Monday, November 29, 2010


If I am going to claim that my Sunday school class is enlightened I have to be able to claim that I am teaching in an intelligent manner.  Unfortunately no one is sure what that means.

Despite a long history of research and debate, there is still no standard definition of intelligence.
The article is more optimistic than that quote makes it out to be.  The authors list 71 definitions of intelligence used in different fields of study but seem to be optimistic about finding some unifier for all of them that will give a general definition for the word.

There have been times when I have been particularly frustrated talking with people about intelligence because most people have a vague definition that is more about making people feel good than attempting an objective way to discuss it.  We don't want to find out that we or the people we care about or the people we agree with are unintelligent so we have all agreed to accept the "everybody is intelligent in their own way" line.  It might be useful to reframe the conversation  to acting intelligent instead of being intelligent (or having intelligence) for the sake of losing the personal label and making people more open to accepting objective standards.

Granted there is probably a lot of truth to being intelligent.  Some people have more capable brains than others and that's just the way it is.  The only reason we would adopt this concept of intelligence would be to make an objective definition of it more palatable for society.  We may have to postpone using objective-adjective intelligence for objective-adverb intelligence until we're mature enough to accept that the people we like and agree with may not be as smart as the people we don't like and disagree with.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why do we think God created the Universe from nothing...

if Genesis 1:1 does not describe creation ex nihilo but simply bringing order out of pre-existing chaos?

Because creation ex nihilo seems to be described in other places.

John 1:1-3
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
Colossians 1:15-17
 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things have been created through Him and for Him.  He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
Of course, for the Colossians passage you can argue that the creation being described is all about the social order and not physical things.  Still, there are way more verses that have implications for creation found throughout the Bible than Genesis 1.  So maybe we have to rely on tradition and philosophy over sola scriptura for an ex nihilo doctrine.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Enlightened Sunday School: New Post Series

It's a common thing for blogs to have a collection of posts revolving around a theme. I wanted to get in on it.

Here's an interesting experiment to try. Go to an average evangelical church and listen to the theological conversations of the various members of the congregation. Now go to Fuller Seminary and listen to the theological conversations of the students. Or how about this: Go listen to a sermon on Mark and then listen to a lecture on Mark. They come off as pretty different. The stuff you hear in church often feels overly simplistic and (I hate to use this expression) dumbed-down. It has been deep fried and wrapped up in a to go bag to be easily consumed. The problem is that I have trouble criticizing churches for doing this. You can't expect everyone to go to seminary or to afford tuition at a Christian liberal arts college. Churches go for mass appeal because they have an important message to share with everyone. This gets to the heart of the new subject I'm going for. I know that a sermon and a lecture are two different things with different goals, but you would think that cutting edge research and philosophy should inform a sermon. My goal is to incorporate research and good philosophy into Sunday school teaching. That is, I want to be informed by the types of things people discuss in Bible lectures and philosophy of religion to be reflected in lessons I teach children.

This creates some problems for me that I am trying to work out and want to do posts on my experience dealing with them.

1. When I am honest about what I feel I know, what I believe on faith and what I'm not sure about I display less confidence and that can undermine the integrity of my lessons with the students. I need to be able to teach kids without pretending I have all the answers and for them to be okay with that.

2. Many churches are afraid of the types of things that get discussed in seminaries like Fuller. Often times they feel that studying the Bible like you would a historical text undermines the faith. Personally I think it helps us understand the Bible better and, if the Bible really is the word of God, helps us understand God better. I need to teach kids informed lessons in a way that convinces my superiors I'm strengthening their faith.

3. Kids may have trouble grasping complex ideas. I heard a story once that Stephen Hawking's publisher told him about A Brief History of Time "For every equation you put in your book you will lose half your audience." A similar thing could be said for adult sermons let alone Sunday school. "For every exegetical statement you make at church, half your congregation will fall asleep." I need to find a way to make this stuff exciting for kids.

My next Enlightened Sunday School post will deal with my unit on Job.

Should We Nail These On Protestant Churches?

