Tag Archives: Beth Felker Jones

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.

Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine (Review)

Felker Jones, Beth, Practicing Christian Doctrine: 
An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically
 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 246pp.
 ISBN: 978-0-8010-4933-0

Practicing Christian Doctrine

In a summary comment to the doctrine of salvation, Beth Felker Jones writes,

My sketch of the doctrine in this chapter points, gently, to legal acquittal in justification by grace, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and God’s defeat of death in resurrection as the vital core of soteriology. But to acknowledge a core is not to deny the importance of the rest of the doctrine… (164).

This self-referential comment captures something of the charm of Jones’s introduction to Christian doctrine: the gentleness that characterises her work, as well as her awareness that the field of Christian truth is indeed vast and expansive. Jones has written a warm and irenic account of Christian doctrine from an Evangelical perspective, but one which engages broadly with other traditions and perspectives. Her account follows the usual path one expects in such an introduction with an initial chapter on the nature of theology, followed by chapters on revelation and Scripture, God as trinity, creation and providence, theological anthropology, Christology and soteriology, pneumatology, ecclesiology and eschatology.

Jones’s evangelicalism has Wesleyan roots and a pietist flavour, and is, as one might anticipate, robustly biblical in orientation. Her approach introduces the primary features of each doctrine, surveying the main lines of an evangelical understanding, while also indicating the richly textured nature of Christian doctrine which defies being captured in rigid formulations. Each chapter includes a key biblical passage as well as occasional shaded text-boxes which might include a hymn, a poem or a prayer, a creed or statement from one of the major historical theologians, perspectives from contemporary global theologians, sidebar notes on, for example, the deuterocanonical books or millennial expectations, or further explanation of a key idea in the main text. These brief asides are not ancillary but serve to introduce the reader to the historical depth and global scope of the theological enterprise, and the evangelical reader, to riches and perspectives outside their own tradition.

The distinctive feature of Jones’s book, as indicated in the title, is the idea of practising Christian doctrine with the result that each chapter concludes with a short reflection concerning the practice of the particular doctrine under review. Nor is this emphasis something simply tacked-on to her theology. Rather, theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. This is a welcome, indeed timely, emphasis in theology. Thus, with reference to practising the doctrine of Scripture Jones cites Richard Hays:

No reading of Scripture can be legitimate, then, if it fails to shape the readers into a community that embodies the love of God as shown forth in Christ. This criterion slashes away all frivolous or self-serving readings, all readings that aggrandize the interpreter, all merely clever readings. True interpretation of Scripture leads us into unqualified giving of our lives in service within the community whose vocation is to reenact the obedience of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (52-53).

Note that Jones’s reflections are indicative rather than prescriptive. So, for example, “the Felker-Jones, Bethmost proper and important fruit” of the doctrine of the trinity is worship, and, since we in some sense become what we worship, “worship of the true God shapes us too, drawing us into God’s own relational life of love and changing us into luminous reflections of God’s true nature” (75). Jones does not detail a worship practice but shows that actual worship is the fruit of the doctrine. How that worship occurs and is expressed is left to the individual and community concerned. Some may wish for more explicit direction here, but Jones has resisted this temptation thereby protecting the freedom of God and that of the believer and the believing community. The responsibility of the believer is also maintained: the reader must still discern and identify—by the Spirit and in community—how they will fittingly embody the faith in their own life and context.

To provide another example, practising the doctrine of creation involves learning to be creatures in all the dailyness of life—dependent on God and interdependent with others and the whole created order in a holistic, hopeful integration of life. In a list of thirteen items Jones provides images or examples of what such practice might look like, again without detailing any specific practices (95-96). Since Jesus Christ defines our true humanity, we practise theological anthropology when we “ask God to transform our lives here and now into a foretaste of what we will become in the end” (115). The practice of the doctrine of the incarnation involves recognition of the particularity of Jesus and so of its revelation of the nature of God’s love for each and for all:

God’s love for us is not some idealized longing for a sanitized, universal idea of humanity. It is real love for real people: male and female, gentile and Jew, Middle Eastern and African and European and American and Asian—people from every nook of the planet. It is not just a love for ideas or for souls. It is a love that encompasses bodies as well as souls, a love concrete enough to become incarnate, to extend to fingers and toes: both Jesus’s and ours. God love is big enough to love specifics. Because God is with and for us, we are freed to be with and for others. Because God’s love reaches into our specificity, our particularity, we have hope that our love can follow suit (137-138).

