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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How would one describe the Indescribable?

I wrote the following in response to a book review published here.

It’s always well-advised to seek a more adequate, thorough understanding of God, as the author Powell has suggested.  Trinitarian thought may provide “the basic conceptual framework of a Christian vision of God,” but such a proposition appears more speculative and historical than explicitly scriptural. . . .

[The remainder of this blogpost is a considered expansion on the original response.]

In the NT writings, the expression “the Spirit” (often seen in juxtaposition with God or Christ (i.e., “Spirit of God” or “the Spirit of Christ”) clearly depicts something real and active, but most of the Spirit texts may reasonably be read as referring to the essence/core of God—not necessarily to a third entity.  Moreover, simplifying the basic reading of the Greek genitive case to the simplest English possessive form can clarify:

For example. in Rom 8:14, the phrase πνεύματι θεοῦ | pneumati theou is sometimes given in English as follows:

“led by the Spirit of God

The phrase can become, in an alternate translation,

“led by God’s Spirit” or “led by God’s Essence

In the first rendering, the Spirit almost seems to jump out as a different entity, but this ontological understanding is not necessary.  The Spirit could be a “third,” or this and other passages could simply be dealing in specialized ways with God and not referring to a separate entity per se.  One could also reasonably de-capitalize “Essence,” remembering that such explicit “proper noun” differentiation by upper-case lettering was not a part of the earliest manuscripts:  “all who are being led by deity’s core essence are ‘sons’ of our deity.”

In using language (and lower-case letters) like that, I am not in any sense intending to de-emphasize or de-elevate thoughts of God.  I am only seeking to understand and probe more deeply than typical assumptions and common-market literature allow.  I have noticed that some secular labeling frameworks these days (I think here of voice-dictation modules for electronic devices) appear to default to lower-case letters or some other means of ostensibly devaluing the believed-in divine.  While that trend bothers me on some level, it doesn’t seem inherently secular or disrespectful to use an expression such as “the essence of deity” or “our father’s holy spirit” or even “the spirit of the christ.”

The presence or absence of capital letters is a surface-level concern.  We ought to probe more deeply, considering how we conceptualize the “Spirit.”

The baseline assumption of the orthodox theologian is that “the Spirit of God” is a third “person” of the “Godhead.”  (N.B. the quotation marks:  these are figurative expressions.)

The common question of mass-marketed pop-Christian literature is “How can I live a ‘Spirit-filled’ life?”

At the root, at least for me, is the proposition of attempting to describe the Indescribable. 

And how might people attempt to depict the indwelling, ongoing aspects of the Almighty in our age?  Maybe by fashioning a model with multiple entities and/or by attempting to reduce aspects and operations of God to three distinctly labeled partner-beings.

I suggest that (1) “Father,” (2) “Son,” and (3) “Holy Spirit” is an insufficient framework.  It is, after all, a superimposed idea, not as biblically based as most people think.  God transcends our rational attempts to figure Him out, and I appreciated Bruner’s (the review author) spotlight on Powell’s (the book author) attention on the healthy reality of the mystery that is our God.

In speaking of the so-called Trinity (with capital “T” used advisedly),  the late Leroy Garrett has said that he doesn’t want to require of God something that the scriptures do not themselves require.  I agree:  the “trinity” construct may be a helpful and even unifying framework, but it should not be presented as an end-all, absolute way to understand God.  

Do you meet other believers on Sundays and park near a sign that says “Trinity ___ Church”?  Maybe you can move beyond the underlying assumption.

Do you sing the third stanzas of songs that address the “Holy Spirit” seemingly out of obligation, or the songs that include the wording “Three in One”?  Maybe you can reconsider those.

Trinitarian doctrine has been adhered to through the centuries by most Christian believers, but it is not beyond challenge.  Historically, “the church’s understandings have gone awry in so many other instances that we ought to suspect divergence here, too.  But there is something more important than the history of Trinitarian thought:  its restrictiveness.  It is a confining doctrine, placing God in a box rather than moving us to ponder and worship the Infinite.

System troubles (3)

(This is the final installment of “System Troubles.”  Find Part 1 of this series here.  Find Part 2 here.)

Previously, I noted “glitches” in systems of various kinds—in the sphere of electronic technologies, in retail and online markets, at the workplace, and within institutions such as churches.  Most recently, I suggested that the systems of first-century Judaism drew some of the strongest-ever critiques from the likes of Paul and Jesus.

