Monday, November 21, 2016

Predestination: Offensive Love?

Most Calvinists are very content with their beliefs until it comes to the “L” in TULIP – limited atonement. In fact, many Christians will call themselves four-point Calvinists, agreeing with everything but limited atonement. Limited atonement leads to the doctrine of predestination, the idea that God has chosen certain people from birth who will be saved and go to Heaven and those who will be damned to Hell.

The reason this belief is unpopular is because it makes grace seem offensive, God exclusive, and the faith not about relationship but about who God loves most. Arminians and other opponents will be quick to point out that predestination appears to be against God’s loving nature.

But predestination is not some random speculation or a cult theory, but rather, it is biblically-rooted. Throughout the Bible, God chooses certain people to fulfil His work – Abraham, Noah, Paul, Jeremiah, just to name a few. In the Reformed ordo salutis (order of salvation), election comes first. Election is often confusing because, in American culture, we see it as a choice; I can choose who I want when I vote in a political election. But God’s election is not a choice; it is His perfect will.

Read Ephesians 2:1-10. Imagine that you and a group of people are lying dead on the ground. When the phone rings and God calls, only certain people – the ones He has chosen – will be able to answer the call. This is the image Paul is conveying in Ephesians 2; we were dead in our sins, but those whom God elected to be saved will be able to arise and enter into new life. God chose us “in advance” (2:10) to do His good work.

Read Romans 9. The reality is that predestination is an offensive doctrine. There’s no hiding that. That’s why Paul is so defensive in Romans 9. However, this offense should be for everyone. No one deserves to be elected, and no one knows who is elected, so there shouldn’t be a sense of inferiority among those who claim to be “elected.” Why did God choose Noah to be the only good human left on Earth? Why did He choose Abraham to bless the nations? This is by God’s election only, and it’s a good thing that the choice is in God’s hand. We’re nothing without God, and we have hope that the

Read John 15.

Why the Nicene Creed is Pretty Much Awesome

The Nicene Creed (well, technically, it’s the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed...but that’s not nearly as sexy) is one of three ecumenical creeds that nutshells basic Christian beliefs and particularly hones in on the doctrine of the Trinity. This creed is more than a cobwebbed document that sits in a library; it is a living manifesto of the Gospel!
First established at the Council of Nicea in 325, the final stanza regarding the Holy Spirit was not appended until the Council of Constantinople in 381. Pneumatological theology had not been fully developed at the time of Nicea, especially because the council was focused on Christological heresy, in particular Arianism, who egregiously taught that the Son was created. But Arius was a charismatic and clever marketer, singing catchy musical jingles to declare that “there was a time when the Son was not.” As St. Athanasius and many of his opponents argued, if the Son was created, then he is less than the Father. Hence, the Nicene Creed was in a part an attack against Arius’ teachings, most directly shown in the line that Christ was “begotten, not made.” This is why the bulk of the Nicene Creed focuses on the work and nature of Jesus Christ.

The Creed parallels the Apostles’ Creed with a Colossians 1:15-20 twist. We see the cosmic Christ as the restorer of our relationships with God and we confess, as St. Anselm writes, why God became man. The Nicene Creed is the Christmas gospel; it explains the logic for and the nature of the Incarnation, celebrated during Advent, and looks ahead to the work he will accomplish for the Kingdom. As we read this ancient creed, we sit in wonder of the Incarnation – God becoming human in order to bring light and life into a dark and broken world.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Why Study Theology?

Theology may sound like a dusty, esoteric subject reserved for academia – but the opposite is true! Theology leads us into a deeper understanding of God, humanity, and the world in which we live. Understanding correct theology (orthodoxy) allows us to live God-centered, theologically-sound lives as we practice Christian doctrine (orthopraxy).

The initial question which arises is quite simple – what is theology? In short, theology is the study of God! If we break apart the word, we see theo, meaning “God,” and logos, meaning “word” or “speech.” You may be familiar with St. John’s prologue to his gospel, in which he declares, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos]” (Jn. 1:1). In other words, we could translate theology as “God talk”! And that truly is what theology is – talking about God in a coherent way. Theology is more than just taking scattered opinions and different references and smattering them together; rather, theology is talking about God in a way that makes sense.

Theologians make sense of revelation – and, by that, I do not mean the last book of the New Testament. Theological revelation is how God shows Himself to us, both through His Word and through personal experiences. (For a more detailed discussion on revelation, see Chapter 5.) Theologians take everything that God has revealed about Himself – through Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience – and make sense of it so that we might be able to live theocentric lives.

There is an ancient phrase by St. Anselm that very accurately sums up the work of theology: faith seeking understanding. Theology opens up a greater way of believing. The world has a tendency to view the world from a “see it to believe it” standpoint. But theologians take a different approach. They see the world primarily with faith, which leads to belief. Theology, then, is how we make sense of the faith we live and synthesizing it to construct how we should understand the world in which we live.

Of course, theology is so much more than simply studying. Theology is linked to prayer. The ancient phrase “lex orandi; lex credendi” supports that faith leads to understanding, so if we don’t pray, our theology will be empty and void. Thus, all you need for understanding theology is a pure mind and a pure heart. You don’t need advanced degrees to understand God. The fullest and richest encounters with God come from the deepest faith in Him. Indeed, the words of David are a sound prayer as we begin to pursue theology.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
   and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
   and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10,12 (NIV)

Monday, November 7, 2016

Sources of Theology & Commonly Confused Terms

Theology is not a made-up field of study; we have sources that inform our theological understanding. Perhaps the most well-known approach to discerning a doctrine is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – named after the famous reformer John Wesley. (It is important to note that, although the concept is named after Wesley, he himself did not create it.) As we seek to understand a Christian belief, we go to four points on this geometric hermeneutic:

Scripture. God’s word is the first and foremost source for informing our theology. It has complete authority and trumps all other sources.
Tradition. How has the Christian church historically handled this doctrine? Often, the church has been faced with opposition, which forced it into crafting a specific doctrine, as we will discover in our studies on Christology and pneumatology.
Reason. God gave us minds for a reason. Does it make sense?
Experience. This is the weakest of the sides, but how we experience God does matter. The key is to be able to discern how the experience was theological. In fact, many rely on experience rather than beginning at Scripture to craft their theology.

Talking Right about Theology
Before we begin, it is important to lay down definitions of some important terms that I will use throughout this book.

A doctrine is not the same thing as theology. A doctrine is a particular teaching or belief. In Christian theology, we have many different doctrines, such as the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of baptism, the doctrine of the church, and so on. If theology is a grand system of thinking and talking about God, then a doctrine is piece of that masterpiece, a brush stroke in God’s cosmic work for the universe. When taken together, doctrines comprise the Christian faith and glue us together by determining a basic Christian identity. So, despite differences between denominations and other groups, these doctrines form Christians into who they really are.

A dogma is a non-negotiable doctrine, one that is absolutely essential to the faith. These include the doctrine of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of the Trinity, and of salvation. They are so crucial to the faith that, if they are removed, it completely morphs Christianity. Dissention on a dogma often leads to heresy, saying something that is theologically incorrect – an “out of bounds” teaching as dictated by doctrines.