Sunday, September 9, 2012

People of God


            The people of God; this is a title that has been a part of the Christian religion since the beginning. In fact, it is inherited from the ancient Hebrews who founded modern Judaism. The term is not one that pious religious adherents take lightly as it is one of the most characterizing terms that is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition; namely, that God is relational and (for whatever divine reason) chooses to have a people. Just as it has for Jews of all eras, the phrase “people of God” gives Christian believers a pattern to follow, a name to live up to and a future to pursue.

            The term “people of God” is found in Hebrew texts as early as the exodus of Moses and the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt. When Moses and his brother, Aaron, approached the pharaoh about releasing the Hebrews, they said “This is what [Jehovah], the God of Israel, says: Let my people go…” (Exodus 5:1)[1] From this very early record of the historical Judeo-Christian tradition, we see YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, claiming the people of Israel as his special possession. We continue to see the Israelites called the people of God as time progresses. For example, we see that the temple worship performed by the Levite priests contained this notion strongly. In a blessing recorded in the priestly handbook, Leviticus, we read of YHWH speaking of Israel and saying “I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12)[2]. By Davidic times in Jewish history – approximately 1000 BC[3] – Israel was a well established world power and had really engrained the concept of being special to YHWH into their religion and culture. In the psalms, we read of God delivering his people, protecting his people and giving justice to his people (psalms 53:6, 94:14 and 135:14)[4]. No other passage of scripture sums up the Jewish understanding of how they related to YHWH better than the Deuteronomic text that reads “For you are a holy people, who belong to [Jehovah,] your God. Of all the people on earth, [Jehovah,] your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” (Deuteronomy 7:6)[5].

            I draw out the early sightings of this phrase only to demonstrate that as Christians, we must remember our roots. Often times, in western Christianity, we forget that our beginnings were much farther back in time than the incarnation of God. In order to gain a correct understanding of our own inclusion as the people of God, we must give credence to how the writers of the bible understood the term. Obviously, there is a real exclusiveness to the way the Jews understood their repute with God. This idea that they were better than every other people group drove many of their political and economical decisions. More than the way that they understood their relations with the world around them, the title “people of God” shaped their self-image. Piousness was prized due to the self-imposed standard of holiness. I don’t say this in a condemning way – indeed, it is good to strive for holiness – I only mean to demonstrate that this was their primary definition of self and from this definition they looked to the coming of the Messiah with the hopes that he would restore their former glory and power in the same way that they had seen David do as king. In short, the early Jew’s idea of being the people of God meant that they deserved to be in power according to earthly politics. Jesus turns this notion on its head.

            In keeping with the traditional understanding of what it meant to be the people of God, we read in the gospel of Luke, the prophecy of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) in which he speaks of the impending incarnation and what it will mean. He says in verse 68 and 69 “Praise [Jehovah], the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David…”[6] The actions of Christ on earth were far from what traditional Jews expected out of their Messiah. Effectually, what Jesus did was push the boundaries of the small circle that enclosed the people of God to the point where it could include the entire world population. After Christ’s ascension, we see the early church founders writing letters in an effort to guide new Christians in navigating this new definition of being the people of God. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives a decisive voice in the matter of the Jewish ceremony of circumcision. He says “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God”[7] (Galatians 6:16; emphasis mine). Paul understood those who believed in the deity of Jesus and in the message he came to proclaim to be a part of God’s people via a metaphysical transformation of self.

In order for contemporary Christians to understand what it means to be the people of God, I would like to speak briefly on what it means to be a people. In America, we often forget what it means to be a people. This is largely in due to the fact that our nation is built of people from all nations speaking all tongues. Couple this demographic hurdle with the hyper-individualism of the twenty first century and it is easy to see why post-modern people tend to forget how to identify as a people group first and an individual secondarily. To be a people means that the corporate is greater than the individual. It is in this context that we encounter the phrase “people of God”; Israel, while obviously being made up of many individuals is regarded consistently as a single entity by God throughout the bible. Drawing from the New Testament scriptures, we must continue this understanding of personhood. We are the people of God because we are a part of the single entity that is the ecclesia. Our primary allegiance is to what is traditionally called the Kingdom of God and it is in this kingdom that we are freed from the kingdoms of this world.[8] We then identify with the story of redemption and intimate relationship with the creator which gives us a future of eternal association with the divine to look forward to.

