What is theology on about? A response from J.I. Packer

I am not a systematic blogger. I  blog about whatever is going on at the time. I’ve tried series, but they don’t suit me. So during the semester, I blog about classes and teaching. On breaks from teaching, I tend to write about whatever research sits before me. And since I’m collecting and editing selections for my anthology this summer…well, expect to see much on that over the next couple months.

This morning had me working on J.I. Packer. There are few more thoughtful and articulate examples of Protestant Evangelicalism in the twentieth century (nor many more fluent in the Christian tradition). Though it won’t appear in the anthology, his brief summary of theology’s subject matter is beautiful. For Packer, the subject of theology sets the terms for how the theologian carries out her work. But when wrongly conceived, a host of dangers lurk at the ready.

The proper subject-matter of systematic theology is God actively relating in and through all created things to human beings; God, about whom those biblically revealed truths teach us, and to whom they point us; God, who lives, loves, rules, speaks, and saves sinners; God, who calls us who study him to relate to him through penitence and faith and worship as we study, so that our thinking about him becomes an exercise of homage to him.

From this basis (if one accepts it) it follows that the proper state of mind for us as we come to synthesize the exegeted teaching of Scripture will be one not of detachment but of commitment, whereby we bring to our theologizing the attitude not of a critic but of a disciple; not of one who merely observes God, but of one who actively worships him.

Then we shall be in less danger of speculative extrapolations that go beyond Scripture, which it is almost impossible to keep out of theologies that the detached intellect…puts together. We shall be in less danger of forgetting the transcendent mystery of God’s being and action, and of putting him in a box constructed out of our own concepts which the detached intellect, longing to master that which it studies, is very prone to do. We shall be in less danger of the irreverence of treating God as if he were an impersonal object below us, frozen fast by us for the purposes of our study, and of failing to remember that he is the great personal Subject, far above us, apart from whose ongoing life we should not exist at all. And we shall be shielded from the further irreverence of allowing ourselves to grade God’s work in connection with the sovereign mysteries of predestination and evil, and to conclude that if we ourselves were God we could do a better job. ‘Your thoughts of God are too human,’ said Luther to Erasmus. He might have said, your theology has too little worship in it; whichever he had said, the point would have been the same.

In short, we are called to make our study of theology a devotional discipline, a verifying in experience of Aquinas’ beautiful remark that theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God. So may it be, for all of us (“An Introduction to Systematic Spirituality,” in Serving the People of God, p. 315. Breaks inserted).

Not long ago, Steve posted a nice review of a recently published biography of Packer. Read it here.

Time and Scripture

Guest post: Zen Hess

The freedom to read what I want as my semester at Duke winds down is a welcome relief! I have been mulling over Robert Jenson’s essay in The Art of Reading Scripture (2003). His argument explicitly raises questions about time, Christology and biblical interpretation. But it also had me asking questions about worship and Advent. Here is what I mean.

Jenson poses the question, “Is it not absurd to think of the Word as in any sense incarnate before the flesh existed, before Jesus was born?” The answer to this question has serious implications for how we interpret Scripture, specifically the Old Testament. One answer, supposed to be the right one Theotokosby many interpreters in modernity, is that it is, in fact, absurd. Supposing we might “find Jesus in the Old Testament” is to superimpose a foreign element onto the historical text. We are, however, in good company if we think that such a statement is not entirely true.

Believing that the Word preexists the Incarnation means that we may rightly find Christ’s voice in the Pentateuchal, the Poetic, and the Prophetic writings that are the Old Testament. “If the Word of the Lord,” Jenson writes, “came to Second Isaiah and made him a prophet was Jesus Christ, then the vision of Christ that the Church has derived from this prophet, of a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ is not a mere allowable trope but is in fact a product of Christ’s own testimony to his own character, given by the prophet.”

Jenson’s proposal requires us to reimagine how we understand time. Continue reading

Reading Theology: A Student’s Guide (preview)

I am kicking off a series of posts on reading theology. Call it a “student’s guide” because I have my college students in mind. It’s a work in progress, and I happily invite your interaction!