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology put out 12 theses on smiling. My favorite is #7:

I know a little boy whose mother had to go away for a few days. When she came home, he cried and told her he had missed her. Touched by his infant sadness, the mother said, ‘It’s nice to be missed’ – and he replied, ‘It’s not nice to miss.’ It is nice to be missed because we learn what love means in the sadness of another. The face that always smiles is the face of a stranger. Love is written on the face of sadness.

The church can glean some good advice from this in following our commission to comfort those who are distressed.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. -Romans 12:15

"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' -Matthew 25:34-36

As said in thesis #7 stoic smiling signals distance in a relationship. This kind of demeanor to one who is suffering pushes him away. In a modern Good Samaritan retelling the priest would have been a prosperity gospel pastor smiling at the victim and saying, "God has an amazing plan for you! Don't be discouraged! Here's a list of Bible verses for comfort" before walking away. The danger of the Protestant smile culture is that it puts up an impenetrable wall between the distressed and the comforter. When those we truly care about are suffering we experience sympathetic suffering little. That's called empathy, it's the cause behind the shortest verse in the Bible (at least in English).

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, "See how He loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?" So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. -John 11:33-38

Jesus knew the end of the story. He had in mind what he was going to do the moment he approached the crowd. Yet their suffering moved him to tears. He did not put up a smile wall and offer a friendly rebuke of how God would make everything alright even though God was going to make everything alright right then and right there. At this moment Jesus was familiar to these people. He was one of them, weeping with those who were weeping. As a church worker it one thing I have been trying to do is resist the temptation to pretend that I have all the answers to everyones' problems. Sometimes I just need to feel sad or angry or outraged with a victim. Not being a very emotional person that is extremely hard for me. I'd much rather fix a problem than empathize with someone, but if I truly want a Kingdom with strong personal relationships to start developing here on earth I have learn to drop the smile and proactive attitude sometimes.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Should We Move Beyond the Bible?

From the blog Koinonia:

When we take communion with grape juice and wafers, greet each other with a handshake instead of a kiss, or speak out against stem-cell research, we are moving beyond what is in the Biblical text.

The question isn’t if we should. The question is, how?

No one is really 100% sola scriptura.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Us Silly Plebes

J. R. Daniel Kirk has a post about how everyone misinterprets the Gospel event of Jesus vs. Legion in Mark 5 and Luke 8. Specifically why the townspeople, after Jesus sends Legion into suicidal pigs, ask Jesus to leave.

"Clearly, they were peeved about the loss of revenue, the death of the pigs that were their livelihood–all that disruption of the village’s life-capital. Right? Not so much."

Reading this narrative in context, Kirk argues, shows that the men asked Jesus to leave because they were afraid of him not because they were angry about losing their herd. As he explains:

"The whole story is set up as a power confrontation between these great forces. The people of the town are depicted as lacking the power to control this mighty force.

And when they come upon the scene at the end, what is described is not only the transformation of this man, but his posture before Jesus: seated at his feet. Tamed. Controlled. Freed."

I'm one of those people who misinterpreted the story and assumed that the townspeople were upset over losing their herd and missed the whole bit about fear at Jesus' might. I knew the story showed Jesus' control over demons, but not it's relation to the reason the villagers were afraid of him and wanted him to leave. I did not make this mistake because I think business failure is the greatest tragedy that can befall someone. My problem was poor exegesis when I should have read the chapters in context. I guess I missed the forested mountains for the mole-trees. I assumed that because pigs were unclean animals, Jesus driving the demon into them and their subsequent drowning was a slam on the villagers' sinful lifestyle and they did not take it kindly. This felt kinda flimsy at the time and even more so now that I've heard a better explanation. Kirk points out that in Luke the story is placed between two demonstrations of Christ's power: quelling the storm at sea and healing Jarius' daughter (and a bystander along the way). I did not have to study Jewish customs of the first century, what I should have done was read the passage before and after!

One of the joys I have as one of the average Joes who reads seasoned pros is when I learn that something even Pastors often preach on is wrong. I don't take joy in the fact that we have misinformation from the pulpit, I just enjoy improving my understanding of what the Bible actually says.

