How do you define “theology”? Our first inclination in answering this question is to use the garage toolbox method we all learned in grade school. I don’t dislike the garage toolbox method; as a matter of fact, it’s downright helpful sometimes. Let’s give it a go with the word “theology”:
- Get your saw out and cut the word “theology” precisely in half.
- You now have two Greek word roots (theo and logy), one in each hand. Translate them into English.
- Use a drill to stick ‘em back together.
If you follow the instructions to this proverbial game of Operation correctly, you’ll get a definition that goes something like this – “Theology is the study of God.” Done, right? Not so much.
This definition doesn’t seem to float the boats of theologians. Not because it’s wrong or because they don’t like the garage toolbox method. They do. But mere word root translations are only bare-bones introductions to whatever topic they propose to encompass, and as such they are usually insufficient for definitional purposes. I was told in grade school that the phrase “solar system” meant “sun system” because sol means sun. None of that is incorrect, and I have no complaint with it. However, there is much more about the solar system that could be included in a more proper definition, yes? Using word roots to understand our solar system as the “sun system” is a great way for a tiny person to start, but it is just that – a place to start. As we mature, a richer understanding is necessary. So let’s use our understanding of theology as “the study of God” in a similar way. It is not defined incorrectly as such, but rather incompletely. It is a great place to start, but a terrible place to finish. If we aim to describe the very loftiest pursuit which avails itself to mankind, simply translating word roots and sewing them back together will not do. Theology is queen of the sciences. What description shall fit?
Read what Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) offered on the subject and be blessed.
“I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to know your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”
Quite beautiful, yes? Here’s is Anselm’s derived definition of theology (shorter, even, than the one provided by the garage toolbox method, but decidedly more attractive). Anselm says that theology is faith seeking understanding. That’s it. Theology is faith seeking understanding. In studying the depths of the Lord, we trust everything that he has revealed up to the present moment, and find ourselves very nearly begging for what he may reveal next. This is why the Bible is inextricably tied to theology and the reason it is so inexhaustibly interesting to us…it’s God’s revelation of himself. And best of all, he has promised to reward those who diligently seek him (Prov 8:17, Heb 11:6). Doing theology is earnestly trusting what God has already shown you and asking him to show you more – which he has guaranteed to do.
Now, some people don’t like this definition. “It excludes non-Christians,” I’m told. “It’s really short,” I’m told (which happens rarely in theology). “It’s really old,” I’m told (which happens quite often in theology). Concerning the first of these objections, many people prefer to define theology more broadly, claiming that all people are theologians because all people without exception contemplate life’s questions of ultimacy (which must at some point include considering at least the possibility of God). I can’t say that I’m inclined to agree. Considering the possibility that God exists doesn’t make someone a theologian any more than considering the possibility that sick people exist makes someone a doctor. No, I think that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe he exists” (Heb 11:6). Don’t be bothered, however. To say that one must be a Christian in order to properly do Christian theology is not an exclusive statement – not when the invitation to become a Christian is inclusive of all.
Theology is faith seeking understanding. Ponder this as I pray Paul’s prayer over you.
I bow my knees before the Father, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
Legalism is oft-used word and an oft-followed philosophy (although many do not realize they are trapped in its snare). So what is legalism, anyway?
In its more explicit application, legalism refers to the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the belief that by following the Law one can be justified before God (by justified, think “made right” or “saved”). This kind of explicit legalism isn’t the legalism that typically entangles us most of the time, because it’s so easy to spot (and because it is so clearly obliterated by Scripture – see entire book of Galatians). I don’t find many people who are trusting in the Law of Moses for their justification/salvation.
But the principle behind this “Old Testament” legalism still plagues us. What, exactly, accomplishes justification according to legalism? Following the Law. And what is following the Law? An action which I do by my own effort. The legalism of our day has the same ultimate driving force behind it as explicit legalism – the belief that my merit before God comes from me. I trust in myself. I justify myself. We say in our minds, Not me. But our practice of running from God after spiritual failures and yet sprinting toward him proudly after spiritual successes says, Yes, you. Legalism at its core is justification by self-effort. In common usage today, Christians give the word “religion” the same definition.
