For the young theologian (and we are all theologians)
Would-be theologians…must be on their guard lest by beginning too soon to preach they rather chatter themselves into Christianity than live themselves into it and find themselves at home there.
If you are trying to wrap your head around God, what I suggest the first things to do is to not imagine a perfect human being. Don’t picture a big Gandalf in the sky as I used to do.
Why? Because God is not like us.
He is entirely other, so far from our own preconceived thoughts and emotions.
While we can write about how God is a father or a mothering hen or a warrior king or a tender bridegroom, we simply are grasping at straws. For the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead is so much greater than our imperfect metaphors. He made us in his image and our language can only describe a small portion of the original image. Let me give you an example to this point.
Men and women were made in the image of God and we reflect his image much like the moon reflects the light of the sun. But while the moon lights up the dark of night, it is not nearly as bright as the radiance of the sun.
The moon can only reflect the light given by the sun. Similarly, humanity can only reflect the light given by God to others and our reflection is much like the metaphors we use to describe God.
So with this in mind, when we communicate to others about the grandeur of God, bring an element of humility to the conversation. We are all looking through a window covered in dust and dirt, but one day we will see it clearly.
God is wholly other than our metaphors. As Karl Barth said, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” God is God and not a better version of humanity— no matter how loudly we might speak.
Any other theologizing tips?
One of the most formative statements I’ve ever heard came from a class I took from Richard Mouw at Fuller Seminary. He said that God shines in all that’s fair.
Think about that for a moment. God shines in every good thing.
Think about the brilliant sunset you saw recently or the soprano nailing a solo. Now picture the struggling musician crafting a symphony or an architect designing a structure. What do all of these have in common? God is glorified through their excellent work and he revels in it.
As Mouw said, God shines in all that’s fair, whether it is sacred or secular. Even the poem I thoughtfully crafted in an English class assignment and the hymn that was penned two hundred years ago are both beautiful in his eyes.
Perhaps one might be more profound than the other—certainly the grandeur of Handel’s Messiah will stand the test of time against the works of Justin Bieber (please Lord, let this be true!)—and some things might be more beautiful in our eyes, but the good things we create certainly makes God smile.
There’s a melody that you can hear in the symphonies of Beethoven. There are lyrics to a song long forgotten etched into the chiseled statues of Michelangelo. There are even faint echoes of a forgotten beauty found in the flawless run of the downhill Olympic skier. The echo of the glory of God is found even in broken humanity. The song of creation is found in all that’s fair.
Do you find that God shines in all that’s fair?
This year has brought many different transition points for me. One of the big transition points is a move from graduate student to a graduated student from Fuller Seminary. And here is how I’m learning to cope.
I thought that at the close of my MA in Theology program that I would be a little bit wiser and a little bit brighter, but now I’m realizing that stepping out of the shelter at Fuller that I still don’t know a lot. Quite frankly, I really don’t feel like I’m a master of anything (insert Seinfeld “Master of my Domain” joke here).
My time there wasn’t a waste though, I’ve learned and grown tremendously. After many leaps and bounds in my education, I feel as if I have just begun to scratch the surface of the God I worship. I might be able to slowly translate ancient languages, unpack the tension of Church History, and explain what I believe and why I believe it, but the more I’ve grown, the more I realize that I will never know fully.
John Calvin wrote about cultivating a knowledge of God that is deeper than any textbook or devotional literature. He said that we should aim not for book smarts or street smarts alone, but instead we should have a knowledge of the heart– a knowledge of who God is that is deep rooted within us.
I read a story about an interview with Einstein’s wife about the theory of relativity. When she was asked whether or not she understood this theory she responded in a great way. She said she didn’t know the theory, but she knew Einstein. She might not have had all the answers to the technical problems, but she knew the man in ways that any other scientist would never get close to knowing.
That is exactly the heart of the matter, and that’s what Calvin is talking about. For me, I do not feel like a master of theology, but I do know Jesus. I have grown since my time in seminary and I’m glad I went. It’s now time to put that knowledge into action and help other people know Jesus a little bit better.
How do you handle transition?
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you need to say the right password to Christians you might meet out and about? Hopefully I’m not just peeing in the wind here, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are codewords that are needed to be said to let the other person know where you stand.