Progressing into our daily lives, we should be like the early Israelites who utilized the title “people of God” as the life defining title over and against every other label they could possess. Understanding that we are God’s own private possession and object of affection is foundational to our own self regard. When we view ourselves in this manner, we find value in the mundane decisions that we encounter in life; this is how we determine our conduct and stewardship of our possessions. This is what makes us distinct from the world around us. We are the people of God; this is our definition of self.
The Dread

[1] Townsend, Kenny. "Exodus." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 103. Print.
[2] Townsend, Kenny. "Leviticus." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 195. Print.
[3] Tullock, John H., and Mark Harold McEntire. "Israel's Time of Glory: David and Solomon." The Old Testament story. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 152. Print.
[4] Townsend, Kenny. "Psalms." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 900, 944, 985. Print.
[5] Townsend, Kenny. "Deuteronomy." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 275. Print.
[6] Townsend, Kenny. "Luke." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 1673. Print.
[7] Townsend, Kenny. "Galatians." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 1996. Print.
[8] Wilson, Jonathan R.. "The Story of the Kingdom." God so loved the world: a christology for disciples. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001. 23-39. Print.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Understanding the church

Here's something to chew on B-)

One topic of theology that seems to be the most under discussed and yet is incredibly obvious is the understanding of the church. Often times Christians get so caught up in doing church and knowing the language of “christianese” that they end up not being able to see the proverbial trees for the forest standing in their way. Our fundamental understanding of whom and what the church is supposed to be is vital to our functioning in a practical Christian lifestyle. There are many definitions of the church that abound, so I will not be attempting to cover every definition; instead, I will attempt to bring out a diversity of opinions and then give my own thoughts on the topic.

            In a discussion of the Christian church, I think it’s fair to make some observations of a couple of perpetuations that have invaded traditional Christian theology and are character of what I like to refer to as “pop-Christianity”. The first is a term that I most definitely did not coin; it describes well the illness that has beset the church; it is called “the gospel of prosperity”. This is the teaching that God wants you healthy, attractive and wealthy. Then, the logic goes, God’s will is supreme and since God wants all those things for me, I guess I’ll just be ok with that. This belief is not only contradictory to the more ascetic foundations of Christianity in the desert fathers, martyrs and even Christ himself but, it excludes that majority of the world who is either ill, poor, ugly or some combination of the three. The gospel of Christ is one of open arms to the marginalized, not one that excludes them or treats them as secondary citizens or “not fully Christian” Christians.

            Unfortunately the gospel of prosperity is alive and well in charismatic or (as Simon Chan says in his book Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community) charismaniacal[1] circles. Preachers such as Joel Osteen even add to their statement of beliefs that “God intends for each of us to experience the abundant life he has in store for us”[2]. This is not only an inaccurate view of how God regards us, but it is exclusive to those who have not experienced the “abundant life”; are these people simply not included in God’s intentions for prosperity? This is a dangerous doctrine that chases people away from the church due to the narrowness and exclusivity of the gospel of prosperity

            Another major cripple to Christianity is what Author, Kendra Dean, calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in her book Almost Christian[3]. This belief is also alive and well in our churches and misconstrues the purpose of the Church. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism displaces the original story of believers who had struggles to remain holy with a story that simply says “do good, feel good and then maybe include Christ. The church is called to much more than feeling like good people, doing nice things and remember Jesus once a week.

            This is a problem of nurture over and against nature. We are directly responsible for showing a correct theology of the church to our children. In the west, we get so sidetracked to keep up with things that we forget the ever-present God who is truly in control of things. Being a Christian is more that simply being nice, doing good things and then sprinkling on a little Christ. We must be intentional now about the future generations and how they will worship.

            Moving on from some of the more frustrating issues that plague the church, we must look at a remedy. One solution to the cheap faith of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the inaccurate proclamations of the gospel of prosperity is that of a liturgical theology. Chan does a fair job of demonstrating the importance of the worship of the Christian church. In fact, Chan defines the church as primarily a worshiping community rather than any kind of social functioning group that serves a purpose. Chan goes so far as to say “like play, the liturgy has no purpose, yet it is full of meaning”.[4] What he means is that it is unfathomably important to encounter God and yet there is no other agenda to be pursued. Truly, being a worshiping gathering of people is an end in itself.

            In order to demonstrate the balance that liturgy strives to maintain, I would like to defer to Theologian John Zizioulas. In his book Lectures in Christian Dogmatics he succinctly states that in relation to the world, “the Church should be offering itself to the world rather than imposing itself on it”[5]. While the church as a worshiping community should be focused on worshiping of God, we must not draw a strict dichotomy between the church and the world. While there are many arguments for being distinct from the world, there are few strong arguments to justify departing from it entirely and as Zizioulas says, we should be offering the world something. That something is a relationship with the creator and his church; this is something that is worth living for and (as many martyrs have demonstrated) worth dying for.

            I have already started to share some of my own ideas on what the church is supposed to be. I do like the way that Chan identifies the church as a collection of worshipers primarily. As a worship leader, I have found that it is incredibly important to maintain a worshipful lifestyle in all ways. Everything from eating and drinking to prayer and scripture reading can be forms of worship. Worship is any action that one executes in order to acknowledge God for what he is. As a community of worshipers, our focus becomes on God instead of on humanity and all of the ways that we are different or even similar for that matter. We often substitute traditional worship for feel-good songs that have little to no theological backing. How sad that the bride of Christ should forget the importance how to say “I love you” to her lover so soon after the church’s inception.