I've written before about what guides our theology (the protestanty, Bibley kind) though it ended up more "how to keep negative influences out of your theology." My favorite method was to use strong exegesis while praying for the Holy Spirit's guidance. I should have added "actually read the text carefully." Maybe I'll try to start there next time.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Who I Write Like

There's an interesting website that analyzes your writing and tells you which famous figure of literature you write like. I wonder how consistent my writing style is. Part of the reason I started blogging was to improve my writing so there may be big changes between different posts. I'll submit all my long posts and see what they come up as.

The last post about molinism:

I write like
George Orwell

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

The posts "Critic or Theologian," "Rivalry Among Apostles," "Is Theology Important?" and "What Guides Our Theology?":

I write like
Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Apparently I write like Dan Brown. I have never read a Dan Brown book so I can't be subconsciously copying him. I wonder who else is in this website's database.

UPDATE: I submitted this post.

I write like
Isaac Asimov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Opportunity Cost and Middle Knowledge

A common way of harmonizing free will with God's divine omniscience through time is to use molinism. You can read the wikipedia entry here but a basic summary is that God has middle knowledge, or knowledge of possible "what if" situations. Middle knowledge contains counterfactuals, statements like "if my train wasn't late I would never have met the woman who became my wife," that God knows not just as predictions or good guesses but as factual knowledge as if they were recent historical events (science fiction authors would kill for middle knowledge). God's sovereignty in our salvation comes from inserting us into a situation in life where we will freely accept the Gospel. God, using middle knowledge, says "I have divinely elected Matt for salvation. I will place him in this society with this family. I know that in this situation Matt will freely choose to accept the Gospel and be saved."

I have some reservations about middle knowledge and counterfactuals and how they are compatible with the nature of God as an all-loving being. Most people address the problem of evil by saying that God desires our true love and that is only meaningful if it is possible for us to reject God. Believe it or not this actually poses some problems for the molinists and God's all-loving nature. While free will exists in the molinist account for people to choose damnation (the normal way of explaining how an all-loving God sends people to hell ("it's their own fault!") the fact that God chooses to create them in the first place is a problem for the all-loving crowd. Why create people who will not choose salvation to begin with? Why does God even bother creating people He knows will be unsaved? Couldn't God only create people he knows will freely choose salvation? Taking traditional soteriology and divine omnipotence as a given God's all-loving nature seems incompatible with middle knowledge.

Here are the premises of the problem:
1. There is an infinite number of possible people who will choose salvation.
2. Human history, as we know it, is limited (it had a beginning and will have an end) so only a limited number of people will ever exist. Therefore, of the infinite number of possible believers only a limited number will exist.
3. Of the limited number of people who will ever exist, many of them (in fact, most of those who have existed so far) will reject God's love.

So many potential believers do not exist and many actual non-believers do. If God loves everyone, why would he create non-believers to burn at the cost of believers to save and have eternal fellowship with? Must there be those who suffer?

Those who suffer do not merely have a pointless existence if God wants them to come to believe, but also their existence comes at an opportunity cost to those who are saved. Human history is limited, it had a beginning and will have an end. The total population of humans throughout time has a limit on it. If God is all-loving and does not really want those who are unsaved to be condemned why would even .01% of humans be those who will not freely choose salvation. Most of the people who have existed up to now were not saved and likely many of the people who will exist will not be saved. God could have chosen to fill the world with people who He foreknew would choose to follow Him freely but instead has chosen to take up some space with people who will not choose to follow Him. Many would respond that God, being an eternal being, should not be expected to be efficient; but this seems more malicious than inefficient. Of all the possible people God could choose to give the gift of existence and love to he chose to create the people He knew would deny Him and be condemned.

Imagine this:
Kevin is one of the infinite number of possible humans that has the proper features that will lead him to accept the Gospel. Bob is one of the infinite number of possible humans that does not have those features. Kevin will never exist because the world will end before he gets his chance. Bob does exist and is one of the many people who are alive right now who will never accept the Gospel. God could have made things so that instead of Bob, Kevin would exist. Instead, Kevin will never exist to be a person who will have eternal fellowship with God but Bob will exist to be condemned for all eternity. Why would God create Bob and not Kevin? If God could love both Kevin and Bob why not create the one that would live with Him in eternal happiness forever and not the one who would suffer forever.