This post is about “systematic theology”—sort of.  Maybe more accurately, it’s about a straw system that may be created by, in this example, a “doctrines” book authored by a systematic theologian.  If “systematic theology” is a new term to you, you may be interested in following up to learn more about the larger picture.

The very idea of “Systematic Theology” disturbs me at my core.  I know some people are into it, and I suspect that most thoughtful Christians have a deep (although mostly unenlightened) respect for it in their hearts.  The trouble is this:  rarely will anyone look at supposedly well-worked-out theologies with a critical eye.  People seem simply to assume that it’s all been hashed out already, and that’s that.  (And then theology and religious history become college majors,² whereas people must assume biblical studies is a dead field, as though all the possible textual understanding has already been gained.)

I have in my hands right now a book by Wayne Grudem.  I understand Grudem to be a sort-of go-to guy for systematic theology.  This particular book is a little one and seems to be a sort of theological primer for laymen.  It treats 20 topics, including some of the “biggies.”  In borrowing the book, I admit that I had a closed-minded, mostly skeptical outlook, so it stands to reason that almost every chapter I glanced at met my low expectations.  Here are a few chapter titles with brief comments.

  • What is the Bible?  (I stopped reading at the careless line “all the words in the Bible are God’s words.”  To paraphrase the vocal band A Cappella, if this were the case, God must’ve been a 17th-century Englishman [or a fourth-century pope who spoke in Latin, or whatever].  See here for more on that.)
  • What Is the Trinity?  (Why does this chapter come so early in the book although Grudem admits the word is never found in the Bible?  Methinks the Trinity idea was subconsciously, artificially promoted in order to give the appearance of unquestioned legitimacy.)
  • What Is Election?  (This is about God’s own electing/choosing [not politics!], and it appears to be a pretty fair-minded chapter, although I wouldn’t really want to foist this topic on anyone young in the faith . . . it can give even mature Christians fits.)
  • What Will Happen When Christ Returns? and What Is the Final Judgment?  (Presumptions abound.  ‘Nuff said.)
  • What Are Sanctification and Perseverance?  (The notions and doctrines suggested by these two words carry a lot of baggage—baggage with which I don’t want to saddle anyone, including myself.)
  • What Does It Mean to Become a Christian?  (Notable omissions cloud this chapter’s credibility; it focuses only on a sense of “call” and response to said call.)

I acknowledge that Grudem does not present his 20 chapters as giving the final answers on any topics.  Instead, he provides, at points, for differences of interpretation and opinion.  However, I’d say the best use of this book would be among learned, experienced Christians who use the brief treatments as springboards to deeper, broader discussion.  The author’s first line reads “This book is a summary of twenty basic beliefs that every Christian should know,” but I would challenge that.

I would hate for novice Christians to get bogged down in some of this material.  As examples, take sanctification, atonement, election, and justification.  These may be considered theologically foundational in that they could be thought of as underlying spiritual realities, but they are anything but easy to understand, and they may not be appropriate for many baby Christians to delve into.  Basically, some of the “basic” beliefs in this book are not exactly basic, and I would suggest that the list of topics itself is the result of a flawed, systematized way of thinking.

Sadly, the idea that Jesus is the Christ is reduced to one 5-page chapter.  That tiny bit of material seems out of balance in a book that purports to provide Christ-ian faith “basics.” ³  What is Christian theology if it gives such a small place to Jesus’ identity?  I fear the scenario when the eyes are focused on a superimposed theological system rather than on the Christ.  It can be good to consider and philosophize and ponder the ramifications of things.  Organized thought patterns are not bad.  Inasmuch as this book has systematic theology at its root, though, I’m still not very hopeful about that system.


² It’s telling that a “religious” institution of higher learning offers majors in Theology and in Evangelization & Catechesis—and these are the only two majors in its only religion-oriented department—but not in Biblical Studies.  There is even a major in Latin but not in Greek or Hebrew.  Amazing.  Or maybe not so surprising.  If this is a market-driven scenario, i.e., if there is no Biblical Studies major because there aren’t enough incoming students to pay for that curricular program, then it’s understandable from a fiscal point of view, but I’d say the larger religious system is the problem, and not necessarily the particular college.  In the case of another institution, a department was delineated into to sub-departments:  (1) Religion, (2) Theology and Philosophy, and (3) Bible.  I certainly wished that Bible were at least set up as a basis for the others, and a greater integration of the three would have been advantageous, although not providing the same neat pigeonholes for faculty specializations.

