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.

Cyril of Alexandria on the Christian life

I am working this summer on my next book project: an anthology. The collection is focused on the Christian life and will include selections from across the Christian tradition, starting with the earliest post-apostolic Fathers to the present. I am collaborating on this project with two super-talented editors, and as I see it starting to come together I am so pleased! (Watch a short video about the book here).

This morning was fascinating. I worked on the selection from Cyril of Alexandria at Concordia Theological Seminary (Just down the road from me. A great library, really beautiful!). From Cyril’s many works I chose a selection from his commentary on the Gospel of John. I began with Pusey’s translation from the 19th century which was, let’s say, more than a little wooden. Thankfully the recent translation from David Maxwell is superb. Here’s a short outtake from the selection that will appear in the anthology:

st-cyril-of-alexandriaThe Son, by his authority, gives what belongs to him alone by nature and sets it forth as a common possession, making this a sort of image of the love he has for humanity and for the world. We who bore the image of the earthly man could not escape corruption unless the call to sonship placed in us the splendor of the image of the heavenly man [1 Cor. 15:49]. We became participants in him through the Spirit. We were sealed into his likeness, and we ascend to the archetypal form of the image according to which Holy Scripture says we were also made. Once we recover the ancient beauty of our nature in this way and are refashioned in relation to the divine nature, we will be superior to the evils that befell us because of transgression. Therefore, we rise up to an honor above our nature because of Christ […]

[T]hose who rise to divine sonship through faith in Christ are baptized not into anything originate but into the holy Trinity itself through the Word who is the mediator. He joins what is human to himself through the flesh that was united to him, and he is joined by nature to the Father since he is by nature God. In this way, the slaves ascend to sonship through participation in the true Son since they are called and so to speak raised to the honor that is in the Son by nature. Therefore, we who received the new birth through the Spirit by faith are called born of God, and that is what we are.

Notice what Cyril does. In order to ground the Christian life he traces its origin back behind Christ’s atoning work to his “nature” as God the Son, consubstantial with the Father. The life which the Son offers to us is his to give because he shares it with the Father by nature. By “nature” Cyril means that the Son shares in the same stuff that constitutes the Father as God. They are both God by “substance,” or by nature (it took the church centuries to find adequate words for this). We are creatures and therefore not God by nature. That is key for Cyril. As creatures we are fundamentally needy, dependent on another for life. We are saved only because we share God’s life by grace, through adoption in the Son. What we have in the Son is the very Life of God, ours through adoption.

Protestant Evangelicals have often stressed the atoning work of the Son nearly to the exclusion of the Son’s origin in the Godhead (thanks to our revivalist heritage). The resulting portrait of the Christian life typically hangs on the doctrine of justification, or more tenuously on sanctification in the Spirit. Cyril, however, ably reminds us that a strong theology of the Christian life requires grounding in a strong Christology and doctrine of the Trinity.

Green Idolatry

Indiana morningI have often said that living in Colorado ruined me for everywhere else. I mean that it’s just so shockingly beautiful that everywhere else pales in comparison. I fell in love with Colorado in junior high, every spring break skiing Summit County. And as a college student I spent my summers guiding mountaineering trips across Colorado and California. Every chance I had I got to the wildest places I could find!

Given my love for wild places, I was immediately interested when I read Norman Wirzba’s warning about “green idolatry”:

It is tempting to think that genuine desire or affection is realized when we become worshipers of nature. But this is not so. To make the trek to beautiful vistas (often at considerable expense) runs the risk of a “green idolatry” in which mountains or lakes or species are commodified to fulfill an aesthetic desire. Too often the nature we seek in a “wilderness experience” is made to fulfill expectations about beauty. That places are beautiful is not the problem. But when we desire our relationship to nature to be mediated by the expectation that only places deemed pretty or spectacular are worthy of our attention, then we do witness an idolatry that condemns much of the world to neglect or even disparagement. What we often fail to realize is that our worship of nature’s beauty, especially our designations of certain kinds of landscapes or creatures as beautiful, is also fundamentally a reduction of the world to expectations that we bring to it. In this reduction great stretches are abandoned by us as unworthy and thus unlovable” (From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World, p. 58).

Have I fully engaged the beauty of Indiana? Here in the flat places of the Midwest, have I looked at the earth in the same way I did in Colorado? Nope. Sure, out in the morning for a long run when the mist is rising I praise God, but the wild places startle me – catch me up short – in a different way.

But Wirzba’s diagnosis has made me pause, and I think I will look at the flat places differently. And I think I will look at me differently too.

