Friday, January 28, 2005

nature and task of theology (systematic theology I)

my intro to system theology course has started. i have been given the option to keep an ongoing critical log of the readings as opposed taking a 3 hr final exam. i will be posting my critical log entries here as well as keeping them in a separate ms word doc. these entries may or may not mean anything to reader because they are based on the following readings:

Paul Tillich - Systematic Theology Vol 1
John Calvin - Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol 1
James Cone - God of the Oppressed
Rosemary Radford Ruether - Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology
Gustavo Gutierrez - A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation
various other readings...

my approach will be to record my initial thoughts on the topic before doing the readings and then write up my reaction to the readings.

here we go:

The Nature and Task of Theology – 1/28/05

Initial Thoughts
This first log entry will most likely be longer than others because I am recording my first impression and questions from the set of readings. My initial sets of questions will serve as reminders of where I began my journey through this semester’s interactions with Calvin, Tillich, Gutierrez, Ruether, and Cone. I plan to write an “Initial Thoughts� section before I embark on the readings in order to capture my current set of ideas and beliefs. This will allow for a “flow within the flow� view of my thinking. I will conclude each entry with a “Final Thoughts� section that summarizes my interactions with the texts. I will randomize my consideration of the texts each week in order to show that I am not predisposed to one or the other.
I was uninterested in and intimidated by theology for the majority of my life. I was raised in a Reformed, evangelical faith environment where I often scoffed at philosophy and theology because I focused mostly on what I viewed as practical applications of God and the Bible. Theology, as defined as a rational discourse about God, and philosophy, as defined as a cognitive approach to reality, both began to interest me when I arrived at these definitions. I then saw clearly how both theology and philosophy (the intersection of the two) impacted all aspects of life.

The criteria for good theology of faithfulness/appropriateness, intelligibility/credibility, and transformative practice complement the criteria I encountered in Paradigms and Progress (PH 330) with Dr. van Huyssteen last semester. In light of these criteria I still have questions such as: What is the aim and/or purpose of theology? Who judges how the theology meets the given criteria? In other words, should I be more skeptical about tradition or the existential questions/answers? Why do ‘new’ theologies seem to completely discount any view that has been the majority? Is the life of the creator of a new theology also a criteria? In other words, what role does a person’s theology play in rationalizing his/her sin? Can reconciliation, especially racial, ever occur if every person has his/her own contextual theology?

Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (35-43)
My initial impression of Calvin’s theology, as a rational discourse on God, focuses heavily God’s revelation and the resulting changes. Wisdom, for Calvin, is embodied in the knowledge of God and ourselves where “knowledge� emphasizes the centrality of revelation in the structure and content of his theology. Calvin states that we cannot seriously aspire to God until we know ourselves and, subsequently, become displeased with ourselves. On the other hand, we cannot know ourselves unless we look to the Lord, who is the sole standard.

He states clearly that our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence with the results being that we should seek every good from him. Piety is defined as reverence joined with love of God that the knowledge of his benefits induces.
Calvin also states that humanity’s depravity seduces the mind from rightly seeking him. Furthermore, he asserts that the pious mind does not attach to it whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him (God) to be as he manifests himself.

(1) How does Calvin reconcile self-knowledge and depravity in terms of seeking God? (2) How does Calvin’s theology account for specific social and political contexts? Will Calvin’s theology (to be determined over the next few months) provide answers to real problems? (3) Would Calvin ascribe the human mind attaching itself to whatever it pleases to Tillich’s correlation method, Gutierrez’ liberation theology, Cone’s black liberation theology and/or Ruether’s feminist theology? In other words, are these other theologies too human-driven for Calvin?

Tillich: Systematic Theology Volume One (xi-xii, 3-34, 59-66)
My initial impression of Tillich’s theology is that he rightly includes the existential questions of humanity in his method of correlation but he leaves the door open for humanity to dictate the theological content without any boundaries.
Tillich provides two criteria for every theology – the object of theology is the ultimate concern and statements must deal with objects as a matter of being or not-being. In terms of Christianity, he asserts that theology is the methodical interpretation of the contents of the Chrsitian faith. He proposes the method of correlation where existential questions and theological answers are in mutual interdependence. Tillich’s distinction between apologetic theology and kerygmatic theology challenged my notion of the Bible’s message to all humanity for all time apart from context. The context of the theology of a theologian impacts the theology. Tillich’s method makes an analysis of the human situation out of which the existential questions arise, and it demonstrates that the symbols used in the Christian message are the answers to these questions. I do not see whether Tillich thinks that the human situation or Christian message should drive the method. Overall, I am skeptical of theologians who use Christian as a vehicle for their personal problems or agendas.
Tillich says that God in his self-manifestation to man is dependent on the way man receives his manifestation. If this is true, then is God limited or does God limit his manifestation to humanity?
In light of Tillich’s method, what happens if the symbols do not answer the existential question? Does that mean the Christian message should be changed to fit the existential question?
Does Tillich agree that Christianity is the theology based on his description of the Logos becoming flesh as something which is absolutely concrete and absolutely universal?