³ This reminds me of the tale of the supposedly convert-in-process who’d gone through some educational program and who then reported with excitement, “I’m ready to be baptized, but I just have two questions:  who is Jesus, and what is sin?”

Learnings in Acts 16

In a mini-fit of preparation, I spent 10-15 minutes with Acts material the afternoon before class.

I.  During class, I was glad to find that I’d seen in advance some of the same textual notables as our teacher. . . .

  • Two mentions of Lydia form bookends around a long section in Acts 16.
  • The juxtaposition of the expressions “Holy Spirit” and “Spirit of Jesus” reminded me that aspects of God are not always termed identically.  (Nor do the scriptures explicitly claim threeness per se.)  Still, in Acts it is clearly seen that God’s Spirit is acting despite the new physical absence of God’s Son from earth.
  • The mention of the “vision” sent me looking back at other such epiphanies/theophanies/dreams/visions/visitations in Acts.  The word (which is related to one word for seeing) occurs 11x in Acts, in the course of 6 different events.  It seemed to me that visions help to mark some significant incidents or directions of “missionary” activities in Acts 9, 10, and 16.  Paul’s conversion, Peter’s move toward Gentiles, and Paul’s call to Macedonia all use this terminology.  Acts 7’s speech by Stephen also uses the same word in referring to Moses’ theophanic vision of God in the burning bush.  The appearance of the Spirit in Acts 2 is not phrased the same way and so might not be classed as a theophany by those who classify such things, yet it’s clearly an instance of God’s “showing up.”  It is interesting to tie all these together, noting similarities and differences.

II.  The teacher also brought new matters to my attention that I had not seen or considered. . . .

Geography—no matter how much or little I remember about “Asia Minor” (today’s Turkey) or Greece or Israel, there is usually new insight to be gained from considering locations and physical/topographical aspects of narrative.

Macedonian history—and, particularly, the historical request of the Macedonians for Philip the Great to come to save them from the threat of the warriors from Thrace.  This mention made me wonder if there were a relationship with Paul’s vision:  in both cases, someone from Macedonia is begging for help.  I’d believe it if I heard that Paul learned the history while traveling, and then that the spirit of God worked through a dream in his subconscious—a dream in which the request for spiritual help resembled the request for military help from Philip 350 years prior.

Different “we” theories—famously in Acts, some passages use 1st personal plural pronouns while others use 3rd person for Paul and/or his companions.  The notion that a) the “person” variation is a function of Luke’s stylistic choice as a writer was vaguely familiar, but I had not heard the theory that b) Luke had possibly collected and “re-tooled” fragments of other travel narratives (unrelated to Paul) and presumably had been rather carelessly inconsistent.  Still, the most logical choice seems to be that c) Luke was himself with Paul during some phases and not others—thus the 1st person plural “we” sometimes but not other times.  The class teacher noted that there are no “we” passages until well into the narrative.  (Such insights are “academic” yet quite accessible to all!)  If it were anything other than Luke’s actually having been with Paul at those very times, it seems odd that Luke would have waited until chapter 16 to start changing the style or utilizing other people’s writings.

Observation of Lydia’s household’s conversion and immersion is significant on several fronts.  Primarily, it was suggested that Luke/Acts may be presenting the notion that all the Empire was Caesar’s “household,” and that even houses/households were being penetrated and changed by the good news of Jesus.

In sum: 

  1. I was gratified that I had seen in advance some of the same things the teacher had drawn out to present to the group.
  2. There is always more to learn, deeper insight to gain, a new handle that allows grabbing onto a text better, and I absolutely learned during this class.

Bible study is rewarding, progressive (in that one can attain to more and “better” with some experience and guidance) and perpetually challenging and educational.

B. Casey, 10/22/15

Garrett on Jesus’ nature

In his May 2014 essay “Jesus:  Flesh and Spirit,” spiritual philosopher Leroy Garrett has written such provocative statements as these:

I am not a traditional Trinitarian. I do not believe that Jesus was God, who according to James 1:13 cannot be tempted. . . .

The Logos was “equal with God” but he emptied himself and became human. In doing so he became Son of God, but not God. This is why our Lord resisted being called God:  . . .

