’t grow up with those hymns and words.  In other words, most PCUSA worship services are an insider’s show.  

In the Postmodern world we must admit that worship will have to change.  We may need to do more education about worship as part of worship, and explain what we’re doing in a prayer of adoration and a prayer of confession.  We also may need to find new ways to worship, perhaps even new places to worship.  We may find that elements of participation, especially in a world that is wired for quick response, is of great benefit to many people currently outside the church.  

The second pressing concern, related to the first however, is that we must be willing to rearticulate the truth of the Gospel to a Postmodern world.  Simply put, CS Lewis’ “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” won’t cut it anymore in evangelism.  

In the beginning of his book, Postmodern Youth Ministry, Tony Jones tells a story of a friend of his who he tried to convince of the truth of the Gospel through Lewis’ method.  After an extended discussion Tony said, “But Jesus is Lord for everyone!”  Her response came “Jesus is Lord for everyone for you, but not for me” he realized that times had changed and our modern methods of deductive logic weren’t going to speak to this world anymore.  

This does not mean that we abandon the faith, but we must now find a new way to articulate that faith.  We must find the language to proclaim the historic truth of the Gospel in a new way for a new time, where there’s a new set of rules.  The old claim to “universal objective truth” will not be universally recognized anymore, because many will say “there is no such thing”.  

These are what I see as the keys to transforming the church into the Postmodern era.  

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An Introduction to Confessional Theology

September 30, 2005 1 comment

What is the purpose of age old confessions and creeds in the church today?  

As some of you know, I am a big fan of church creeds and confessions.  Being within the PC(USA), which is a creedal church is part of that, but I also have tremendous respect for the theological contributions of those who have preceded us.  However, before I begin I should start by defining some terms.

Creeds – these tend to be short statements of belief, such as the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed.
Confessions – these are longer and more systematic statements of belief.  Examples include the Westminster, French, Scot’s, and Second Helvetic Confessions.
Catechisms – These are set in question and answer form.  Examples include the Heidleberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  

My first year of seminary I took a course from Dr. Charles Partee entitled the Creeds of Christendom.  It was a good class that examined the various creeds, confessions, and catechisms in their entirety.  This term I am taking a similar course from Dr. John Burgess which examines the confessions doctrine by doctrine.  So, we read from each confession every week the section that corresponds to the topic for that week.

So far we’ve covered 1) Revelation/Scripture 2) God 3) Humans/Sin and this week we’re examining Jesus Christ.  What I have suspected but am now being convinced of is that the church, if it is to be faithful to its calling in the coming century must not disregard the confessions of its past as antiquated documents.  Rather, we must return to them in order to understand where we have come from.

What I am not calling for is a return to the subscriptionalism of the past, where those who wanted to be ordained (Ministers, Elders, and Deacons) had to subscribe to the Westminster Confession and declare any scruples or disagreements that they had with it.  In fact, such a return would be impossible, as the Presbyterian church now recognizes no less than 10 different creeds/confessions/catechisms which don’t always agree in full.  What I am advocating for is the use of a “Confessional Theology” in order to frame our theological discussions and to give us a sense of where the church has been in order that we might better discern where God is leading us in the future.

A “Confessional Theology” also does not seek to be the last word in theological discussion.  I am not saying that we should synthesize the confessions and then declare that to be the truth.  Again, I view a true “Confessional Theology” as a discussion starter, not a stopper.  Let’s seriously examine what the Confessions say about Jesus Christ.  Let’s examine our confessions to see what they say about biblical interpretation, etc.  

We may, and in fact should view these confessions with a critical eye.  But before we start criticizing our confessions for their faults we must develop a proper “histo-theological” lens by which we read the various confessions.  For example, one must properly understand the issues surrounding the Council of Nicea to fully understand it and the significance of the message.  Again, it is helpful to understand the theological and historical issues at hand when John Knox and company penned the Scot’s Confession.  I say this because the Scot’s confession is often highlighted as example of confessions gone awry for its awful assessment of the role of women in the church.  But, when viewed in light of the historical times and the theological issues that were present one can come to a better understanding of why the confession was written like it was.  

To put a little more meat on what I mean by a “histo-theological” lens, let me use the Theological Declaration of Barmen as an example.  Read apart from its context, Barmen comes across as an aggressively Christological statement But, when understood in context one’s depth of understanding increases greatly.  Written in the late 1930’s, Barmen was written as a call for churches in Germany to remember that it is Jesus Christ, not Adolf Hitler, who was (and is) head of the church.  Thus, the issue at hand was of utmost importance and called for the aggressive language that was used.

We also should not expect complete agreement amongst the confessions; in fact, we should expect that there will be areas where they differ.  As noted above the Scot’s and Second Helvetic Confession hold a view of women that contemporary confessions (Confession of 1967 and A Brief Statement of Faith (1983)) disagree with in full.  Again, this is why a “Confessional Theology” isn’t meant to be limit and binding, but rather a place to begin our theological discussions.  