Jones has written a pastorally-sensitive and reliable account of Christian doctrine, appropriate for use in church contexts, and classroom settings. New Christians and introductory level students will benefit from her clear articulation of the doctrines and her passion to see these truths embedded and embodied Christian life. Pastors, too, will find fresh reflection and approaches to old doctrines, together with the occasional homiletical flourish—“We are all Barabbas” (148). The book deserves widespread use—and practise!—in our churches.


See also my (two-part) review on
Beth Felker Jones, Faithful: A Theology of Sex

Beth Felker Jones – Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Review, Pt. 2)

Faithful (Felker Jones)(Continued from yesterday…)

One of the great strengths of this little book is its insistence on the integrity and goodness of the single life, a theme which comes to the fore in the fifth chapter. The Christian sexual ethic has always proclaimed two ways of bearing radical public witness to the faithfulness of God: celibate singleness, and exclusive, permanent marriage. Both ways, argues Felker Jones, function as a sign of the kingdom, a repudiation of commodified relationships, sexual slavery and selfishness, and cultural mores that enslave and demean.

Early Christianity was bold enough to imagine that all of us have—in Christ—the freedom to bear witness to who God is. The Christian understanding of sex was dramatic in the ways that it ran against Roman sexual morality. Roman women were not free to not marry. Christian women could choose—even insist on—celibacy. For Christians, women aren’t property or baby makers. We’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in our bodies. Including in the ways we choose to have and not have sex. For Christians, men aren’t lust machines or power mongers. They’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in their bodies, including in the ways they choose to have and not have sex. … In Rome, you were either a slave or you were free. In the kingdom of God, we’re all free. As a witness to this, we value singleness and marriage as two routes, two ways of life, in which the Christian may be truly sexual and truly free. (71-72)

Chapter six addresses consent, an issue fraught with difficulty in the present, and almost impossible, especially for the vulnerable, in an unrestrained, anything-goes culture. Yet, if sex is to be freely given and received, consent is essential. Felker Jones suggests that consent is at the heart of a biblical-Christian sexual ethic, and is in fact, one of the most Christian things about the ways in which Christians have—and don’t have—sex (78). True consent must be freely given and mutual, and for Christians this happens in the marriage ceremony in a very public way: “See this man? (or, see this woman?)—I’m having sex with him tonight” (79).

Although deeply committed to values traditional evangelical Christians will affirm, Felker Jones takes aim in her seventh chapter at a prominent movement in recent evangelicalism: the so-called “purity” movement. Since sex belongs in a context of grace and freedom, bodies must never be made commodities, and marriage and sex must never be made a reward for effort; thus “purity” must never be reduced to a pelagian work of self-effort toward holiness. The economy of grace and the market economy are antithetical (91).

If sex is in any way a sign of God’s grace, it can never be commodified. It can never be wrenched out of the framework of free, mutual, consensual relationship and placed on the market floor. If sex is thus free, then sexual holiness cannot—cannot, cannot—mean having a “valuable” kind of body or preserving that “value” against loss of value. But we’ve failed to be clear about that. Instead, we’ve bought into a mistaken set of ideas about what purity looks like. (83)

The purity paradigm turns physical virginity into a possession. This tendency heightens the sense that purity matters most for females and heightens the unbiblical idea that virginity and purity don’t apply to men. The purity paradigm makes virginity into a thing that one needs to cling to in order to retain value. It tells the graceless lie that we are more valuable spouses for someone if we have this thing. It tells the demonic lie that our market value is what makes us precious to God. (91)

While she is careful to note that “there is much that is healthy, holy and happy about the situation in which both spouses can come to a marriage without sexual experience” (108), she insists that purity, marriage and singleness are about discipleship in the kingdom of God and never about our value as persons.