Gutierrez: A Theology of Liberation (1-12, 13.25)
My initial impression of Gutierrez’ theology is that the global issue of oppression is addressed by the Christ’s mission of justice for the oppressed. I am uncertain to what extent he sees any other aspects of theology apart from his main concern.
Gutierrez offers his own criteria for good theology as theology must serve as wisdom (spiritual function), rational knowledge, critical reflection on humankind, an up-to-date view, and a political hermeneutic of the Gospel. His goal is to apply this theology to the oppression of the poor and demonstrates how Christ as liberator from sin addresses injustice and oppression. Gutierrez contrasts liberation from development and sees liberation as the expression of aspirations of oppressed people and social classes, an application to an understanding of history where humandind is responsible for its own destiny, and led by Christ as Savior from sin.
My theology is always interrupted by liberation theology because I admittedly am ignorant of suffering and oppression. At the same time, I am weary of theologians using Christianity as a means to achieve their social or political agendas. I anticipate having my worldview impacted by this tension.
Is humanity responsible for the outcome of the world? If so, then how much? In other words, are humans trying to correct God in liberation theology or trying to correct the world using Christ as its vehicle? Did Jesus intend to correct the world?
Overall, (continued theme), should theology start with humanity or God? Is Guterrez’ discourse theology or anthropology (a different use of the discourse on humanity)?

Ruether: Sexism and God-Talk (1-46)
My initial impression of Ruether’s theology is that she exposes the patriarchal nature of all theologies (and everything else) and seeks to utilize the Christian message of equality before God as a means of refuting this while also promoting the full humanity of women. She appears to be using Christianity and everything else to provide an answer to her specific issue while disregarding other aspects of theology.
Ruether summarizes her critical principle of feminist theology as the promotion of the full humanity of women and states that “whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.�
I admit that I have not reflected on the overall patriarchal nature of the Bible or all earthly institutions. I can see how Ruether’s argument for the application of God’s removal of power structures (in the present? upon Christ’s return?) relates to women’s issues. However, I do not agree with her vitriolic attack on, what appears to me, every aspect of everything that agrees with a majority view or tradition.
Ruether states that no group should ever be marginalized (p. 20). Is there any situation where a group should be marginalized? Is there a notion of the greater good of society? How does Ruether account for a conflict between one group who would be marginalized if the other group was not marginalized? Classic question, should a group who practices cannibalism be marginalized?
Why does Ruether use the predictable “majority card� when she states that we should reject all norms of humanity to date?
Ruether states (p. 23) that “to the extend to which Biblical texts reflect this normative principle, they are regarded as authoritative.� Is the Bible only authoritative when it serves an individual’s agenda? Ruether also states that all power relationships (p. 30) should be removed, does this include God as well?
Overall, is Ruether capable of conceding any ground on her perspective? If not, she will continue to be lack any elements of persuasion in her theology with me.

Cone: God of the Oppressed (1-38)
My first impression of Cone’s theology is provides a heartfelt understanding of the problem the universal and particular in theology, especially in terms of black theology. My first encounter with some of Cone’s concerns came in college when a black friend on my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship leadership team shared that white worship music was viewd as “folk music� to the black community and that we could not expect racial reconciliation if the white groups thought that the worship music would be this type.
Cone states (p. 7) that the book “deals with the social basis of theology and is concerned with, among other related matters, the problem of the particular and universal in theological discourse.� His example of bad theology as embodied in the following quote opened my eyes: “The quote that unless black people learn to think like us white folks, using our rules, then we will not listen to you.� The black theology presented by Cone accounts for the black experience of truth and how that is manifested in theology.
I struggle with the notion of racial reconcilation “working� in the church. How can groups with different contextual theologies worship together? Does “together� have to mean being in the same building on Sunday morning (or any other time)? Should Christians be aiming, as many have attempted, to bring together all Christians in order to be a stronger witness or are Christians fooling themselves by not accounting for the reality of different contextual theologies?