But there remains abundant mystery to the relationship between Jesus and God, . . .

Find the complete essay here.

Leroy Garrett, probably 20+ years ago
Leroy Garrett, probably 20+ years ago

I have for a couple dozen years questioned the Trinity idea.  It appears to be a humanly devised concept.  As Garrett has said, roughly, noting that “Trinity” is not a scripture term, “I don’t claim something that the scriptures themselves don’t claim.”  For my part, I have never found a scripture passage that says “God is made of up of precisely three parts, and their names are ____, _____, and _____.”  Since I haven’t unearthed such an assertion in scripture, I resist asserting threeness myself.

Back to the particular essay referred to above.  In dealing with Jesus’ nature, Garrett doesn’t feel the need to differentiate overtly between “Christ” and “Jesus,” yet he does do that if one reads closely.  On this point, I also track with Garrett.

My own suspicion — and it is only a suspicion — is that there is a “part” (whatever that means) of God (mystery that He is) that has always existed (whatever that means) and became a “Son” (in some sense).  “The Word” (whatever that signifies) is identified with “the Son” in John’s gospel, and Jesus is clearly “the only Son” there.  The divine mystery includes some sense the binary nature of Jesus/Word/Son/Christ.  It seems to me that “Jesus” — and probably “Son of Man,” too — might fairly be used to designate the time-bound, mortal existence of the divine “Son.”

In that the nature of God defies numbering and naming, it appears to be a mystery.

Voices: Garrett et al on “trinity”

Jesus’ concept of God and goodness are the subjects of a recent essay by Leroy Garrett.  Since it was first through Leroy’s writings that I began to probe the doctrine of the Trinity, about 20 years ago, it’s fitting that I share a quote from a recent essay by this same author.  Garrett, a theological philosopher and elder Christian statesman, is now in his 90s and has edited several periodicals — including his own Restoration Review and the current Soldier On! — for an aggregate total of some 60 years.

Jesus was hardly a Trinitarian, and [Matthew 19:16f]  does not lend itself to that hallowed and historic doctrine.  Jesus would have balked at such theological inventions as “the Triune God” or “the hypostatic union of three persons.”  – L. Garrett

Note:  Garrett’s complete essay may be viewed here.  It treats well some of the differences among the gospels’ portrayals of Jesus and others, notably focusing on Matthew.

For what it’s worth:  Mark and John are probably bit more inclined toward trinitarian thought (e.g., a reference in the longer, less well-attested ending of Mark; and the references in John 14, 15, and 16 in particular).  Still, there appears no well-attested original passage that clearly lays out “three.”  I do not think it is contra truth to consider 1-Father, 2-Son, and 3-Spirit — those are all present, in function — but no gospel or letter appears to have as part of its agenda the specification of a divine triumvirate.

For an example of stereotypical, articulate trinitarian support, see this page.  While I appreciate the intent and heart of the quotations (Winslow and Wilson), it’s difficult for me to affirm wholeheartedly a doctrine never claimed in scripture per se.  It’s not that Father, Son, and Spirit don’t exist — they certainly do — it’s that the supposed “triangle” has been superimposed through the intervening centuries.  Orthodoxy is not all it’s cracked up to be; it’s kind of like a dictionary — a reflection of usage, but not necessarily a trove of well-founded accuracy.  [ADDENDUM 7/16 — my comment on the trinitarian blog noted above has not been approved — it is under “moderation.”  I’ll check back later, but I can’t help but wonder why the person doesn’t want an equally God-honoring, although not orthodoxy-worshipping, comment appearing on his site.]  [ADDENDUM 7/20 — I wrote the author on Facebook, asking him to approve my comment.  I now see that I am dealing with quite a clout covey!  The group represented by the trinitarian post includes such luminaries as the pastor of a high-profile Nashville church frequented by CCM artists, the president of Wheaton College, the president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and noted author John Piper.]

Like Garrett, I consider “trinity” to be a “theological invention.”  I prefer to think of God as transcendent and many-faceted, without locking Him in to being “three” — which may be, after all, a mere number suggested for the sake of the limited human mind.

For more on the topic of trinity, please see this post:  Sorbet as a Symbol.

Blogpost no. 900 — ponderings of significance

If triangles had a God, He’d have three sides. 