The only solution I see to this to keep God’s knowledge of the future is that He does not love Bob and is glorified in his destruction. Most evangelicals do not like this idea and I sympathize, I just don’t see a way to harmonize all-loving with knowing the future (combined with the fact that some who are created are not saved).

This problem aids the more extreme Calvinistic argument that God does not love the unsaved. That God is glorified in his wrath as much as he is glorified in his grace. This is a problem for most evangelicals who do not consider this an aspect of God's character.

There is the solution, of course, to not keep God's knowledge of the future. To subscribe to what is called the openness clause and hold that the future is a mystery to God, though he is really good at predicting it. This violates one of the major omnis associated with God's character (omniscient in case you were wondering).

So there's the problem as I see it. Is molinism worth it if we have to dump all-loving? Is there a way around it that I do not see?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Thou shalt commit adultery"

The wikipedia entry for Bible errata is a fun read. It is intriguing how just omitting a "not" in a particular passage can completely change its meaning.

Imagine purchasing a Bible hot off the press and finding the following inside:

"Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?"
(1 Corinthians 6:9)

"Go and sin on more"
(John 8:11)

"Thou shalt commit adultery"
(Exodus 20:14)

"For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands."
(1 Peter 3:5)

Things are confusing enough arguing over the original texts and Greek meanings!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Clean Hands, Clean Conscience

Perhaps Pilate's behavior in Matthew 27:24 was more therapeutic than symbolic.

physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect.

The Lady Macbeth syndrome is a myth. You can wash the spot out!

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Guides Our Theology?

One of my professors in college had a catchphrase: "Theology does not happen in a vacuum." Any theologian is inevitably going to be influenced by outside elements. Beliefs that we have are never pure and come from our genetic and culturally influenced biases. Should we consider these things contaminants in our theological petri dishes? External influences do not necessarily destroy the validity of our beliefs but it helps to be aware of them when evaluating our own decision-making (check out the blog Overcoming Bias for cool discussions on human rationality). Many would consider this a problem for theologians because the practice of theology is not scientific. It is impossible to test a theological hypothesis (despite my petri dish comment), so what criteria do we use to test our theological ideas against our biases? How do we filter out the noise to find out what is truly divinely inspired?

Christians have some consolation in that there are certain specifics that they do not need to have right to be saved. According to traditional Christianity one is not saved by whether they are calvinist or arminian, premillenial or amillenial, covenential or dispensational; it is their faith in Christ's death for their sins and resurrection. The penalty for biased thinking in those matters is considerably low. However, essentials of faith are also a matter of theology. Soteriology is just as theological as any of the non-essentials mentioned earlier, the fact that it has stronger universal agreement among Christians (at least in its basic sense, for details many come up with check out the wikipedia article on atonement theories in Christianity) does not magically disqualify it, or remove it from the realm of discussion and articulation. Also, many Christians are tempted to categorize reading and interpreting the Bible as a different thing than theology. When I pose this question, I do not.

Here are some solutions that many Christians have come up with:

1. Strongly emphasizing Biblical exegesis. The best way to keep your culture from contaminating your theology is to understand the Scriptures as best you can within the context of when they were written. This may seem like simply switching to another cultural contamination. However this was the culture that God chose to write inspired words down, so one who uses this solution would see this culture as closer to the source than current culture. Also, the prophets who were the individuals God acted through expressed themselves in conventional ways of their time. Understanding these conventions helps find the "pure" message they were given to convey.

2. All theology must be uncontaminated by culture. Any connection that can be made between someone's theology and a cultural influence automatically falsifies that theology. I do not think anyone openly endorses this method, but many people do attempt to falsify a theology by pointing out its cultural influence. That method suggests that this is their approach.