Jesus gave a truly profound warning against this idea that comes so naturally to us all (John 5:45). Addressing a group of Jews (explicit legalists), he said, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.” Do you have ears to hear what he is saying? There is no need to accuse or condemn those who trust in the Law, because the Law will do that for itself. The very standard in which the Jews were trusting for deliverance would become the standard that would sentence them. What does that mean for you today? That if you set your hope on your own behavioral merits before God, your own behavioral shortcomings will stand to condemn you before God. Belief in self-propelled reward leads to the reality of self-wrought destruction. Trust in your own good, and your own bad will sentence you. Your penultimate success will not prevent your ultimate failure. Your good will not outweigh your bad – not when the standard is perfection. Do you have ears to hear these things?
What is the solution, then? The estate of humanity looks pretty bleak at this point. Are we helplessly and hopelessly condemned forever? By no means!
By trusting in a substitute, we can be made right with God. The light of Jesus Christ breaks into our darkness, and by faith in him we apprehend a right relationship with God. He prevents our failure. His good outweighs our bad. His merits overcome our shortcomings. His reward becomes ours. The question is not whether we deserve reward from God; that question has been already answered with a resounding no. What we deserve is punishment, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But forgiveness and life are offered to us anyway, with the affection of God the Father as the motivator. It’s grace, when you least expect to find it. It’s freedom, when you thought you already had it. Read John 3:16 with new eyes. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
But, sadly, we don’t naturally like grace, do we? When we’re rewarded, we want the credit. We don’t want to depend on anyone or anything else for our lot in life, this one or the next. The legalist from within emerges, threatening to stomp out the hope of the gospel of grace. So the question you must ask yourself becomes, Can I bear to live in the light of a love I did not earn?
If you can, you will live a very long time, indeed. Forever. And this will be your song:
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace!
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my all in all,
Here in the love of Christ I stand!
This is an illustration spoken by Jesus that details what takes place in the life of a person when they come to value him above anything else. It shows a powerful reaction that a man experienced upon realizing the treasure that Jesus Christ is. The central element around which the story turns is the treasure itself; the treasure represents Christ, or, more specifically, the salvation that comes through him/the joy of following him. The dynamic (or “changing”) figure in the parable is the man who finds the treasure; that is, finds joy in trusting and following Christ.
First, be sure to note the inherently obscure nature of treasure hidden in a field. It is not easily or often found. This is consistent with the prediction of Jesus that most people on the planet would not be His followers: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).
Within this one-sentence story, it is obvious that something happened to this man that has elicited a truly radical reaction. This wouldn’t have taken place if the treasure had had moderate value; this man didn’t find a hundred dollar bill or his lucky coin. He found a treasure that was worth more than everything he owned. This man’s entire value system was turned upside down in an instant; he found something of unspeakable value. So it is when a person sees Christ as He truly is for the first time – as the perfect Son of God, a sufficient sacrifice for sin that enables us to have a personal relationship with the all-powerful God of the cosmos. While it’s true that some people turn more quickly and dramatically than others away from the things they formerly valued (in the story, what the man sold) and to Christ (the treasure), this has no bearing on the significance of the story: one by one or all at once, the former things that we loved and cherished pale in comparison to the value of following Christ and serving Him. This is the kind of value exchange that Paul writes of in his letter to Philippi: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of noticing the order in which these events take place. The selling of possessions comes after the treasure has already been found, not before. The treasure cannot be bought or earned in any way; no selfless act or good deed can merit it. Salvation is found by grace alone through faith alone. The selling of possessions to buy the field is used to illustrate that the treasure has unfathomable value, not that we must perform some self-sacrificial act to become saved. Absolutely nothing can be given by us to obtain salvation; but much must be given for the sake of it, after it has been obtained through faith. This explains the place of good works in the Christian life – good works are performed not in order to be saved, but because a person already is.
Finally, note the state of mind that the man in the parable is under at the time he sold all his possessions – he is in a state of joy. There is no dutiful moseying, no sorrowful glances as his life’s inheritance slips away. The value of the treasure is so compelling, he willingly and joyfully gives up all he has for the sake of it. He is enthralled at the proposition of the treasure; he is a new being, born again.
This conversion is the kind of dramatic change that songs of joy are written about: “I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.”
