Tag Archives: Facebook Theology

More Facebook Theology

AnchoriteJust yesterday another question popped up on Facebook and again I have attempted to answer it, however inadequately. I should note that this is a very good question but also one with very demanding implications. There are actually two questions and I am aware that I have not addressed the second question specifically, but I think my answer to the first will provide indications of how I might address that second answer. As it happens, I am also in the midst of marking a series of graduate essays on precisely this question: “What is systematic theology, and what use is it?” Some of the essays have been excellent, and I may ask a student if I may reproduce their essay here. In the meanwhile, here is the question posed and my answer:

Christians have been discussing theology for nearly 2000 years. If systematic theology is “faith seeking understanding” then what understanding has been revealed through all the discussions (in all the seminaries, in all the towns, in all the world)? What do we understand now that we didn’t understand when Jesus completed his earthly ministry?

Ah, dear friend, you need not have worried that your question would in some way offend me – I love it when students ask questions! Still let me address your question, though I suspect as you will note, that you already know the answer!

The irony of your question is that you are doing theology in the asking of it. What relation does a man who lived two millennia ago have to do with us today? What is his significance? On what grounds is that significance based? Why is this Jesus not lost in the mists of history as were so many of his contemporaries? Why should anyone today pay the slightest attention to him? The answer to any and all of these questions involves the doing of theology. This, of course, must be done afresh in every generation.

There are likely many ways of approaching this task, but a time-tested and proven way is to approach the task historically. This works well for several reasons, not least of which is that we are all very unoriginal and manage to come up with the same problems, questions and errors that have been raised time and again in the history of the tradition. The tradition gives us exemplary answers to some questions; shows the limits of our ability with respect to other questions, indicates exemplary and less-than-exemplary methods in approaching these questions, highlights the fact that the very questions we ask are often contingent on our own place in history, and shows us many, many bypaths that are best avoided. For example, the innocent idea (delusion?) that one can simply read the Bible for oneself and come up with the unsullied truth.

One can, of course, simply read the Bible and come up with faith, and this too is a wonderful thing. But even that faith will generate a range of questions that will then be answered with a host of better and worse answers. And so theology begins…

Further, virtually everything we know of this Jesus comes from a very small collection of a ancient sources, written in ancient languages, in ancient contexts so very different from our own. Thus all kinds of hermeneutical issues are raised – afresh in every generation. Get two people reading the same biblical text and you will end up with two – or likely more – possible interpretations of what the text means and what its significance is and what the range of its applications might entail. Thus theology is inevitable, again, as a fresh work in every generation…

But you know this already – I suspect it is the implications of it you avoid. But, alas, you cannot and will not avoid them even if you take the life of an anchorite. Or you could become a fundamentalist of one kind or another…that always remains an option!

Facebook Theology – Answering Rachel

Calvin-and-Hobbes-Discuss the DevilSome time ago I came across this post on Facebook:

Hello Friends who are ‘spiritiual leaders’ of some sort.
I’m really struggling with the idea of free will. Which makes me question God’s goodness. Does God know the future? If yes, how do we have free will? If He already knows what we’re going to decide why did He create us all knowing some would go to hell and why did He create Lucifer if He knew He would rebel?
Would really appreciate your answers,
Confused Rach  (March 28, 2012)

I decided to respond as best I could in that kind of forum as follows:

Hi Rachel, well, you’ve picked a big one. Philosophers and theologians have been arguing over that question for millennia! So it probably means you are not going to get an open-and-shut answer that ties up all the loose ends. Sorry!

But here are my thoughts and how I approach it:

  1. God wants a world where people are free – to some extent at least – to live, to love, to choose, to respond, etc. To have that kind of world, there must also be the possibility of some people saying No to God and Yes to evil. Did God know that would happen? Yes. Did God want it to happen? No. But God obviously determined that to have a creation was more important than not having one!
  2. There is no such thing as a totally ‘free will’ – sin has so corrupted us, that we are ‘slaves to sin’ (John 8:32-36; Romans 6); a slave is not free. Once sin came in, we all lost our freedom. Further, our will is also ‘weak’ through genetic inheritance, habit, training, models we have had, addiction, etc. Thus the idea that we are ‘free’ is not accurate. Sure, we can make choices, but often those choices are constrained by forces bigger than us. Only in Jesus have we any hope of being ‘free’ and even then, not totally until he comes again.
  3. God does not will the evil that is in the world or in us. We do it, as a misuse of our ‘freedom.’ But God has responded to evil – this is the gospel. First, God has taken evil into himself in order to ultimately overcome it. He came to the cross and took the full weight and impact of sin and death INTO himself in Jesus. He swallowed the whole bitter pill. He drank the cup to the dregs. That is what we will remember on Good Friday. Then on Easter he rose, conquering the whole fallen mess of sin and death and opened up a door into a new world of life, hope and wholeness. So two things: One, God knows what it is to suffer because God has suffered in Jesus, and so understands our sufferings. Second, God has promised resurrection, a new heavens and a new earth in which all sin, evil and suffering is done away with. This is the hope of the gospel. God has acted decisively to lift us out of this mess by taking evil upon himself.
  4. We live in the in-between time: between Christ’s resurrection and the final end when all our hopes will be realised. In this time, suffering is real, existent and awful. We and all others will be touched by it. So we can only live in hope of the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth. But, that hope is also a call: to be witnesses of this hope and to show the same compassion to others that God shows by doing what we can to alleviate suffering. We join God in his mission to redeem a broken world wracked by suffering.
  5. In this time God’s got you covered. God surrounds us on every side. It is as though we have a certain area in which we are free to move. We can go here, or there, or here or there; we can do this or that or this or that. God gives us “space” to live and choose and make decisions. If he wants us to be or do something specific, he can make that known to us. Otherwise, live and choose and make decisions to the best of your ability and to the best of your knowledge of his will. And then trust him. Entrust your way to him. God’s got us covered, and even if we make a poor choice, he can help us.
  6. There are still huge questions such as WHY God chose to do it this way, why God allows unmitigated evil to continue, why “natural” evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, deformities, etc) occurs, the question of hell and judgement, etc. But, God has acted and on the grounds of this act we can have hope and thus also courage, faith and love.