3. Acknowledge that saying, "you believe this because your culture influenced you to believe this" is the equivalent of saying, "Yeah? Well you WOULD say that!" Simply dismissing what someone says as a result of bias ends the conversation without saying anything about the truth of the statement or how the bias leads someone down the wrong path. Also, you could say this to almost anyone saying anything. Two plus two equals four? Only a modernist European imperialist would try to push such an absolute on me!

4. The Holy Spirit guides true believers, so don't worry about it. If our bias is harmful to our relationship with God we can pray for the Spirit to give us the wisdom to rise above it. We know from the promise of James 1:5 and the example of King Solomon that if we pray for wisdom, God will grant it.

Number one is the most tempting for me. I like history and am biased towards a solution that involves the historical method. I fully believe that God grants wisdom to those who pray for it (see #4), but that does not exclude #1. God can even make us wise historians who understand the historical context of the Scriptures. Number three is tempting, but most disciplines have methods for addressing this issue with ways of filtering out bias without destroying the possibility of knowledge. It is a form of academic responsibility and I do not see why theology should be exempt from it. Also, the extreme skeptic voice #3 provides is sort of a straw man. Most people accept a certain degree of common sense objectivity like math and basic logic. Number two is the least convincing solution. For one thing, it inches the thinker closer to the straw man presented in #3. For another, it is impossible to form a theology that cannot somehow be traced to some cultural element. Even the writings of the Bible show cultural assumptions that were contemporary to the authors.

I think that I prefer a method combining #1 and #4. I do want to understand what the Scriptures are telling me in their own words, which requires exegesis, but I want to be open to the Spirit to give me something revolutionary that really does transcend historical context. While #1 is preferred for being the most objective way of understanding how God has revealed himself we must be open for something new. Jesus completely overturned how his contemporaries understood the messiah. Many of the ways he fulfilled prophecy were innovative and revolutionary. We should be careful not to adopt such an extreme devotion to solution #1 that we confine God to the ancient world.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Critic or Theologian: the Fine Line

It's a common complaint among Christians that theologians wander far away from traditional Christianity. I know an elderly pastor who often refers to modernists as "those awful Germans" (obviously Tillich, Niebuhr and Bultmann). Lay Christians think they, like King Agrippa thought of Paul, have let their great learning drive them mad. They have spent so much time reading books they have proven that up is down and black is white. Theologians who reject the idea of a personal God like Paul Tillich and Bishop Sponge don't improve the image of modern theologians among Christians. I know there are people who have accused them of being secret atheists infiltrating the ranks of Christians or perhaps sleeper agents clinging to their traditional upbringing but unaware of their true beliefs. In some of these cases, like Tillich and Sponge, these accusations are somewhat justified. It comes to a point where your concept of God is so far removed from what the traditional church has been saying you must ask yourself if you can really be called a Christian anymore.

There's another way theologians have similar views to critics, even orthodox theologians --yes even the early church fathers! I was watching the debate between Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig on the reality of Jesus' resurrection the other day the other day (for those who don't know Dr. Carrier supports the negative view, Dr. Craig the positive view) and something struck me as funny while watching Dr. Carrier's opening statement. Dr. Carrier seeks to prove the historical unreliability of the resurrection by showing that the gospels are myth. In doing so he points out reoccurring themes in the events one gospel will portray and shows parallels that exist within the Old Testament. You can see his opening statement here:

(Watch between around 1:20 and 5:05)

*Note* Audio only comes out of the left speaker in this video. Also, the debate is interesting and it's worth taking the time to watch the whole thing on youtube.

So for a second lets forget that Dr. Carrier is a major critic of Christianity and focus on some of his main points.
1. Mark has a reoccurring theme of inversion of expectation in Mark: Barrabas, "Son of the Father," is released while the true Son of the Father is crucified. Simon Peter, Jesus' disciple, abandons him while Simon the stranger carries his cross. The male disciples desert Jesus while the women go to the tomb and are the first to see it empty. James and John ask to be at Jesus' right and left hand, but those who really end up at Jesus right and left hands are the criminals he is crucified with.
2. Elements in the gospel narrative come directly from the Old Testament: Psalm 22 describes the crucifixion narrative, but also Genesis, Ecclesiastes and Psalm 24.

