The resolve not to think about theology (if that’s even possible)

Theology is of some interest to me, but I get lost in it.

Varying theological codifications have appeared through the centuries.  There are the ancient councils and creeds.  There are the confessions and catechisms, and these things extend through several major denominations.

 

 

 

 

 

Systematic theologicians (!) almost seem to use sleight-of-hand techniques, and the rest of us need to learn escape artistry to free ourselves from the boxes they put on the spiritual stage.  Last week, the Logos Academic Blog published this post:

https://academic.logos.com/twins-not-rivals-regeneration-and-effective-calling-in-the-ordo-salutis/

I tried to read that material.  I really did.  The writing is good, and the academic treatment is good.  I found myself seriously questioning the value of it all, though.  Calling, one of the two major topics treated, is a word-concept that has roots in scripture (although it takes on a life of its own with some theologicians).  Regeneration, not so much.  For the theologically stout of heart, a sequel LAB blog link about the relationship of “calling” and “regeneration” is here.

All this material is about the theology of the “salvation” process.  None of the objects of analysis are observable from a human vantage point, yet humans are still trying to codify an order—the ordo salutis, or sequence of salvation.  In some cases, they are even trying to codify the codifications!  Now, I do not point the finger at the high-end “Reformed” theologians any more than at the low-church folks who claim they’ve pinpointed things.  (Baptists, Church of Christ folks, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics are similar in this respect, at least.)  The exact point at which God decides I’m in?  The order of “events” in the spiritual realm (as though they were events per se)?  Centuries-removed human beings have attempted to codify the “order of salvation.”  In scripture, I find scant the suggestion of a rigid, global ordo salutis—and somewhat less substantial than the presentation of God as three.

Fretting over the identification, connections, and conceptual relationships of ideas such as “regeneration” and “effectual calling” seems wasteful to me.  I try not to ascend into the lofty language and forged formulas of theology, but I do get drawn in at times.  More than the material itself, the mind-boggling part is that anyone would doggedly pursue the relationships between various positions and stances.  This is metameta-material, two generations removed from what I need to be dealing with.  I might honestly ponder God’s will, i.e., what I think God wants me to do in a given situation, but when I philosophize about “calling” and try to force scripture verses into a theological stance, I risk drawing inappropriate lines and reaching points of view that cannot stand up to scrutiny based only on scripture texts.  If I go a step further and try to make sense of the implications of the difference between my philosophies and someone else’s—when I become enmeshed in thinking about the relationship of one theological system to another—I am yet more removed from anything I ought to be sinking my teeth into.  I may admire the sheer intellect of a systematic theologician, but my health is better when I keep my diet free of such processed, artificial foods.  Here, I started to edit, or at least apologize for, mixing magic and nutrition metaphors, but maybe it’s OK to leave it as is:  the mixing reflects the confusion that can result from theologic.

For better or worse, because there were a couple of old Mad magazines at my grandmother’s house when I was a boy, I have the image of Alfred E. Neumann here burned into my memory .  What the reincarnated Neumann might say in theological circles, I don’t know, but I say to the theological rustlers and wranglers, “Why worry about this?  Why not just listen to what Paul tells Philemon or the Thessalonians?  Why not just sit in rapt attention before Matthew’s portrait of Jesus?  Why worry about superimposed theological constructs when I have my hands full with trying to understand and act on a single insight from Jesus’ life from John’s gospel or Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians?  It’s not only a “flip” why worry? that should be in the picture here; it’s also the presumption that can be apparent when anyone claims to know the mind of God to the point that he can lock down spiritual-sphere “events,” perfectly in order, when scripture hasn’t done so.

A couple of my new acquaintances seem wrapped up in theology.  They are men of faith, and I do not doubt their devotion.  I am however troubled that their responses to just about any honest question or observation seem to come from orthodoxy rather than the scriptural material at hand.  A few months ago, one of them sent me a paper he wrote about “calling.”  I’m persuaded that he sincerely wants to be God’s person, and that he emphasizes things he honestly believes are important.  Twice in the paper, he reminds the reader that we should all “get our theology from scripture.”  Yet what he comes out with is anything but textually based.  Rather, it is based on a non-contextual view of cherry-picked scripture verses.  The irresponsible use of scripture pretty much always ends up like this.