Final Thoughts (for this week)
The initial set of readings opened my eyes to the wide variety of approaches to theology. These approaches come from different angles that appear to be irreconcilable. The tensions present in the relationship of tradition vs. the sitution of humanity are clearly displayed. My suspicion of theologians using Christianity as a vehicle to promote an agenda or to solve a personal problem has both been emboldened as well as challenged. I do not know where Tillich’s method of correlation will lead in terms of God or humanity dictating which issues should be addressed. I do not know if I will still view Ruether as only using Christianity as a piece of her argument for the full humanity of women. I do not know if Cone’s description of the black experience will answer my questions about racial reconciliation in the church. I do know if my comfort with Calvin’s theology will continue or not. I do not know if I will move understand moreso the real oppression in this world based on the insights from Gutierrez.
My two main, related questions at this point is who drives theology (God or humanity) and how do we judge whether the driver is serving themselves (personal problems, agendas) or truly serving God and, subsequently, humanity?

Friday, January 21, 2005

purify and be purified

i continued reading in 2 Corinthians and i meditated on a verse that has impacted me off and on over the years.

2 Corinthians 7:1
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverance for God.

my mind quickly jumped to another verse that included the notion of purification.

1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

one verse is forward-looking with the responsibility of purification seemingly falling on the person. the other is backward-looking with the responsibility of purification falling on God (the faithful and just God). the process includes a desire, based on God's promises, to be purified with the inevitable reality of sin. this sin, when confessed, leads to forgiveness and further purification.

there are two keys. the first is the desire for purification based on God's promises out of reverence for God. the other key is the willingness to confess sins when they occur. this speaks of a positive movement toward purification. this is encouraging to me, especially when i think about how frustrating life can be in our struggle against the flesh where the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh (Galatians 5:17) and we do what do not want to do (Romans 7:15). i oftentimes feel like i am moving backwards but these two verses show that God is working a movement toward purification. the reality of sin still leads to further purification.

am i saying that i should seek sin? absolutely not!

temptation will find me based on my evil desires (James 1:14). the proper response to this is to seek purification and then when i fail i should make to confess my sins and i will continue to be purified.

2 Corinthians 7:1
Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverance for God.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

a fair exchange?

i read something today that i have never read before. or better stated, i probably read this but i never noticed it. the Bible, even though questioned over and over as God's Word, is inspired and truly is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword.

i read this:
2 Corinthians 6:11-13
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affections from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange - I speak as to my children - open wide your hearts also.

do i have a fair exchange with God?
what am i withholding from him?

these verses describe Paul's relationship with the Corinthians but these verses can definitely be applied to God's relationship with his people - including me.

i decided to ask God in prayer what i am holding back. i realized that i am holding back my control of my free time, free energy, free decisions. in other words, i attempt (usually successfully) to guard my own space. i accomplish this by being good enough in my relationships so that i can then go off and do my own thing. this applies to God, my wife, my child, and my friends. i withhold my true self because i do not want to relinquish the few areas that i control (or feel like i control), that are predictable (seemingly), that are safe (seemingly).

Paul challenged the Corinthians to open wide their hearts. once again, God is challenging me to open wide my heart. the "free space" is truly a "sin space". pride, sexual immorality, seclusion, isolation, control of others (indirectly), hatred, envy, jealousy, strife are all found in this "sin space".

Mark 8:34-35
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it."

i live with the burden of wanting to look good to everyone so that they will not dare to ask or even consider access to my precious free time or space.

does anyone really know me?
does God even know me?

"as a fair exchange, open wide your heart also!"

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

years of slumber

the text by bishop wades that i listed a few days ago came back to my mind in the middle of the retreat. his first stage of repentance included a renewed sense of watchfulness.

i took some time to meditate on the concept of watchfulness in my faith. am i watchful? am i awake?

i feel like i often live my life in a state of slumber where i am half-present in my circumstances. the monastic retreat gave me a chance to step away and see that slumber. many times, i choose to be in a fog, asleep, and unaware.

1 Peter 5:8-9 Be self-controlled and alert (watchful)(vigilant). Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the entire world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Peter, along with James and John, knew more than anybody what it meant to be in a state of slumber and to let our Lord down. he fell asleep when Jesus asked him to keep watch and pray. where is Jesus asking me to keep watch and pray? how do i fall asleep?