Don't these seem like things a theologian would say? No theologian sees the gospels as simple objective statements of fact. They all see a greater story to the events, it's what they do. Rather than being proof that the gospels should be categorized as myth, theologians seem to interpret gospel metanarrative as part of God's plan or perhaps some kind of information inclusion bias in the evangelist. Also, every Christian would fully cop to events in the gospels coming from the Old Testament. In this case, what skeptics call "myth," theologians call "prophecy." Setting their conclusions aside, is there a fundamental difference between what Dr. Carrier does and what the average theologian does?

What are some things that theologians actually say about the gospels?
1. Dr. Craig, in response to Dr. Carrier, references the theologian Robert Gundry as saying that, contrary to Carrier's assertion that Mark is about overcoming expectations, Mark is about fulfilling expectations. Instead of asserting that the gospel is a simple historical report, his response still acknowledges that there is a metanarrative that is evident in the events Mark described that coincidence cannot account for.
2. Bishop (soon to be retired) N. T. Wright says that the gospels tell the story of a suffering servant messiah taken from Isaiah (playing right into Richard Carrier's hands he notes the Old Testament allusion as well as a metanarrative). Jesus contemporary kinsmen saw the messiah as royalty and the idea of a sufferer was distinct from this messiah. The sufferer would either be another person who suffered and not the messiah or be a sufferer because he was the messiah and he caused Israel's enemies to suffer. In a passage from Simply Christian Wright offers a barrage of Isaiah themes repeating in the gospels:
Isaiah was by no means the only text upon which Jesus drew for his sense of vocation, which we must assume he had thrashed out in thought and prayer over some considerable time. But it is in Isaiah, particularly the central section, that we find that combination of themes--God's coming kingdom, the renewal of creation expressed not least in remarkable healings, the power of God's 'word' to save and restore, the ultimate victory over all the 'Babylons' of the world, and the figure of the Servant itself--which we find again so strikingly in the gospels.

It seems odd to me, being a believer, in watching this debate I found that I agreed with the basics of a lot of what Dr. Carrier said in his opening statement. Am I a closet skeptic? I believe there are recurring themes in the gospels. I believe these things are not mere coincidence. I believe that the evangelists were inspired heavily by the Old Testament. And...
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lack of Big Name Theologians: Catholic Style

The other day I posed the question, "Why aren't there theological giants anymore on the cover of Time?" The most likely reason I thought caused this was that an increase in postmodern values in the church and our society shifted the focus from detached systematic theology (and the leaders of that) to cultural movements in the church and the behavior of believers (and the pastors and clergy that drive that).

Here's an article that asks a similar question, a bit more broad than mine, "Where have the dominant theologians gone?" This is from a 2005 issue of National Catholic Reporter so it's focused on Catholic theologians (ironically, the writer of the article is a professor at a Methodist university). The article is here.

Here are a few quotes highlighting his position:
"First, there are exponentially many more professional theologians working and writing today than there were 50 years ago. As a result, it will be more difficult for one or two people to dominate the field."

"The complexity of Catholic theology today means that no one can claim expertise in all areas of theology. People have to specialize in specific areas such as Christology, eschatology, ecclesiology or anthropology."

"Now and in the future we need many different Catholic theologies emerging in different cultures and contexts and diverse areas of specialization. No one person or small group of theologians of one station in life, or one sex, or one color will ever again dominate Catholic theology."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Theology Important?

Someone older than me may remember Time Magazine's April 20th, 1962 cover featuring Karl Barth.  Someone even older may remember March 16th, 1959 when Paul Tillich was on the cover.  You would not expect to find the face of theologians in today's newsstands.  In fact, most people probably could not name a modern day theologian.  We can name preachers, famous pastors and televangelists, but how many theologians do we talk about in public life?