The reality of life in a fallen world is that we will suffer; nothing is surer. And when we do, it is even more important to cling tightly to Jesus and the hope we have in him, and also to be part of his people so that we don’t suffer alone.

Sorry for the long essay-type response. If you have read this far you deserve a medal. But I hope that it is helpful in some way. Good on you for wrestling with the hard questions of the faith. That’s the way mature faith grows.

Bless you,

“Alive & Powerful” – The Old Testament as the Word of God?

Bible Reading

The other day one of our students posted this on the student Facebook page:

Good quote from Keller: “God acts through his words, the Word is “alive and active” (Heb 4:12) and therefore the way to have God dynamically active in our lives is through the Bible. To understand the Scripture is not simply to get information about God. If attended to with trust and faith, the Bible is the way to actually hear God speaking and also to meet God himself.” (Timothy Keller, Prayer p 54)

Another student responded:

On what grounds do you claim that ‘word of God’ in Heb 4 refers to the Bible? … I don’t think that the writer of Hebrews can possibly be talking about the Bible. I have to say that I don’t know what it means to say that the Bible is alive and active. However I do believe that God is alive and active and that he speaks through the Bible.

I found this a very interesting question. Hebrews 1:1 sets the theme of the whole book: God has spoken in many ways, and has now done so decisively through his Son. Yet Hebrews 2:11-13 says that Jesus (implied subject) speaks – and then cites Psalms and Isaiah as Jesus’ words. Psalm 95 is counted as “it is said,” the Holy Spirit said, God said, David said (3:7; 3:15; 4:3; 4:7). All the way through the “it” that speaks seems to refer to the Bible. Jesus’ word is then cited as biblical texts. “God said” is applied to biblical texts. “The Holy Spirit said” again references a biblical text. Over and over the writer of Hebrews cites biblical texts as authoritative and in a number of places attributes it to God. So when we get to 4:12-13, it seems we must do two things:

(a) Read it in the light of this overarching theme or practice in the book, especially deriving from 1:1; and
(b) recognise that verse 13 then personifies the “word of God” – nothing is hidden from his sight.

Yes, 4:12-13 are a difficult text. No, it couldn’t mean the Bible as we have it today – it was not in existence at that time. But it is not beyond imagining that the author has the Old Testament scriptures – the Hebrew Bible – in mind when he uses the phrase, but the Hebrew Bible finding its goal, completion, climax in Jesus, and indeed being seen as the message of Jesus. It would be an interesting study in Hebrews to check every time it references a biblical text, the words “Word”, “says”, “message”, and any other term which signifies speech, proclamation, etc.

This is an outstanding example of theological interpretation and a christological reading of the Old Testament, already in the New Testament period, and an indication that historical-literary approaches, so dominant today (and not without good methodological warrant) are not the only way to read Scripture, and perhaps not the most “biblical” way to read Scripture. People in the Bible didn’t read the Bible the way we often insist on reading the Bible!

The second student continued the dialogue:

Right. As I understand it, the phrase “word of God” means a message from God. God spoke, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness”. Michael – my understanding is that NT writers referring to the OT usually use phrases like “the law and the prophets” or “scripture” or “writings”. Is there another instance of an NT writer using this phrase to mean the OT?

Perhaps there are several. In Acts 17 Paul goes to Thessalonica and reasons with them “from the Scriptures” (v. 2). Verse 11 speaks of those, then, in Berea who “received the word” searching “the Scriptures” to affirm the proclamation. Then verse 13 says that the Thessalonians heard that “the word of God had been proclaimed in Berea also.” This narrative text appears to link your phrase directly with the Scriptures – the Hebrew Bible. Finally in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul reflects on this experience and again says that his proclamation – “from the Scriptures” – was the word of God. (See also Paul’s proclamation in Acts 13:13-49 which includes the biblical narrative generally, specific biblical texts, the Jesus story – and which all is called “the word of God.”)

2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:2 links the terms “Scripture” and “Word.” 1 Peter 1:23-25 speaks of the “living and enduring word of God” which “endures forever,” and which was preached to the hearers. The question arises, how does this word perdure? Peter is citing Scripture and continues to do so into ch. 2, also speaking of those who are disobedient “to the Word.”

Perhaps Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:4 are also relevant where he speaks of every word which proceeds from the mouth of God – and in the entire incident is citing Deuteronomy. In Matthew 15:4-6 he refers to legal texts in Exodus as the word of God. In John 10:34-35 the “law” (actually the Psalms) are called the word of God, with the additional proviso that the “Scriptures” cannot be broken.

I wonder if Paul’s references to the “word of God” and his exposition concerning the Scriptures in 2 Cor 2:17 – 4:2 are relevant? Here he explicitly refers to Moses being read, though the reader is only “unveiled” in Christ. Then, they are beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord. Certainly the glory of God is in the face of Christ (4:6); but where is that face set forth for us?

There is no doubt that many NT references are to the proclamation of the gospel, but some do seem to refer to the written accounts where God’s prior words have been preserved for succeeding generations. Further, as already noted above, the author of Hebrews reads the Old Testament through a christological lens, as finding its goal, completion and climax in Jesus. It seems likely, too, that at least some of the New Testament authors referred to the Old Testament as “the Word of God.”