We will also find that over time the church has changed how it has articulated its message to reflect different times.  The early creeds read quite different from the Reformation era documents.  And, one notices quite a few differences between the Reformation era documents and the more contemporary confessions that were written during the 20th Century.  Here we see real life examples of how the church has altered its language without altering its truth of that message, something that the church seeks to do in every time and place.  

As I continue to develop my thoughts on “Confessional Theology” and what it looks like I will post them, but I am eager to hear people’s feedback, especially if you’re still reading and didn’t fall asleep bored.  

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What Teens Believe

September 29, 2005 Leave a comment

So, yesterday I ran across a great article in Christian Century based on a new book entitled “What teens believe.”  There was nothing really suprising, in fact much of what the article says confirms what I’ve observed.  But a few things really stood out to me as being dead on.

1) “Smith and Denton’s most striking finding is that teens are traditional. “Contrary to popular perceptions, the vast majority of American adolescents are not spiritual seekers or questers of the type often described by journalists and some scholars, but are instead mostly oriented toward and engaged in conventional religious traditions and communities.” “Spiritual but not religious” does not describe how teens view themselves. “

Wait a minute, this is striking?  I don’t think so.  I think this (being Spiritual seekers) it is more common amongst the college-age and older crew, but most kids in middle and high school simply haven’t had the exposure to other religions and religious ideas in order to become “spiritual but not religious.”  So while I don’t find this finding striking at all, I think it’s quite accurate.

2) Teens’ conventionality has some troubling aspects, however. Smith and his team of interviewers talked to teens who said that religion is “just how I was raised,” that it is “not worth fighting about,” that it is simply “good for lots of people.” In other words, teens consider religion to be of marginal importance and are inarticulate about the content of their faith.

Troubling? Yes and no.  In my experience there is a point in everyone’s life (including my own) where the faith that we were raised in becomes our own.  We claim it for ourselves and embrace it.  This doesn’t happen for everyone at the same age and for some it doesn’t happen at all.  For some the transition is very sudden, almost a conversion experience of sorts.  For others it is a slow and prolonged transition.  Are there teens that come to churhc simply because their parents tell them they have to?  Absolutely.  One also needs to remember in evaluating this survey though that, again in my experience, being religious isn’t always deemed cool and often kids don’t realize how much they enjoy being apart of a church community until they’re not anymore.  I’ve had a couple kids that I’ve worked with say things like, “I really didn’t think coming to youth group was all that important until I couldn’t come because of <work, sports, etc>.”  Finally, I think for many the transition point where youth claim faith for their own often occurs in college.  

3) We have also known for years, though it has never before been so clearly documented, that religious participation correlates with good social outcomes. Smith and Denton show that religiously active teens fare better than religiously disengaged teens when it comes to smoking, drinking, drug use, school attendance, television and movie viewing, sexual behavior, body image, depression, relationships with adults and peers, moral reasoning, honesty, compassion and community participation.

There’s always the exception but I’ve found this to be the case.

4) Religious traditions understand themselves as presenting a truth revealed by a holy and almighty God who calls human beings from a self-centered focus to a life of serving God and neighbor. Adherents are understood to be reared or inducted into a historically rooted matrix of identity, practices and ethics that define selfhood, loyalties and commitments. But according to Smith and Denton, teens understand religion to be something quite different: religion helps them make good life choices and helps them to feel happy. “The de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers,” the authors explain, “is what we might well call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.'” The “creed” of this religion, gleaned from interviews with teens, is as follows:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Yee gads!  Finally, someone has articulated this.  I’ve often suspected that there is a “latent deism” within the majority of youth in America (and even in a lot of adults) but in this new book they nailed it down.  The only point that I find a little suprising in #4.  

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting article.  

In other news, I went on a book buying spree (not really, they were all cheap) yesterday and added three new books to my library.  John Franke is a professor at Biblical Theological Seminary and has written a couple things on Reformed Theology in the Postmodern world.  I’ve found them to be well done and quite insightful, so I ordered two of his books.  I’m also going to get a chance to hear him speak and meet him next weekend at the Generous Orthodoxy Conference in Bethesda, MD.  He seems to focus on post-foundationalist theology (which in his words is not theology without foundations) which is quite important in a postmodern world.  I also purchased Tony Jones’ Soul Shaper, which is a companion to his Postmodern Youth Ministry book that I was absolutely fascinated with last spring.  Tony relates spiritual disciplines (which are one thing I think we need to emphasize more in youth ministry) specifically to youth.  

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Currently Reading

September 26, 2005 Leave a comment

So, for a while I’ve wondered how people got that “Currently Reading…” section into their blogs.  I figured there had to be an easier way than hand coding it, but when Renee decided to put it in hers I figured my competitive nature wouldn’t let my fiancée have a feature in her blog that I didn’t have in mine.  So, after a little messing around I figured it out and now have the books that I’m currently spending time with on my blog.  The most exciting, the Chronicles of Narnia, is at the top followed by the rest of the academic reading that I’m doing.  Among that list Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is a classic that everyone should read.  Also Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics III.4, where Barth lays out his ethics is probably the most challenging and intriguing reading that I’m doing this term.  