One of the greatest joys of studying theology with college students is their surprise when encountering the diversity of Reading4voices and texts in the Christian tradition. A sermon by John Calvin. Arius’s letters. The Council of Trent. Pannenberg’s dogmatics. The liturgical poetry of Ephrem. Commentary by Cyril of Alexandria. James Cone’s liberation theology. African Christology. I could go on and on. I have commonly had students say, “I never knew the conversation was this diverse, much less this interesting!

Yet, there are challenges to face when the young theologian encounters diverse voices and different kinds of text. I have one specific challenge in mind with this “student’s guide”: the diversity among theological texts requires the reader to discern the purpose(s) of the particular text on hand. In other words, What work is theology being asked to do here? What goals does the author have in mind? To what ends is theology being put to use?

This might seem obvious enough, but I have found that it often eludes my students. It eludes them for at least two reasons. Continue reading

Two Logos Translations

PolanusFor many the name of Logos calls to mind strictly linguistic resources for studying the Bible, but its repertoire of theological helps is broader than that. In particular, there will be two translations available in the near future that are cause for excitement among Reformed theology enthusiasts and historical theology enthusiasts in general.

One is a translation of Amandus Polanus’ (1561-1610) Syntagma Theologiae Christianae (see here). The early Reformed orthodox author’s system of Christian doctrine is an excellent pathway into the intellectual and spiritual riches of this period of Protestant thought. Though all scholastic theology strives to be orderly, Polanus’ work is very useful for its concise definitions and explanations of the divine attributes, for example. As it happens, in recent research in Christology I benefited from his sketch of the doctrine of the person of Christ and found it to be a nice complement to a work like Turretin’s, which is already available in English.

Polanus appears as a dialogue partner in Barth’s Church Dogmatics but, with a number of other Protestant scholastic writers, is sadly misunderstood at certain points. Translations like this will help to reinstate theologians like Polanus as thinkers that must be taken seriously today and will help us to practice theology in an ad fontes posture.

Another translation is a new version of John Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa, which outlines the history of theology through different segments of redemptive history (see here). Continue reading

Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading

Restoring God’s Reputation?

olsonI’ve been reading through Zondervan’s two recent books by Michael Horton (For Calvinism) and Roger Olson (Against Calvinism), apt spokesmen for their respective views on the doctrines of grace.  Both authors eschew attempts to find that (illusory) middle ground between Calvinism and Arminianism and provide very helpful introductions to the issues at hand.

Olson ardently presses the question of how the God of Calvinism can be the one whom John characterizes as ‘love’ in his first epistle (1 Jn 4:8, 16).  Under the doctrine of predestination, the real question for Olson is not so much whether God could be just in unconditionally electing some and reprobating others but whether God could be said to act in love in so doing: if God could just as easily have unconditionally elected more, or indeed all, fallen persons and effectually called them to salvation, how is he love in choosing not to do so?  An Arminian account, Olson writes, with its doctrine of conditional election, is better-positioned to uphold God’s ‘reputation’ at this point.

This is certainly a pointed question for Reformed soteriology – and theology proper – but one that might be put to the Arminian view as well.  In explicating the Arminian approach to divine sovereignty, Olson writes,

[L]et it be clearly understood that those who appeal to divine self-limitation and passive permission as the explanation for sin and evil in the omnipotent, creator God’s world, do not say that God never manipulates historical circumstances to bring about his will. What God never does is cause evil. God may and no doubt sometimes does bring about some event by placing people in circumstances where he knows what they will freely do because he needs them to do that for his plan to be fulfilled.  Such seemed to be the case with Jesus’ crucifixion. Even then, however, it was not that God tempted or manipulated individuals to sin. Rather, he knew what events, such as the triumphal entry, would result in the crucifixion (Against Calvinism, p. 99).

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‘Jesus Is Lord’: A Political Statement?

At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10).  N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.

In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement.  I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.

Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized.  This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.

Continue reading