So I resolve to keep myself from thinking about theology too much.

Yet there are the questions that keep coming up.  What does Paul mean by pistis (most often “faith”) in Galatians 2:16?  Is that the same thing he meant in 1:23?  What if pistis doesn’t mean belief or trust?  What if it means faithfulness or loyalty or allegiance?  (All of these are legitimate possibilities.)  If I am to communicate with my neighbors, I need to have some acquaintance with the implications and ramifications of concerns such as this.

I probably can’t keep aloof from theology after all.  So much for the Neumann influence in my life.

B. Casey, 8/4/17-8/21/17

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4 thoughts on “The resolve not to think about theology (if that’s even possible)

  1. John Eoff 08/23/2017 / 8:13 am

    Very good thoughts, Brian! But what can you expect? If some man’s theology differs somewhat from what he can find in any institution his option is to create a new institution that “correctly” identifies the correct theology. Thus churches. This tendency has been greatly enhanced in recent years as various gifted “pastors” easily create a new church, simply by renting a store front and giving his church a name. The simple way is so much less confining. It is the true freedom to which Jesus delivers those who believe in him; but that way can not be governed by humans so institutions are the only way to enforce the multitude of “true” theologies.
    jde

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    • Brian Casey 08/25/2017 / 4:42 pm

      John, you make a reasonable point here about “theologies” as they end up defining institutions, and I do see that happening, much as you describe, in our era. There are more far-reaching theologies that date back centuries, and I was speaking more to those, e.g., when today’s theologians publish on comparisons of Calvinism, hyper-Calvinism, and covenantal Calvinism, which span a few mainline and other denominations, too. Anyway, I am very interested in simple. If my living room were too small for a simple gathering (which soon it very well might be), maybe you would come to my storefront if you lived nearby!

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  2. Steve 08/23/2017 / 1:16 pm

    Few in number are those whose primary energies are given to publishing a tome on some aspect of theology (systematic, open, liberation, et al) and who make a significant lasting impact on the daily life of believers. Yes, an extended reflection–even a codification of Biblical topics–as found in theological writings, can provide a resource for unhurried investigation and reflection on important aspects of faith–and there will always be some need for that. But quite often the author of “theological products” is at best isolated from the practical aspects of living daily in trust and hope, and at worst, simply offers a sterile academic investigation on jots and tittles that are so remote and theoretical as to rob the power of the story of God by verbose strangulation and endless speculation, the author at times not even believing what he/she writes.

    There is an earned negativity from some theologians. Vance Havner, a very influential Southern Baptist evangelist of the mid-20th century, once said “Happy is the Christian who has never met a theologian.”

    French Renaissance essayist Francois Rabelais said (paraphrasing) that he was wandering around lost in a dark forest with only one little candle to light his way when a theologian came along and blew out his candle.

    Conversely, at its very basic intent, meaningful theology–the “word/s of God”–can offer perspective and insight that is often hurried over when simply reading the Biblical texts. Jesus’ simple but profound theology and Paul’s profound but simple applications are healthy partners in coming to grips with the implications of kingdom living and its King. My father often said that the Bible sheds a lot of light on many commentaries…and so it does.

    But the eternal church on earth has been blessed with a special grouping in each generation of men and women who have given their lives and skill sets in honest investigation, rigorous scholarship, resulting in valuable volumes of guidance for those of us who take the time and effort to study them.

    Your thoughts are well founded…and shared.

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    • Brian Casey 10/23/2017 / 4:29 pm

      It seems a good day, finally, to respond to these eminently worthwhile comments. The fact is, I was so taken by them when I first read them that I knew there wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be much of a reply, anyway. My only publicized commitment for comments made on my blog(s) is that I read each one. My internal commitment is to make sure everyone who takes the time to write a thought or ten knows that I appreciate that.

      It is still true — lo, these two months later — that I have little if anything to say. It is even more true that the comments you made here are worthwhile. As I skim my words again, I am feeling that your comment is more worthy of reflection than my post itself. I still feel frustrated by theologies and feel that the ones I have encountered personally are not much more than superimposed stuff (which goes to your dad’s comment about the Bible’s shedding light). But I do know that deep and VALID thought is possible. Thank you for taking the time to write these things.

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