Why is this the case?  I think trying to explain this away as increasing secularism or bias on the media is insufficient.  Christianity is still the majority religion in America and most media outlets pander to their consumers regardless of their personal beliefs (the blog Marginal Revolution summarizes and links to a study about this here).  Another explanation is that there are no smart Christians anymore, or that theology is an intellectual practice and the intellectual community has expelled Christianity.  This doesn't seem to be the case in Philosophy, where there is a developing Christian presence (article from William Lane Craig here, the Time article Craig mentions is here).

Here are some reasons I think are more likely:
1. The ecumenical nature of the evangelical movement has made theology seem like a waste of time.  We are supposed to stick to the most basic, Biblical form of Christianity and theology muddies the waters.
2. Postmodern Christianity is driving believers to act on their faith without bothering to articulate it in detail.  Theology is mostly an in-house activity and its adherents fully admit to its link to culture and society.  Outsiders have no reason to be interested in it, therefore periodicals targeting mass appeal avoid it.
3. The focus of Christian academics has moved from theology to apologetics given the loud clamor of modern skeptics.  Still, not too many Christian apologists appear on the cover of Time or are mentioned by anyone outside the debate.

If I could somehow verify this I would bet money on number 2.  Postmodernism isn't just a strong element in our society but is growing among and influencing Christians.  If theology is a function of culture then the real leaders are not those who confine themselves to theology but those who represent the cultural aspects of their religion.  These real leaders would be the pastors and clergy who motivate the actions and trends of the believers and not the stuffy academics who sit at a desk writing "if A, then B."  I know that Postmodernism has had its day among philosophers and scientists, but it's still alive in the humanities (art, language arts and anthropology especially) and seems to have left a strong imprint in the public mind.

Is this a bad thing?  I'm not sure.  Different cultures and times have had different ways of expressing their faith in God.  This doesn't mean God changes, but that we do.  On the other hand, articulating the particulars of your faith help get a better understanding of the logical coherence of God's plan.  Wouldn't believers benefit from having that?

Have we lost anything significant now that theologians are no longer media superstars?

Update 2010/05/03: I should say that many popular pastors and preachers are theologians as I would understand theologians (that is, philosophy of religion from inside the religion) but their theology takes a background role to their influence on cultural movements they lead within their religion. No one can preach or lead a religious movement without at least dabbling in the philosophical nature of their belief system. The reason why I still think that theology is not seen as important today is because their theology is not what makes them popular.

Rivalry Among Apostles

We already know that there was a rivalry between Paul and Peter over Christians continuing Jewish practices (Galatians 2) but could there have been rivalries among other Apostles (or at least their disciples)?  I posit that there was a rivalry between the disciples of Peter and the disciples of John.  (Note: This is not a thorough, academic opinion.  This is an impression I get from reading the Gospels based understanding them as they are presented by church tradition.)

The contents of the Gospel of Mark are traditionally traced to Peter (meaning he was Mark's source).  John is attributed to, well, John.  Because of this I'll sometimes refer to Mark as Peter's gospel (not to be confused with The Gospel of Peter, a non-canonical gospel of the 2nd century with a talking cross) and John as John's gospel.  I'm not suggesting that Peter wrote Mark, but because of Peter's relationship to Mark I'll consider his perspective similar to Peter's or at least favoring Peter.  I also consider it a strong possibility that the Gospel of John was not penned by John himself but by his disciples either from his notes or teachings but because the rivalry could have been between the Apostles' disciples and not the Apostles themselves I do not consider this threatening to my point.  My Bible quotes are from the New American Standard Bible by way of

Peter and John were the big-shot disciples.  They were part of Jesus' inner group of special revelation.  It was them along with James who were present at The Transfiguration and the resurrection of Jairus' daughter; they were also the ones Jesus requested to stay awake with him to pray in Gethsemane.  James, being John's brother, may have simply been John's tag-along and not a big contender for top Apostle.  Also, he was killed before any of the gospels were written (Acts 12:2), probably in the 40s, and therefore out of the running among the disciples of the Apostles for top Apostle status.  Because of these facts, I doubt he had a significant following of disciples and I won't consider him a part of Apostolic rivalry.  Whenever he is mentioned in any event in the gospels that has relevance to this possible rivalry I will only analyze it in its significance to Peter and John.