— Yiddish proverb

I come now to a milestone  my blogpost #900  but have absolutely no illusions that anyone out there has been counting down to 900 with me.  This is just a small marker in one aspect of my life, and less than insignificant in everyone else’s.  Still, it gives me pause to consider this type of thinking and writing that has been important to me for nearly four years now.  Before I take a break from blogging for a while, I can think of no better way to cross this milestone than to make this post all about God. . . .

~ ~ ~

Job and his friends wandered into the territory of God considerations—and dared to act as though they had Him figured out.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”  (Job 38: 1)

[ Then God proceeded to provide a detailed description of his uniquely powerful and non-understandable work in creation. ]

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  (Job 42:3b)

I would suggest that we can’t hope to influence others for God . . . nor can we worship God . . . nor can we have a genuine, fulfilling relationship with God . . . if we limit Him by boxing Him in.

J.B. Phillips, in the classic Your God Is Too Small, suggested this:

If people are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a [sort of “created”] God who could only exist between (emphasis mine   -bc) the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a church.

God is immeasurably “bigger” than our forefathers imagined, and modern scientific discovery only confirms their belief that man has not even begun to comprehend the incredibly complex Being who is behind—no, is—what we call “life.”

It’s a given:  ||: There is no way to describe God in human terms. :||   (Non-musicians and musicians alike, please don’t miss the repeat signs there!)

We do have the “plural” thing in the Genesis 1:26–“let us make man in our image,” or some reasonable facsimile thereof.  (Aside:  this God-expression was recently referred to, in my hearing in a small Christian gathering, in the same breath that related the serpent to “Lucifer.”  Like many other understandings, the common Lucifer concept results from translation and/or interpretation — and is enlarged by early, probably erroneous Christian history that relates Lucifer to Satan and, ultimately, to the Eden serpent.)  That deity is in some sense more than “one” is born out in John 1 and 1st John 1.  But what does this really mean?  That God is precisely two or three?

I, Brian Casey, am a “singular” thing.  But it’s difficult to narrow even me down to a singular thing.  (No, I don’t have MPD, although I do sometimes get moody and change personalities.)  I have many aspects — and some are fairly difficult to understand.  How about God?  Is He singular?  (“The LORD our God is one.”)  Or plural?  (“Let Us make man.”  “Let Us go down and confuse their language.”)  Wouldn’t He be infinitely more difficult to “figure out” in terms of number than a human?  Honestly, I’m more interested in the possible literary connection of 1) the “us” in the creation account to 2) the “us” in the Babel account than I am in figuring out whether God is to be considered a trinity.  After all, “trinity” is a human word-concept, not used in scripture.

It bothers me when we feel that we have God figured out!  It bothers me profoundly — to the point of considering the possibility that it’s blasphemy.

“Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” queried a favorite songwriter of mine, Michael Card.  I think he was onto something.

While I admit that I tend to forget the neat triumvirate of Matthew 28:19 — immersing “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” I encourage equal thought about the non-trinitarian presentation in 2 Cor. 3:13-18.  Here, the glory of God the Father seems to be connected to the Lord Jesus, and in the final expression, which is difficult to render in English, the Lord Jesus appears to be equated with the Spirit.  The Spirit of God is surely to be attended to as we read scripture and as we attempt to live Christianly now, but could it be that the “Spirit” is more of a vain attempt to describe the eminently non-physical Essence or Nature of God?  Could it be that the question is more valuable than any purported answer?

Our ponderings, however on- or off-target they may turn out to be, can be highly significant as we seek more insight into the nature and being of God.  We do need to take care that we don’t fashion a God that looks like something we came up with—something of our imagination, as in the triangles of Yiddish lore.  God is more significant, more holy, more indescribably other than our thoughts about Him can ever comprehend.  So be it.

Job 42:5-6:  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

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Aside from a couple of posts already written and scheduled for several days hence, I won’t be actively blogging for a while.  I’m going to take a break and will see you in a few weeks.

Sorbet as a symbol

For centuries, orthodox Christendom has articulated something about God that the scriptures do not spell out.  For centuries — somewhere between 17 and 20 of ’em, I think — those with influence have taught a doctrine, and we have come to accept, without questioning, that this teaching simply is.  Hold that thought. . . .

