Theology with Rough Edges

Systematic theology is intended as a helpful exercise. It helps us make sense of complicated ideas. It helps us to articulate some of the thinking that has taken place over the centuries. Yet, no matter how well we categorize our thoughts, it remains that God revealed his news to us through the complicated stories of saints and sinners. Since we are removed by time from these events, it is sometimes tempting to remove the news from the original contexts in an effort to understand it more accurately.

This can result in a topics approach to theology that can be helpful yet is still artificial. We can state with some confidence that the bible does not take a topics approach. It is a collection of experiences that tell how salvation entered history and the different ways it looked at different periods of the history. On account of that, the bible cannot be interpreted faithfully in a vacuum. It is not intended to be read in laboratory conditions. The fact remains we will be most faithful when our theology continues to have some rough edges.


Karl Barth and Exegesis

As the Nazi’s purged the German universities of those who did not think like them, Karl Barth exhorted the students and preachers he left behind with some version of the following quote. (This one is found in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period by Richard E. Burnett).

Dear friends, who have listened to me, the main thing you have heard from me is dogmatics. Dogmatics is a high and steep art. I do not want to deny that, humanly as well, I strive after it with a certain love and desire. And I dare say that I have noticed that many of you have been excited about this subject matter as well. If this now for the moment has come to an end, accept this as a signal for you to temporarily begin anew your studies at a different place. Take now my last piece of advice: Exegesis, Exegesis, and once more, Exegesis! If I have become a dogmatician, it is because I long before have endeavored to carry on exegesis. Let the systematic art, which can also make one mad, rest a little and hold on to the Word, to the Scriptures, which is given to us and become perhaps less systematic and more biblical theologians. For then the systematic and dogmatic tasks will certainly be taken care of as well. That is what I wanted to say to you and in this way I wish to be you farewell.


Living on the Frontier

Pope Francis has been talking to theologians.  His letter addressed to the theological faculty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina is summarized in a recent article of the National Catholic Reporter.  Any of us who spend time as interpreters of scripture could benefit from his reminders.

Those of us who believe that theology is for the church will find a kindred spirit in Francis.  He says that theology is not simply an academic exercise to be practiced at a desk, but should be taken to the frontiers.  He goes on to say “the good theologians, like the good shepherds, smell of the people and of the road” and “pour oil and wine on the wounds of humankind.”

Francis compares studying theology to living on a frontier where the Gospel meets the needs of the people in an understandable and meaningful way.  “We must guard ourselves against a theology that is exhausted in the academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle.”  Francis goes on, “theology and holiness are an inseparable pair.”

It is good for each of us to be reminded that the Gospel belongs on the frontier.  The pope implies that to do otherwise is to run the risk of taming the mystery.  In order to move forward we must live it out on the extreme boundaries.  May we smell of the people and of the road.

Preaching and Atonement Theory

I recently read The Nature of the Atonement, a book where Gregory Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach and Thomas Schreiner participate in lively conversation about atonement theory and the implications of what happened at the cross.  The importance of this conversation is highlighted early in the book with a quote from John Wesley “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.”  Later in the book, Joel Green claims that Wesley handed down an “eclectic atonement theology.”  I am curious about how Wesley might respond to that.

The conversations in the book are interesting, stimulating, and help us recognize what God is actively doing in His relationship with people.  Nevertheless, they also remind us that preaching an atonement theory is not the same thing as preaching about atonement.  In our preaching it is ok to find that some texts appear sympathetic to one theory and other texts to another.  The fact is, each of the proposed theories are based on certain texts and our preaching may draw from any of them.  We should recognize that it is ok to re-examine your atonement theory and that we do not need a fixed theory of atonement in order to preach gospel or to follow Jesus.

Is it possible to preach the victory over principalities and powers in the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth without being considered an advocate of Christus Victor theory?  Is it possible to emphasize God’s holiness, the severity of human sinfulness, and the substitutionary death of Jesus without preaching a penal substitution theory?  Is it possible to preach the importance of healing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus without insisting on a healing theory of atonement?  Is it possible to describe the significance of the crucifixion with multiple images and metaphors without being labeled an advocate of kaleidoscopic theory?  I submit the answer is yes to all of the above questions and encourage preachers to preach the text before them.  Highlight what the text gives and not the presuppositions that come with our favorite atonement theory.

Any discussion about atonement must not isolate the cross from the birth of Jesus, life of Jesus, resurrection of Jesus – any such attempts do a disservice to the Jesus story.  This is a practical danger.  If we can disconnect the cross from the rest of the Jesus story, we can easily disconnect it from our own story as well.  The fact is, we keep trying to convince ourselves that our stories are something of our own design, but the bible keeps bringing God into them.  That is what happens in our discussion about atonement.  We are acting as if things are alright as they are, then one Friday afternoon Jesus shows up on a cross and everything changes.

In the church, we acknowledge that something happened at the cross.  It’s just that we are not always in agreement as to what that something might be.  Still, we should preach atonement – it explains what the gospel does.  Preach that relationships with God have been restored – An “at-one-ness” with God is possible.  Preach that the work of Jesus empowers His followers to be loving, giving, and forgiving.  Preach that Jesus changes the way we interact in the church and with those outside the church.  Preach atonement because it makes a difference.  Here.  Now.

Romans and Preaching

People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.

The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.

A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.

There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.

Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).

Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.

Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.