So I’ve added yet one more feature to my blog, isn’t that exciting?

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Jeremy and Beth

September 25, 2005 Leave a comment

So today is Sunday, and since Renee isn’t here I’m back to my normal routine of staying at church on Sundays until the evening.  The problem today is that I’ve finished all my work for the rest of the week, and I have a Hebrew quiz tomorrow.  I don’t like Hebrew, I don’t like studying for it, I don’t like looking it, basically, I just don’t like it.  But I need to study for it.  But, before I force myself to do that, a few reflections

As someone of you know, yesterday morning Jeremy and Beth got married via a four way call between the Ukraine, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and New Hampshire.  It was a religious ceremony only, not a legal one, but I had the honor of assisting my friends in saying their vows.  As one of my professor said when I told him about it, “Well, in the eyes of God they’re married, and that’s what really matters”.  I also must say that Jeremy was quite correct in his assertion that the phone connection between the United States and the Ukraine is roughly the quality of two cans on the ends of a string.  But none the less, it was really cool to get to listen two of my friends make life-long vows to one another and to be invited to be apart of it.  Although, I need to edit my script, because I accidentally asked Beth is she would be Jeremy’s faithful husband.  Doh!  If it hadn’t of been six AM I might have realized this before I said it out loud.  Alas…

In any event, congratulations to Beth and Jeremy as they begin their lives together and may God richly bless your marriage.

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Can we talk about God?

September 22, 2005 Leave a comment

Can we really talk about God?

That seems like a silly question for someone in Seminary to ask, but its an honest one.  Can we really talk about God?  In the words of one of my professors, “Can we make referential statements that are non-metaphoric concerning God?”  Or are we reduced to “our metaphor that art in Heaven, hallowed be your name (whatever your name may be)”.  

Often you’ll hear people talk about the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, being merely a metaphor for who God is.  Or just something that is a mystery that we really can’t understand but just believe it anyway.  Yet I think both of those positions misunderstand the fullness of Christian theology.  

It is, in my observation, and that the Western impulse is to believe in one God, a Unitarian God at that.  There is no reason for this really, after all human cultures throughout times have varied in their beliefs in God, from polytheistic masses to a unitary God, so one cannot argue (in my opinion) that part of human nature  is to believe in one God.  I think that the only thing that can be said is that part of the natural human impulse is to realize that there is something outside of the natural world that is a force, and this has become known as God.  As I interpret Calvin’s writings in Book I of the Institutes, he has it right.  The creation certainly does display God’s glory but with just creation you can say little more than “God is” and that’s it.  In the Western world we’ve translated this into believing that there is indeed one God, and many people view the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as one that unnecessarily complicates things or again is just a mystery that no one can really understand.  

I frankly disagree.  I think the problem is that people are too trapped in a Post-Kantian world, where logic and reason rule the day.  Simply because One God, three persons, one in being and substance but distinct in personhood, defies logic and reason does not mean it can be cast off or rejected as mere mystery.  There are many things in life that defy logic and reason, yet we accept them.  Take love for example, love is in my opinion the most irrational thing I’ve ever done.  After all, why would someone ever, thinking rationally, subject themselves to the possible pain and hurt that love could cause?  Seriously, why would anyone do that?  No one thinking rationally would take such a risk.  But yet we do it for irrational reasons.  

Everyone has presuppositions and this is inevitable no matter who you are or where you are.  But we must always be willing to have those presuppositions questioned by what we experience or learn.  In biblical studies this is critical.  While I approach the text with presuppositions, I must allow the text of scripture to test and question my presuppositions.  Do the presuppositions make sense based on the nature of what I am reading?  Such is the case with the Doctrine of the Trinity.  

You will hear people correctly say, “The Trinity isn’t biblical” and this is true.  One cannot find the word “trinity” anywhere in scripture, and thus when someone says its not biblical they are in one sense correct.  What is incorrect is the assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity fell out of Greek philosophy and never had any place in the early Christian tradition.  The bible, the whole bible (including the Old Testament) make the Trinity implicit.  The New Testament is full of Trinitarian language (John 1 and Matthew 28, Luke 10:22, and Matthew 11:27, John 13-17 come to mind just from the Gospels) and even amongst the earliest writings of the New Testament (from Paul) we find talk of “From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” which is unmistakably Trinitarian.  Why?  Because Paul, who was no dummy when it came to Jewish tradition, used theos (God) and kurios (Lord) in the same sentence.  But, in the Old Testament we find theos being used for Elohim, one of the Hebrew words for God, and kurios being used for Yahweh (Lord).  

All that the early church did was to take the implicit pieces of evidence found in scripture and make them explicit in scripture, and that’s something that is done in every circle that I’ve been in, especially science.  You take a whole bunch of evidence and from it you make explicit (in the form of formulas and theories) what is implicit in data.  If this method works for describing God’s works, why wouldn’t we expect it to work when assessing what God has revealed through scripture?

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