I want you to see Jesus for the treasure that he is.
I’ve been a pretty big fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a while now. But, strangely, my entire familiarity with the man’s life was based on the writings of other people about him, or by fragmented quotations of his own writings. Reading Eric Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer (book review here) was a great way to get acquainted with the man who epitomized what it looks like to live out one’s faith in Christ – even to the point of death.
So, needless to say, it was high time to quit beating around the bush and actually read one of Bonhoeffer’s books. I borrowed “Life Together” from my roommate’s collection. Here are my thoughts.
“Life Together” by Bonhoeffer is a brief, 120-page essay on Christian community – what it is, and what it is not. Every Christian needs a working knowledge of these things, since community is such a buzzword in current evangelicalism. Bonhoeffer wrote about community when community wasn’t cool.
Of particular interest to me were the passages in which the author talks about the balance and interaction between solitude and community. He explains that one must not seek community simply because he is running from himself, and one must not seek solitude simply because he is running from others. Bonhoeffer wrote with keen observation concerning both the Scriptures and his own personal experience, and there are many great things to be understood from this book.
“Life Together” is beautifully written, and I believe that any Christian would profit from reading it. There are parts that are more sophisticated than others, and Bonhoeffer, being a German through and through, loves to quote Martin Luther and even Martin Buber’s philosophical work “I and Thou”. (If you don’t have a clue about Buber, then great, neither do I. “I and Thou” was required reading in a philosophy class my freshman year of college and I retained zilch. So no worries when it comes to “Life Together”.)
My first hands-on exposure to Bonhoeffer was a positive one, and I am looking forward to reading his famous “Cost of Discipleship” down the road. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from “Life Together”:
“Brotherly care is distinguished from preaching by the fact that, added to the task of speaking the Word, there is the obligation of listening. There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for the chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother’s confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects…Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”
Postmodernism is not an easily contained idea, and there is no sufficient single definition for it (postmodernists would approve of that). But we have to start somewhere. I’ll do my best to describe a postmodern worldview in the next two paragraphs. And just a heads up, our culture is saturated by what I’m about to describe – even in the Bible belt.
Postmodernism’s central belief is that there is no absolute truth – that is, there are no everlasting, abiding facts that are true for all people at all times. A postmodernist doesn’t care about what is actually true, because there is no truth to be discovered; there is only “truth” to be created. Life is more about what you think it means than what it actually means. It’s all about an individual’s interpretation of an object, event, or text. An object, event, or text (or whatever) carries no significance except what a person gives it by interpretation. It doesn’t matter what life means, it’s more about what the individual thinks it means. It doesn’t matter what a text says, it’s more about what the individual thinks it says. There is no independent, trustworthy and truthful meaning to anything - the meaning is relative to whoever is doing the interpreting or experiencing. There is no universal truth; each individual makes up their own “truth” and constructs their own reality. Everything is relative. What your own personal “truth” is depends on what your circumstances are and what you decide upon. (If this sounds similar to the existentialism of the 60s, you’re right on. There is nothing new under the sun, only endless re-packagings.)
In this line of thinking, even morality is considered to be relative – a cultural development that is different for everyone, having evolved over time. A postmodern view of morality is that there is no such thing as universal, absolute right and wrong – just things that are considered to be right and wrong by our evolved moral conscience. Therefore, each individual culture (and even each individual person) constructs their own morality according to their preferences. What is right and wrong simply depends on what you want. It’s all relative, and it’s all about the individual (…To say that I’m opposed to this worldview is like saying Michael Jordan has held a basketball once before).
Therefore to a postmodernist, for anyone to claim that there is such a thing as absolute right and wrong is viewed as trying to govern someone else’s life. Trying to stop diversity. Trying to elevate your worldview over everyone else’s. Trying to make everyone like you, and hating anyone who isn’t. Saying your way is better.