Humanity’s finest moments do not come when we simply accept things without question.  To start with a minimal example, take the word “a.”  It’s so common — in over-zealous attempts to be emphatic — to pronounce “a” like the name of the letter.  Yet, despite these frequent mispronunciations by public and not-so-public figures, this English word is always properly pronounced “uh” (roughly a “schwa” sound), and never “ay.”  Again:  there is never an instance, in spoken English, in which the word “a” should be pronounced “ay.”  It’s just the way it is, and there’s no use questioning the reality.

Similarly, just because a well-intentioned, ill-informed public speaker says, “God gave this to you and I” (inaccurate use of the subjective case) or pronounces the word “interesting” with four syllables (“INN – tur – ess – ting”), it doesn’t make those things correct.

What about sherbet?  It is a logical certainty that the majority of my readers will turn out to be among those who mispronounce this word.  Were you raised calling it “sherbert”?  That doesn’t make it correct.  (Now don’t go getting all aggressive and accusative on me.  I know there are lots of things I learned incorrectly, too.)  You can pass it off as a matter of choice all you like, but that doesn’t change the fact:  the word is “sherbet.”  It is an adulterated pronunciation that includes an “r” sound in the second syllable.  All attempts to justify said mispronunciation are misguided.  It’s just the way it is.

[Aside:  for some interesting history on sorbet/sherbet, see this Wikipedia page, including information under the “American terminology” heading.  In reading this, I had a couple of presuppositions confirmed — 1) that Americans can sometimes be a bit confused, and 2) that sorbet is entirely a fruit product, whereas sherbet is distinct and has some dairy content.]

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Now, please consider the way in which words change in meaning as time passes.  Morphings, adulterations, and corruptions are limited only by the number of hours that pass!  Will the word “a” ever be considered correct when pronounced “ay,” and will the pronunciation “sherbert” ever be thought accurate?  In both cases, the answer seems clearly to be “yes, already.”  While the reality of this answer frustrates my “righteous” side some, I must admit that neither of these matters much.  The preexistence of some things — being “just the way they are” — is not so eternal, not so consequential as with other things.  Whether you call it “sherbet” or “sherbert” or “sorbet,” its essence is unchanged, and it’s still a treat.

But what about the Christian “Trinity’?  Most of my readers assume this doctrine with certitude.  Yet presumptions have come into play through the centuries.  Is it just the way it is?  Or are there questions to be asked?

Although there are Old Covenant books I’ve never read entirely (and although that fact doesn’t bother me very much), I consider myself very conversant with the whole of New Covenant scripture.  I feel I can say with confidence that the NC scriptures never present deity as “trinity.”  There are several oblique, have-to-look-to-see-it references that seem to suggest three, but there is no place in which scriptures assert, “God has three parts, and here they are:  A, B, and C.”

For nearly two millennia, demagogues of religion have inculcated trinitarian doctrine, and we have come to accept, without question, that trinity simply is.  As with “sherbert,” the fact that someone has heard it that way all his life, presuming it was accurate, doesn’t change whatever the reality is.

Please understand that I don’t think God is not three.  I don’t think God is necessarily two, or three, or one, or any other number.  (There is a certain hold that both the unity and the duality of God have on my thinking in this arena, yet God still could be three in another sense.  I prefer to think of God as bigger than any of these numbered boxes.  I suppose, if given a multiple-choice question on this matter, I would refuse to answer the question and ask for an essay exam instead.  (Go figure — this from a verbose blogger!)

When it comes right down to it, God is God, and that very fact defies human explanation.  In view of abundant evidence of a cosmological designer, the mystery of God’s pre-existence is something I accept in faith, but the division into parts — whether “two” or “three” or any other explanation that might come in the future — amounts to nothing more than a human attempt to explain the transcendent God, to express His being in a reasoned manner.

Pictured here is one variation of something commonly known as “rainbow sherbet.”  We might presume that the flavors are raspberry, lime, and orange.  What if you found out, though, that raspberry has been mulberry all along, and that the lime and orange stripes are really both the same kiwi-tangerine flavor — and that your eyes, perceiving two different flavor-colors, had been playing tricks on your tastebuds all these years?

No matter!  It’s still a treat, and the essence is still sherbet — a good thing!

Chapel curriculum

Below is a sketch of my college’s “Chapel Curriculum” for 2012-13.  Leaving alone for now the question of what the chapel tradition is supposed to be — and yea, whether there should be a curriculum at all (making it thus a human, academic enterprise and not as much of a Kingdom one) — let’s have a look.  This plan is conveniently, if not properly, structured in three “God” categories and one human category.  