And so we return to the central point: married or single, the body is one hundred percent for the Lord. Our bodies bear witness, our flesh is for mission, for witness, for giving glory to God. Both faithful marriage and celibate singleness may be ways in which we harness all of our life and pour that life out for God (69). “The sexual orthodoxy of our fallen world wants to create a body that is something to be consumed. Christian sexuality recognizes that the body is meant to be a witness. Sex is a witness to what God does in our lives, a witness to the God who is faithful and keeps promises” (104). The faithful body tells a story of God’s faithfulness. It witnesses to the goodness of embodied life as created by God. It does kingdom work in relationship and service to others. It testifies to the longing and consummation of God’s eschatological future. It witnesses to the fact that we already are “bought with a price.” In Christ we have been made free to be truly and fully human, and so truly and fully sexual—in the ways we do—and don’t—have sex (97).

Beth Felker Jones – Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Review, Pt. 1)

Felker Jones, Beth, Faithful: A Theology of Sex 
(Ordinary Theology Series; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 108pp. 
ISBN 9780310518273

Felker-Jones, BethIn her new little book on sex, Beth Felker Jones, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, Illinois, and author of The Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection and Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically, takes as her primary datum St. Paul’s declaration, “The body is for the Lord” (1 Corinthians 6:13):

Married or single, the body is one hundred percent for the Lord. … My hope is that we might move to a theology of the beautiful body, a theology of the sexual body, in which the body becomes—not an idol—but something like an icon. … Might the process of faithfully living in the body, including sexual discipline, be understood as something like the writing of an icon? (100-101)

In a litany of memorable one-liners scattered throughout the text, Jones declares that sex is (always) real, sex is good—though sex can also be bad, because sex has gone wrong; therefore sex must be freely given and freely received, because ultimately, for the Christian, at least, sex is kingdom work. Although part of Zondervan’s new Ordinary Theology series, this is anything but “ordinary theology.” Rather, it is a radical and often profound theology wonderfully packaged for the everyday reader and addressing an ordinary aspect of everyday reality. Actually, it is counter-cultural theology, robust and biblical, sensitive to the mystery of the wonder and brokenness that comprises human sexuality, deeply aware of the cultural and power dynamics that shape western culture, and attuned to the relational and personal dynamics which so deeply inform our sexuality and sexual practice.

In the first of her eight short chapters Felker Jones introduces her topic by arguing that to be human is to be embodied, and that what we do as embodied creatures, matters. Our existence in a larger reality means we are accountable within that larger reality for how we relate to others and use our bodies. “Sex matters because embodiment goes to the very heart of what it means to be human” (17). Thus, and radically in our cultural age, sex is about God, about who God is and how God relates to his creation. Sex is also about us and what it means to be truly human. Sex, then, is a witness to the faithfulness of God, and sexual ethics remain an essential aspect of Christian life.

Not only is (all) sex “real,” for Felker Jones, sex is also good. “The Christian faith is profoundly for the body and for the joys of the bodily life” (22). Therefore she rejects all forms of dualism and insists that God’s good creation intends our embodiedness and embodied relations, sexual differentiation, and marriage. “The one-flesh union of Eden—marked by commitment and mutuality and partnership and delight—is God’s good, creative, intention for sex” (38).

This created goodness has, however, been drastically impacted by the reality of human sinfulness. Sex has “gone wrong,” having been distorted in life under the conditions of sin. Despite the cultural difficulty of speaking about any kind of sex as “bad sex,” Felker Jones insists that,

We need the tools to discern when sex tells the truth about God and supports human flourishing and when sex denies the reality of God and is harmful to human beings. We must have a way to diagnose the situation we’re in, to know when we’re not embodying the truth of the God who is faithful. We need to be able to recognize when we’re embodying, instead, brokenness and idolatry and sin. (41)

Thus, “good sex” enables, creates, testifies to or delights in the three “goods” of sex: fidelity, fruitfulness, and the relationship of the husband and wife to God, whereas “fallen sex” is selfish, sex contrary to God’s good intentions, sex that exploits or denigrates, that is bought and sold, that preys on the nakedness of others, that is predatory, irresponsible, commodified or abusive (42-50). This is porneia, and the body is not for porneia but for the Lord.

In her fourth chapter Felker Jones applies the logic of death and resurrection to sex such that “pornication” is killed, and desire is reconstituted in ways that are equal, mutual, faithful and covenantal. Although sexual sin is pervasive and intensive it is not the end of the story. Redeemed sex has no place for commodification or exploitation of the other, but flourishes in a covenantal context of friendship and mutuality.

(Continued tomorrow…)