That is why postmodernism (and a postmodern worldview is the default worldview, I assure you) hates Christianity. Christianity claims that there is absolute truth – established by God himself. There is absolute right and wrong, written on the hearts of all people and evidenced in their general behavior (Romans 2:15). Jesus did not say that he is a truth; he said that he is the truth (John 14:6). Claims to supremacy like the ones Jesus made drive a postmodernist insane. They cannot fathom that there is a Name above all other names. You see, with the postmodern relativist movement, tolerance has moved from believing that all people are created equal to believing that all ideas are created equal. Thinking your ideas, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, etc. are correct and others’ are not is considered bigotry. As postmodernists would have it, it is necessary not only to believe that all people are created equal, but you must also believe others’ ideas to be equal to your own (never mind that they are often mutually exclusive). To say that you have correct knowledge is to, in effect, say that people who disagree with you do not, which is unallowable in this way of thinking. Claiming that the Bible contains absolute truth and authority over all people is unthinkable. In a postmodern worldview, tolerance/diversity is God. In a Christian worldview, God is God.
All that being said, let’s be clear. Tolerance and diversity are blessings directly from God. They should be celebrated! The fact that we are different from one another in skin color, language, and many other ways displays the creativity of God. While the paragraphs above are pretty severe toward postmodern thinking, they are meant only to equip Western-hemisphere Christians to spot the slippery subject that they are swimming in daily (postmodernism, of course). None of this knowledge should spark arrogance. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). Christians are directed to love non-Christians just as God himself does – with equal intensity for all.
So why go on offense against postmodernism in the first place? Ah, here’s that distinction again – there is a difference between people and ideas. I don’t love postmodernISM, in fact I hate it. I think that it is deceitful and a humanistic, arrogant ideal. But postmodernISTS, on the other hand, I do love because they are people who are loved by God. An ‘ism’ is an idea which one can either ally himself with or set himself against; an ‘ist’ is a person, a priceless creation of God for whom he sent his Son to die (John 3:16).
The fact remains: it is of the utmost importance that the church set itself against empty ideas/false teachings (2 Peter 2:1). But never should it ever set itself against people. The church is not anti-gay, anti-postmodernist, anti-alcoholic, anti-drug addict, or anything of the sort. The church of Jesus Christ is not anti-anybody. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, after all (Matthew 9:12).
If you are a Christian, love people who have a different worldview than you, even as you seek to portray that Christ is the absolute truth of the universe. Oppose ideas without opposing people. Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Disagree without being disagreeable, and hold to building on a firm foundation (Matthew 7:25). If you are a postmodernist (and maybe you didn’t realize you were), then without the slightest hint of condescension I tell you that I hope you see the emptiness and self-centeredness of trying to create or interpret your own personal reality. Deep down, there is a longing for truth – real, concrete truth. The good news is that it exists in a person – King Jesus, who loves you and is patient with both you and I. And when we know him, we will know the truth…
…and the truth shall set us free (John 8:32).
Sometimes you just know God is talking right to ya. Here’s an excerpt from Chuck Swindoll’s famous title, “The Grace Awakening“:
This chapter is dedicated to all who are in ministry…I want to ask crucial questions. Is what you’re doing the work of your own flesh energized by your own strength? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda? How about your motive? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God? Is yours a grace-awakening ministry?…
‘This is the word of the Lord saying, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord of hosts.’ (Zechariah 4:6)
“Might” and “power” intrigue me. They are words that describe human effort, another way of saying the energy of the flesh. They ring a familiar bell in the minds of all ministers, for every one of us has been guilty of doing the work of God in the energy of the flesh. Yet human wisdom and fleshly energy alone will fail. God’s best work is not going to be done by human might or by fleshly power…The work of the flesh will amount to zilch in light of eternity. The glory will belong to the person who made it happen, and the rewards stop there too…
A ministry built by the energy of the flesh looks just like a ministry built by the energy of the Spirit. Externally, I warn you, it looks the same. But internally, spiritually, down deep in the level of motive, you know in your heart God didn’t do it; you did it!
Let me put it to you straight. Restrain yourself from might and power if you are a minister. Deliberately give the Spirit time and room. Consciously hold yourself back from clever ingenuity and reliance on your own charisma. If you don’t, you will live to regret it…
My warning stands: Anything that does not result in God’s getting the glory ought to be enough to restrain our own might and power so his Spirit can do the job…
What a great word from a great man. Useful council for a person convinced that success in ministry is reached by any other means than the outpouring of God’s grace.