The Contagion of Jesus

The following excerpt is from Sabastian Moore’s The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as if it Mattered (Orbis Books, 2007):

The Washing of Feet.Sieger Koder

“The Washing of Feet” by Sieger Koder

There are two kinds of conversion. There is the conversion of the godless to God, and there is the conversion of the godly to the realization that he has been radically wrong about God, and about what God is asking of us…This second kind happened to Saul, and exceedingly godly man, on the way to Damascus about his God’s business. He had got God wrong. All-powerful over us, his God had become the image of our lust for power; God had what he wanted. And we have all remade God in our own image of being the power over us, reflecting a long history of violence and war.

To be converted to this God is devastating. And the image of this conversion is of a God not over us but under us, spat upon by priests and a barrack-square joke for soldiers, finally nailed to two bits of wood. Saul the Pharisee, trained in the God of law and rigour, knew of and abominated that image which a new sect was promulgating; it was against everything he’d stood for as a religious man, and so he had got God wrong. He was thrown, and fell helplessly in love with the humiliated one whom the real God had raised up, the God who comes to us from below, the oppressed among us and, in us, the God who – his arms stretched out to all the world by being nailed to our cross – is behind us so we don’t see him but sink into him and let him feed us with his flesh and blood – a horrendous idea for the then religion – and turn us slowly into himself, his body given to others in a new and all-enduring love (p. 10. Emphasis added).

Yes, convert us from our false gods; our gods of power and domination! But while Moore emphasizes the humility of Jesus by speaking of his below-ness, I would say it differently.

Rather than “the God who comes to us from below,” perhaps better: “the God who comes to us from the fellowship of God’s own life – his utter self-sufficiency – through the mission of his Son.” The mission of God the Son takes the form of his humiliation, but his humiliation is not that He comes to us from below but from his shared humanity with us. He is made like his brothers and sisters “in every respect” (Heb. 2; also Phil 2). Emphasis upon humility without corresponding stress upon his origin in the fellowship of the divine life risks depleting his sufficiency to save. It is not only his belowness that makes him sufficient – his shared humanity – but his origin in the divine fellowship as God the Son. That he shares life with God the Father (John 5:26) means that he comes to us overflowing with life to give, life to offer of himself. The grammar of the Christian tradition has always sought to hold both together: “begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God” and “for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate” (Creed of Nicaea).

Lord Jesus Christ, free us of our false gods and draw us to yourself. 

John Webster: A Remembrance

John WebsterI was very sad to learn late last night that John Webster, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews, died suddenly yesterday morning. You can find a fine summary of John’s theology by Fred Sanders here and a eulogy by Stephen Holmes here. The internet will be full of tributes in days to come, but I want to offer a short remembrance.

John was the chair of the Divinity department when I completed my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. He was not my supervisor, but he was always available for a conversation. We had many (a testament to his generosity). I remember one in particular. It was so telling of John’s approach to theology. We were discussing God’s providence and the manner of his interaction with the world. At one point John leans back, puts his hand on his forehead and thoughtfully says, “In this matter I think we must give our attention first to God’s revealed character, and only then look to theories of causation. Character first, then causation.”

And that was John’s whole approach to theology. Whatever else it’s about, it is first and foremost about God – and principally about God’s life in himself. Hearing last night about John’s death was especially shocking because I had spent the day reading his recently published God Without Measure (it was like spending a day with him). There he writes,

Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold subject. This object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him” (Vol. 1:3).

God first, then everything else in light of God. Whatever else we might say about God’s interaction with the world (his outer works), the theologian must first – diligently and cheerfully – give her attention to God’s life in himself. For John this was a corrective to so much that goes wrong in Christian thought, not least of which the migration of theology away from the praise of God. So quickly we slip from the register of doxology into speculation. But when we train our attention again and again back onto God the distance shortens between the work of sanctified reason and praise. John explains,

If Christian dogmatics wishes to offer a corrective, it can only  be by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to the divine splendour. But deeply important as they are, concepts are only serviceable as the instruments of spiritual apprehension” (Vol. 1:27).

The spiritual apprehension the theologian seeks comes in this life as faith, not sight (Heb. 11:1). Following Aquinas (so often a voice in John’s recent work) he wrote, “Theology is oriented chiefly to invisible things, ‘things that are unseen’ (2 Cor. 4:18)” (Vol. 1:6). This is as it should be, for faith is the particular form of seeing fitting for the Christian life. But it will not always be so. In glory we will stand in the presence of God and share in his life. This was John’s hope and it is mine. As I grieve John’s death I praise God in the same breath that what he saw by faith he now has by sight.