GOD THE FATHER

  • Who God is
  • Attributes of God
  • Salvation history; relationship of old & new covenants
  • Creation
    • nature/environment
    • humans created as sexual beings
    • art/music  – art
  • Provision:  Deus absconditus: God’s hidden work
  • Intelligence

GOD THE SON

  • Teaching of Jesus: ethics; kingdom of God; imitation of Christ
  • The “work” of Christ: death and all its significance for our redemption; resurrection and all its significance; soteriology

GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT  

  • Spirit-inspired service
  • Sanctification; role of Spirit in the Christian’s maturing, growth in love
  • Discipleship
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Eschatology/Judgment/Resurrection
  • Church:
    • Ecclesiology
    • Christian Community; purpose & identity of the church

ANTHROPOLOGY (theological)

  • Humanity in image of God
  • The Christian and politics
  • Common grace
  • Civic justice
  • The Christian’s vocation
  • Business:  work and the kingdom of God, wealth

As I read over that list, I find an attractive depth and scope.  My questions, though, are many — too many, I think.  Although I might have offered to contribute to the “curriculum” with a speech on one of the topics listed, I’m afraid my views in a few areas would prove too divergent.  Every third item seems either miscategorized or ill-conceived or unclear.  I’ll offer six representative questions, using “the number of man,” because this whole curricular list, like me and like you, is human and imperfect.

  1. For instance, why are discipleship and interpersonal relationships under the “God the Holy Spirit” heading and not under “God the Son” or “Anthropology”?  I suppose that in a sense, we follow the essence, the indwelling part of God; but large, significant portions of NC scripture pertain to following Jesus, leading me to the conclusion that He is the crux for humans in terms of discipleship.
  2. What is “common grace,” and why is it under a human heading rather than a God one?  (Maybe I’m just ignorant of orthodox thought.)  (Don’t say anything!)
  3. In my particular milieu, I think any messages in the “Christian and politics” category will likely be balanced and non-partisan, but I worry in every election year that folks will assume that every right-thinking person should be engaged in the process — when such involvement must not be cajoled, since political involvement is not required in scripture.
  4. “Civic justice” is always safe … or is it?  On one hand, I affirm a mantra that goes something like this:  “Socially/humanly liberal; morally conservative.”  But, like it or not, there’s a politically liberal agenda attached to the words “civic justice” that appeals to some, but not to all.
  5. Why is Eschatology/Judgment/Resurrection under the Holy Spirit heading and not the Father or Son ones?
  6. Perhaps most significant:  why, in a Christ-ian college, is the “God the Son” category so brief?

Some topical areas seem skeletal — why are there only one or two sub-topics under “church” and “creation,” for instance?  And another example:  I do think human sexuality deserves a solid berth in considerations of what it means to be human, but there’s much more to say about God’s human creation, isn’t there?  I think I remember hearing — but don’t know for sure — that a four-year curriculum exists, designed to touch on four times this many areas during a student’s time in college.  Perhaps this list is only one-fourth of the whole, designed in order to provide thoroughgoing balance over a period of years.

How about you?  Care to pick an item or two and query it, or comment on it from a Christian education standpoint?

Eikons and icons

I’ve been thinking a little about Greek the word eikon, from which we get “icon.”  In Paul’s¹ letter to the Colossians, Jesus is said to be the eikon (image) of the Father, and that thought could lead to hours of meditation and worship.

On the other hand, centuries of iconography in the Episcopal/Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox traditions continue to leave me in the middle ground between bored and aghast.  Today I had occasion to scan an article in the Rochester, NY newspaper about religious shrines in private homes, and some Lutheran adherent from Nashville was mentioned as enjoying icons in his home.  Why?  Because, he said, a council in the 7th century said it was OK and related them somehow to the incarnation.  (Oh, man.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to contain myself.  What blog fodder!)

In the meantime, I choose to try to focus on the reality that was found in the Christ.  Tomorrow, Lord Jesus, may my household, and like-minded friends with us, find especially meaningful ways to do just that.

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¹ I could call him “Saul” or “Paul” or “Saul-Paul,” but I opt out of calling him “St. Paul.”  Somehow I doubt he would prefer being set on a pedestal in that way.  We’re all saints, he would say.