I began to realize this when, oddly enough, I told people I went to seminary. And apparently Fuller Seminary is “liberal” for the more conservative factions and “fundy” for people who are not actively involved in a church. Apparently affirming the divinity of Christ, the Nicene Creed, and identifying with the life giving words of Jesus is not enough. I needed to say codewords, to let the other person know that I didn’t go off the deep end. It is true that I am digging critically into my faith at seminary, but I know that Christianity has withstood many challenges. Defenders of the faith, from Augustine to CS Lewis to Tim Keller have helped me in working through questions raised by the “New Atheists” and old established religions as well. Yet, if I didn’t say the right password, I would be labelled as someone who lives in an ivory tower and doesn’t belong within evangelicalism.
When a pair of pastors came to our front door and invited us to their church down the street (a Latino-Pentecostal one next to the Sonic (speaking in tongues and great milkshakes in one convenient location!!)), I informed them that we were also fellow Christians. Yet, I needed to further qualify with them. I was a follower of Jesus, and shared the same faith. They were very kind and I enjoyed speaking with them, but that has not always been the case. I have found that associating oneself with a church is important, as is qualifying where I stood in my own relationship with Christ.
It’s true that no one knows the heart of an individual. Sometimes a person can affirm something on the outside without being transformed on the inside. As James would warn us throughout his letter, claiming to have religion or faith is worthless when there is no accompanying outward action. While an individual is reconciled to God through the redemptive work of Christ alone, we are also told that faith without works is a dead faith (James 2.14-17). To use an analogy, a tree that is in good shape will produce good fruit. I guess how we are able to tell if someone is truly a follower of Christ is that they themselves are rooted in the soil of Life, like the tree described in Psalm 1. This tree is planted by streams of water and will, out of that rooted-ness, do good and be transformed slowly but surely into the image of Christ. So next time I meet someone for the first time, I think I’ll offer a measure of grace and humility toward that person. The reason is because that fruit will come about slowly but surely over time and I might not be able to discern it in a brief conversation on a doorstep or airport.
Do you find yourself being labelled? How do you handle that?
Something I have learned this past year in seminary: Bible Study is tough work.
When Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the Sixteenth Century he was warned by the RCC. He was warned that if everybody was given the opportunity to read the Bible on their own, then anybody can interpret it on their own, potentially leading to many negative things. The Church no longer told the masses what to think. Now anybody could read the text in their language and come to different conclusions, no matter how wacky they might be. During the era of the Protestant Reformation, you had several factions rise up, opposing each other over different readings of Scripture. Nearly 500 years later, we see that Rome was right, if everybody could read the text in their own language, then anybody could make up any point on their own. Freedom spawned not only spiritual fervor, but also chaos.
See, studying the Bible is tough work, because anybody and everybody can have an opinion on the text. That is why I view my training in a seminary as both important and humbling, because I know teaching others is a heavy and joyous burden. There are hard passages in Scripture. There are difficult questions raised that many try to gloss over or ignore.
Who knows, it could happen to anybody. It could happen today.
What tools do you use to help you study the Bible?
The past year has taken me through the ups and downs of learning a foreign, dead language. I have been taking biblical Greek (Koine Greek, the common vernacular language used during the first century AD), and it has both brought great insight into my faith and also has kicked me into moments of despair. It is already difficult to grasp a foreign language, yet it seems to be made more difficult when it is an ancient language! However, the payoff for me began when I was able to start making sense of the Greek text, seeing nuances that might have been missed while reading a perfectly suitable English translation. As great as the ESV, NRSV, and NIV are, it is difficult to catch the nuances. Somewhere, a good point gets lost in translation!
While I was working over my final translation assignment for this quarter, Romans 5:8 stuck out to me. I translated it as “But God proved his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died on our behalf” (NRSV and ESV conclude the line with “Christ died for us”). For the third word (the main verb), I chose to go with “proved” instead of equally acceptable terms like “demonstrated” or “showed.” There is flexibility in English word choices, just as long as you are faithful to the original.
So what? Why did I just bore you with my translation and year in Greek so far? Because it is through the course I have learned that words matter. How we communicate an idea in terms of our faith will shape other people. What word we choose in translation will affect others, especially those who are vulnerable. Equally acceptable words can emphasis different aspects of things, for better or worse. That is why we need humility when it comes to faith, because we could be absolutely wrong in the selection of words we use. That is why we need a measure of grace when discussing matters of faith, because perhaps we emphasis the wrong syllable. That is why it is so encouraging to know that while we were such screw ups (it’s in the Greek…), God proved his love for us by bearing the ramifications of our screwed-up-ness and dying on our behalf. For that I am confident and thankful, no matter how badly I might translate it.