Lord Jesus Christ, may your name be praised through the legacy of John’s work and the sweet remembrance of his friendship.

Dear Theologian, you do not have a PhD in economics

Stock MarketTheologians are in a tricky place.  We are trained to reason about God himself.  Yet, we are also trained to reason about the world and the many dimensions of created existence.  The latter often makes us feel as though we are qualified to give an expert opinion on anything under the sun, but we are not.

In reasoning about not only the triune God himself but also created things, it is vital to remember that, as theologians, we are positioned to reason about created things just sub specie Dei, ‘under the aspect of God’, or in relation to God.  We rightly speak about the characteristics of the created order that follow immediately on its relation to its Maker, but we do not proceed in any direct way from ‘O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth’ to ‘Therefore, photosynthesis occurs by way of…’.  As theologians, we do not have special insight into the immediate principles and operations of plant or animal life.  Learning about such things would require that we, like anyone else, read a book about them.

Nor do we, as theologians, have any special insight into economics.  As theologians, we can and should point out that God cares for the poor, according to Holy Scripture.  As theologians, we must at the same time admit that this important note in the Bible gives us absolutely no clue as to whether the distinct and complex economic proposals of any given presidential candidate will in fact prove best suited to helping the poor earn a good living and look after their families.

Theologians need not refrain altogether from speaking about concrete economic issues.  But our training as exegetes of the Bible and stewards of the church’s theological tradition cannot be the basis on which we stand when we choose to say that such-and-such a proposal will turn out well or badly.  This means that, if we wish to speak about such matters, it must be with reference to the serious work of actual economists, not by lazily appealing to broad ethical principles as if that could directly settle something in the American political scene or should obligate all Christians to agree with one’s own preferred method of working out such broad principles in the complexities of contemporary society.

Theologians, whether you’re ‘feeling the (socialist?) Bern’, backing a candidate whose integrity and trustworthiness have been duly called into question on a number of fronts, or looking to (vacuously, and certainly least probably for TF readers) ‘Make America great again’ – can you feel the writer’s excitement about this year’s options? – do everyone a favor and give specific detail and argument whenever you wish to have credibility in speaking about specific economic proposals.  Or, we might even (gasp!) sit back and let our brothers and sisters who know a thing or two about economic policy and history teach us something.

Prayers for Those who Govern

Being in the midst of the election primaries in America, this prayer came to mind from the Protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). Some of us are more jaded than others about the political process, which always makes his optimism more than a little jarring to me (maybe I need to be jarred a bit). Even so, his prayer for those who govern is as fitting today as it was in 1910.

God, thou great governor of all the world, we pray thee for all who hold public office Rauschenbusch, Walterand power, for the life, the welfare, and the virtue of the people are in their hands to make or to mar. We remember with shame that in the past the mighty have preyed on the labors of the poor; that they have laid nations to dust by their oppression, and have thwarted the love and the prayers of thy servants. We bless thee that the new spirit of democracy has touched even the kings of the earth. We rejoice that by the free institutions of our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed and turned to the patient service of the commonwealth.

Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state may feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning. Breathe a new spirit into all our nation. Lift us from the dust and mire of the past that we may gird ourselves for a new day’s work. Give our leaders a new vision of the possible future of our country and set their hearts on fire with large resolves. Raise up a new generation of public men [and women] who will have the faith and daring of the Kingdom of God in their hearts, and who will enlist for life in a holy warfare for the freedom and rights of the people (Prayers of the Social Awakening, pp. 75-6)

It reminds me of another prayer. When Karl Barth prayed, he would often intercede for political leaders and those with influence over the political process and public opinion. Though the second world war had largely squashed the political optimism one hears in Rauschenbusch’s prayer, Barth’s prayer shares his request for God’s intervention. Here is one:

Let dawn continue to break a little in our hearts, in [our university], at home with those Barth lecturingwho are dear to us, in this city, in our nation, and throughout the whole earth. You know the errors and misdeeds of that make our current situation once again so dark and dangerous on all sides. Let a fresh wind blow through it, that might at least scatter the thickest fog from the heads of those who rule this world, but also from the heads of the peoples who permit themselves to be ruled, and above all from the heads of those who make public opinion (50 Prayers: Karl Barth, p. 2).

Let me know if other prayers from theologians come to mind during this election year. We can make it a running series.