The following is a comparison between the two gospels.  I will analyze how they each present information in a way that seems to favor the Apostle to whom the disciple(s) who wrote each gospel had an allegiance to.

Let's start with the obvious.  The Gospel of John is very careful to mention that John (mentioned as "the other disciple") beat Peter to the tomb in their foot race. 

John 20:3-4 says, "So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb.  The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first"

What is the point of mentioning this other than showing off that your mentor Apostle is a more athletic dude than the other guys' mentor Apostle?  On to the next comparison:

Mark mentions a considerably embarrassing moment for John where he and his brother ask to sit at Jesus right and left hand (Mark 10:35-45).  At first they try to get Jesus to agree to their request before they tell him what it is "'Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.'"  Jesus makes this into a teaching moment at the expense of John's pride.  This section is left out of John.  I should note that it makes sense that this passage didn't make the cut for other reasons than Apostolic rivalry.  Each gospel has its own priority and its own axe to grind in what information it presents and John's motif of signs being given and the importance of belief does not need this section.  Still, the fact remains that Peter's gospel mentions a particularly embarrassing detail about John that is omitted in his gospel.

The next topic for my comparison is the details provided by each Gospel about Christ's arrest.  Peter's gospel does not name the Apostle who draws his sword and strikes the high priest's slave (Mark 14:47).  John is sure to mention that this Apostle who acted so rashly and against the wishes of his master was none other than Peter (John 18:10).  Also, John does not mention Peter's remorse at having denied being one of his disciples.  It transitions immediately from mentioning a crowing rooster to Jesus entering the Praetorium (John 18:27-28).  Mark lets us know that once Peter heard the rooster crow (reminding him of Jesus' prophecy) he began to weep (Mark 14:72).

It is possible that John was merely postponing showing Peter's remorse until his epilogue in chapter 21.  The very touching interaction between Peter and the resurrected Jesus where Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep does show us Jesus mending his relationship with Peter.  We also get to read about Peter grieving when Jesus asks him if he loves him three times (the same number of times he denied knowing Jesus).  While this does show us Peter and Jesus' reconciliation it is much less dramatic than what Peter presents through Mark.  Peter is not shown to cry, but to grieve.  Also, Peter does not use the same word for love that Jesus requests of him, offering a phileo love to Jesus' question of agape (that is, the words commonly translated as "love" for both Peter and Jesus are actually "agape" for Jesus, self-sacrificial love, and "phileo" for Peter, the love of deep friendship) until Jesus finally gives up and settles on phileo (Jesus third use of "love" is phileo).  So the dialogue actually goes...

Jesus: Do you love me with a self sacrificial love more than these?
Peter: Yes lord, I love you like my best friend.
Jesus: Do you love me with a self sacrificial love?
Peter: Yes lord, you know I love you like a great friend.
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love me like a friend?
Peter (grieved): You know all things.  You know I love you like a friend.

I understand that some Bible translations have Jesus say "love" and Peter say "regard you highly."

Because of the difference in what details of gospel events are included or omitted in Mark and John it seems clear to me that there was a rivalry between the Apostle Peter and John (or at least their disciples).  Mark tends to include information that embarrasses John and omits details that embarrass Peter (which would make sense if Mark is a disciple of Peter) and John includes details that embarrass Peter and omits details that embarrass John.  This opinion is based on my reading of the scriptures as a layman and a conglomeration of information about the Apostles and the gospels I have gathered from taking undergraduate Bible classes and doing various research on my own here and there.

The information to do this blog post came out of my head and was collected over the years of studying for Sunday school lessons and my own personal interest, so I'm afraid I cannot provide a bibliography of sources but I doubt I included anything that wouldn't be considered common knowledge and anything outside of that is my opinion.  Because of this I think there is a strong possibility that someone with a more formal education than me could point out how understanding the theology each gospel is trying to present is a better explanation of what details are omitted or included than Apostolic rivalry.  Until that happens, though, I'm going with this.  It's way more interesting to me, a product of an age with tabloid magazines and celebrity gossip shows.