Seminary is tough. I don’t mean just the assignments, tests, papers, and other work. I mean the work of actually digging into Scripture and the faith, taking an honest look into it, and wrestling with tough issues. Looking over the breadth of Biblical Studies and Church History as disciplines can cause discomfort. Big words like redaction criticism, source criticism and inerrancy/infallibility can be admittedly distressing. As mentioned previously in my other posts about seminary, it can even rattle or (God forbid!) destroy your faith. But you know what? Sometimes we need to be challenged in our faith and be prompted to dig deeper than before and develop a more complete understanding of the faith.
Sometime it is easier to stop thinking and turn on the cruise control button. Sometimes it is easier to just become a full-fledged fundamentalist and develop a bunker mentality.
Yes, it is easier to stop thinking. But it is just not worth it.
As I have said before, Christianity is an incredibly deep religion and the annals of its history provides comfort for those who are in despair. Other people have faced similar doubts and encountered troubling questions (including this writer!). If that is you, I beg you to not just stop at the questions you might have and never look for an answer. Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and Mother Theresa (among others) will help you through problems. I am so thankful for contemporary people like Rachel Held Evans who is incredibly honest about Christianity. She helps remind me frequently in her blog that it is OK to wrestle with the Bible and the passages that might disturb you.
I am so grateful for the giants of the faith who have helped me to overcome issues and wrestle with tough questions. I am also very grateful for the faithful servants who might never have their names in a Church History book or blog, but still impacted my life. While I am still haunted by many issues posed in the pages of Scripture, I know and trust that I will not fully grasp everything this side of the River Jordan. Nevertheless, I will still walk the path of being a disciple of Jesus, even when it gets a little uncomfortable.
Sometimes it pays to be uncomfortable.
“The knowledge of the Bible, so necessary in a preacher, is not a purely intellectual knowledge; it is, as Calvin never tired of saying, ‘a knowledge of the heart.’ The preacher studies the Bible because he loves the Bible, and he loves the Bible because he studies the Bible…”
This follows my two part blog posts on being in seminary (here and here). Due to my recent downtime in between quarters, I decided to read a book on John Calvin’s preaching technique and style. Just to let you know, this is the sort of thing that seminarians do during break (thank you for your prayers and thoughts of wow, he is a complete nerd). One of the parts of this book that struck me forcefully was that Calvin talked about the importance of developing a solid biblical education for a pastor. He wanted them to be well-versed in biblical understanding, being ready to expound on Scripture with eloquence and substance.
This belief in cultivating a robust clergy system can certainly cause people to pause at the danger of over-intellectualizing the Bible. This fear is that a firm biblical faith can sink into the mire of a brain-only religion. While this can be true, Calvin would also agree with this position and warn against it as well. Instead his position is one of cultivating a knowledge of the heart. This is where the preacher (or average Christ-follower) loves studying the Bible because he or she genuinely loves the God behind the Bible. He or she should not be caught up in the worship of the Bible or any theological framework, instead they employ those loves in pursuit of the higher love of Christ. That’s how I reconcile heart and head knowledge, combine them both into a robust relationship with Christ. Give it a shot, it’s worth it!
To continue on my recent musings about being in seminary, I suppose that it is possible to lose one’s faith in seminary. However, I also suggest that it is possible to lose my faith in the course of being a carpenter, salesman or nurse. Living in a blue-collar, white-collar or any other career can also cause a person to lose their joy in Christ. They can become consumed with greed, lust, power, and the pressures of life instead of the redemptive power of the gospel. Instead of orienting our lives around the Kingdom of God and being consumed with a passion that is directed toward the glorifying of our God, we can become consumed with our own lives.
Even good things can take the place of pursuing God’s will with singleness of mind. Henri Nouwen would suggest that the greatest danger to the love of Christ is service to Christ. We can become so busy in serving Him that we forget that we even love Him! Our ultimate goal should be to conform into the image of Christ and bring glory to Him. Quite frankly, everything else should be a means to that end. It is only when we bring a means and make it an end that it becomes trouble for us. Even something good (like marriage, patriotism, family, and social justice) can be twisted and consume our passion.
Everything must be in alignment with the will of God, this is our ultimate aim. God ought to be our polestar and the one we desire. Just don’t lose that passion, whether in seminary or in the workforce.