Mark 14:37-38
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.

finally, Paul charges us to wake up in light of understanding our present time.

Romans 13:11
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

i was reminded of the Jesus prayer from Bishop Wares' writing. this prayer is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner". i changed this prayer to "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, wake me up!".

may the Lord Jesus Christ awaken his people

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

boredom and hunger

i went on a retreat to a monastary in upstate new york this past week. i set a goal of reviewing my past semester and preparing for the next. one of the monks asked us at the introductory gathering to let go of living in the past or the future but, instead, to focus on the present. i realized right away that i needed to do just that.

the outcome of this refocusing was i rediscovered being quiet before the Lord and journaling. the next couple blog entries are excerpts from the times of silence that i spent in prayer and reading through 2 Corinthians.

my first prayer time was awkward. i sat at a desk in my room and i asked God to direct my thoughts. i closed my eyes and then i had an initial thought of "I am HUNGRY". the time was 3 pm and i had eaten a quick lunch before i left but i should not have been that hungry.

i realized that i often get hungry when i am not 'entertained'. i was only at the retreat center for 50 minutes and i was hungry.

is a hunger for food related to an overall level of satisfaction?
does the entertainment of this world fill our desires to the point that we have no room left to hunger for spiritual things, namely, God?
how can i expose myself to times of boredom so that i can hunger?

perseverance required

i am about to embark on a monastary retreat of silence. in preparation, i read a writing by the Orthodox church bishop Kallistos Ware this morning that discussed inquiring after God through prayer. he described a three stage movement of the spiritual Way as praktiki or the practice of virtues, physiki or the contemplation of nature, and theologia or "theology" in the strict sense of the word, that is, the contemplation of God himself.

the section that struck me was his description of the active life in the first stage where he described the God's role and our role. may this excerpt awaken you like it awoke me this morning...

As its title implies, the active life requires our side effort, struggle, the persistent exertion of our free will. "Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to life.... Not everyone that says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of my Father" (Matt 7:14, 21). We are to hold in balance two complementary truths: without God's grace we can do nothing; but without our voluntary co-operation God will do nothing. "The will of man is an essential condition, for without God does nothing." (from The Homilies of St Macarius) Our salvation results from the convergence of two factors, unequal in value yet both indispensable: divine initiative and human response. What God does is incomparably the more important, but man's participation is also required.

In an unfallen world man's response to divine love would be altogether spontaneous and joyful. Even in a fallen world the element of spontaneity and joy remains, but there is also the need to fight resolutely against the deeply rooted habits and inclinations that are the result of sin, both original and personal. One of the most important qualities needed by the traveler on the Way is faithful perseverance. The endurance required from one who climbs a mountain physically is required likewise from those who would ascend the mountain of God.

Man must do violence to himself- to his fallen self, that is to say- for the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and it is men of violence who take it by force (Matt 11:12). This we are told repeatedly by our guides upon the Way; and they are speaking, it should be remembered, to married Christians as well as to monks and nuns. "God demands everything from a man - his mind, his reason, all his actions....Do you wish to be saved when you die? Go and exhaust yourself; go and labour; go, seek, and you shall find; watch and knock, and it shall be opened to you." (from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers) "The present age is not a time for rest and sleep, but it is a struggle, a combat, a market, a school, a voyage. Therefore you must exert yourself, and not be downcast and idle, but devote yourslef to holy actions." (From Starets, in Little Russian Philokalia) "Nothing comes without effort. The help of God is always ready and near, but is given only to those who seek and work, and only to those seekers who, after putting all their powers to the test, then cry out with their whole heart: Lord, help us." (from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology) Peace is gained through tribulations". (from Seraphim de Sarov) "To rest is the same as to retreat." (from The Way of the Ascetics) Yet, lest we should be too much downcast by this severity, we are also told: "The whole of a man's life is but a single day, for those who labour with eagerness." (from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Friday, January 14, 2005


obedience leads to greater revelation.

sin blocks revelation.

confession opens doors for obedience which, in turn, leads to greater revelation.

basic but true...

Friday, January 07, 2005

questions of authorship

someone made a persuasive argument to me today. he asked me if i analyzed someone's writings over the course of 60 years, then would i expect to see some differences in the writing style, vocabulary, and content? wouldn't the writer's experiences, location, and relationships impact these attributes?

i have been exposed to an onslaught of views on the authorship of the old testament (or hebrew bible if i follow the 'correct' reference). one of the areas questioned by critics is changes in writing of authors over the years. a specific example is the writer of the book of Isaiah.

i have been challenged again (the same ideas were given during an old testament survey class at UVa) by the notion that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. the first author wrote chapters 1-39 and another author wrote 40-66 or 40-55 and then another wrote 56-66. the main evidence cited for this theory is that the perspective shifts from the time before the Jews were exiled to Babylon and the time after they were exiled.

i am still working through the evidence but i definitely see this debate as an example of how we as humans want to define and control everything mysterious and have a neat explanation.

if we were to analyze the writing of the very same people who critique Isaiah and other Old Testament writings, then wouldn't we also find the very same inconsistencies or changes that the critics raise for Isaiah. the critics would claim that they wrote all of their works and cite that their vocabulary, ideas, and style changed due to different seasons in their lives. they would be offended if we said that they obviously didn't write all of their precious works...

maybe the theories that i am reading about are not as neat as the critics make them out to be...

Monday, January 03, 2005

knowing God... or not

The writer of the Gospel according to Mark states the identity of Jesus in Mk 1:1 when he writes "the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Jesus is identified as the Christ and the Son of God. The rest of the book, however, shows the disciples' lack of comprehension of Jesus' identity. This misunderstanding continues all the way to the cross where the disciples abandon Jesus and they are not even mentioned. Mk 14:50 states, "then everyone deserted him and fled." How is it that the disciples, who spent the most time with Jesus, did not comprehend him more than the Pharisees? What does this expose about my claim of "knowing God"? How well do I know God in light of the disciples' experiences and ideas about God, Jesus, the Messiah, and the kingdom of God?

Mark writes on two levels. On the one hand, the audience knows Jesus' identity from the first verse and then is exposed to a large set of references that prove that Jesus is the Son of God. On the other hand, the disciples go through a set of experiences that are meant to reveal Jesus' identity. The seemingly obvious events and references are not understood by the disciples as the reader would expect or desire. Instead, the disciples continue in their misunderstanding and the reader is left asking "How do they not see that Jesus is the Son of God?".

Jesus provides the disciples with a variety of faith-challenging experiences that take different forms. I propose that the forms are intentional and they are meant to appeal to different senses and potential follow-up reasoning. A quick survey of Mark reveals two categories of experiences with sub-categories within. The initial category includes experiences where the disciples witness events but do not participate. First, the disciples are exposed to Jesus' teaching and this appeals to their sense of hearing. A few examples include Jesus teaching the general people in the synagogue in Mk 1 and his teaching the disciples using a parable and explanation in Mark 4:1-20. Second, Jesus allows the disciples to see an event that points to his identity. For example, the disciples and the crowd witness his healing and forgiving the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12.

The next category includes experiences where the disciples participate. First, Jesus is present with the disciples and the event is against them. For example, Jesus is with the disciples in the midst of the storm in Mk 4:35-41 and he calms the storm. Second, Jesus is present with the disciples and they contribute to the event. A notable example is the feeding of the 5000 in Mk 6:30-44. Finally, a sub-category of the participation category is where Jesus is not present with the disciples and the event is against them. This occurs in Mk 6:45-52 where Jesus sends the disciples ahead in the boat, later comes to them, and the wind is calmed when he gets into the boat. The other events in Mark fit into these categories and all point to Jesus' identity. The disciples, however, are grouped with the Pharisees in Mk 6:52 when Mark states "for they had not understood about the loaves; for their hearts were hardened." Jesus is deeply distressed at the Pharisees' stubborn hearts in Mk 3:5 and he quotes Isaiah in Mk 7:6 stating that their hearts are far from God.

Why did the disciples misunderstand Jesus? They appear to be more on the outside than on the inside. Jesus himself describes those on the outside in Mk 4:11 when he said, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that 'they may be ever seeing but never, perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!" This quote is from Isaiah 6:9-10. Jesus explained everything to the Twelve and he provided experiences, both non-participatory and participatory, but they failed to understand his identity as the Son of God (Mk 1:1). Only Peter states that Jesus is the Christ but Jesus' subsequent predictions and reality of his death do not fit Peter's notion of the Messiah.

What experiences has God given me? What have I heard? What have I seen? Where have I participated in God's working and events?

Do I know Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God? Do I know God?

Or do I still see and hear God as the God I want him to be and I go on without truly knowing? Mk 1:1 has been given to me but where do I need my heart to be softened so that I can a person who sees while perceiving and hearing while understanding so that I might turn and be forgiven?