            In conjunction with seeing everything we do as worship and seeing ourselves as a worshiping community, I think it is almost as important for the church catholic to be as relevant as possible in any case; however, it is important for us to remember that the pragmatics of trying to be relevant necessitate moving outward and focusing our energies on the world who will persecute us. Following the example of Christ, we welcome this persecution for the payoff is much greater; the waking up of sleeping souls to the reality of the Kingdom of God. We as the church, the bride of Christ acknowledge our responsibility to preserve the ecclesia at every opportunity through the truth that our traditions import. This doesn’t mean the liturgy is the only answer – no, it is but one of many – but it does mean that the handing down of our faith is the only way that the church will survive; to this end, tradition is the answer.

Leave me a comment and lemme know your thoughts too!

The Dread

[1] Chan, Simon. Liturgical theology: the church as worshiping community. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006. Print.
[2][2] "What We Believe Joel Osteen Ministries." Joel Osteen Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2012. <
[3] Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
[4] Chan, Simon. "The Worship of the Church." Liturgical theology: the church as worshiping community. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006. 54. Print.
[5] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "The Church." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 161. Print.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

explaining the trinity

I'm now in the throws of my 3rd systematic theology class. Enjoy this, my first paper ;-)
Explaining the Trinity

Trinitarian theology is by far one of the densest subjects among all world religions so it is understandable that this particular doctrine can become an impassible hurdle to many Christians. Ironically, most paradoxically ignore it and assent to it by association with other doctrines they can handle. Still others choose to focus on either the unity of God or the “three-ness” of God. The church catholic maintains a belief in a Trinitarian monotheism with room to wonder. This is a difficult subject, but not as impenetrable as one might assume at first brush.

            To initiate the topic, I would first like to comment on the vast differences between the western church as manifest in Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and the Eastern Orthodox traditions collectively. Coming from the western church, I can attest first hand to the minimalistic place that is given to Trinitarian theology in Protestantism; only by study have I made note of the extreme vitality of this doctrine and been able to incorporate it into my personal faith. In the west, the language of Augustine of Hippo has become benchmark to the discussion; in fact, “in a very real sense, Western Christianity is Augustinian Christianity.”[1] Veering from orthodox thought on the trinity, Augustine developed his pragmatic metaphor for the trinity. In his City of God, book XI, he draws a parallel between humanity and his ideas of the trinity: “for we are, and we know that we are, and we love to be and to know that we are. And in this trinity of being, knowledge and love there is not a shadow of illusion to disturb us.”[2] In Augustine’s assignment of functions to each member of the trinity, he displaces mystery and leaves a very wooden picture of what many early church fathers referred to as  “the divine…dance, a circling round of threefold life, as a coming and going among the Persons and graciously in relation to creation.”[3]

            Augustine’s explanation of the mysterious Godhead can be tempting to assent to as it is clear-cut and simple. Furthermore, it preserves a strong monotheism in only seeing the three persons of the Trinity in a very modalistic and matter-of-fact view where each member serves a function of the one God. To this end, western theology has been right in employing Augustine’s ideas; they are simply easier for the average person to accept. I fear, however that there is much richness that is lacking in such a simplified version of Trinitarian thought. Simply put, there is just too high a price to pay for a fa├žade of certainty. I’m not advocating throwing out the bulk of western tradition, only that we as contemporary Disciples of Christ need to remember that mystery is a very intrinsic part of our faith. God has revealed himself in the Messianic person of Jesus; however, there are many parts of God we have not been clued-in to. This is no impoverishment to Christianity; only a vivification of a real relationship with a God who maintains a perpetual relationship with his creation.

One of the major differences between the eastern and western wings of the church is the approach with which each side grapples with the doctrine of the trinity. German reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann puts it succinctly in his book The Trinity and the Kingdom when he says that “the western tradition began with God’s unity and then went on to ask about the trinity. We [the Eastern Church] are beginning with the trinity of the persons and shall then go on to ask about the unity.”[4] It is this subtle difference in approaches that colors how theologians across the world have thought about the trinity. In the East, there is little fear of losing God’s unity as it is an assumed fact that has been so engrained through the monotheistic, Abraham traditions of Judaism and Islam. Because of this foundational assumption, the focus has largely been on the “three-ness” of God and not the unity for the trinity is what is unique among the other two major world religions.

This focus is advantageous in discipleship by boldly confronting the confounding paradox of God’s unity and tri-unity.  This is not a point that will be particularly attractive to non-believers nor will it draw any favor with new converts; in spite of this, the eastern approach effectively maintains the mystery of the Godhead by only revealing what we find as true from scripture. A major handicap to the west as compared to the east is that the unity-focused explanations of Augustine and his contemporaries come straight out of their apologetic debates and not from scriptural exegesis. At the end of the second century, Tertullian utilized a phrase that has stuck with orthodox theology: “God is ‘una substantia, tres personae’.[5]  By using this language, Tertullian decisively summed up what many voices were trying to get at: God is one “what” and three “whos”.   

As a Christian in a contemporary culture where we maintain a multi-verse of religious conversations, it is important to first identify that, in endeavoring to explain the trinity to anyone, we must approach the one engaged in dialogue at whatever theological level they might be. It is unfair and unproductive to talk over someone’s head because they are not versed in theologically technical terms. It is equally foolish to talk to someone who is theologically astute as if they knew little of the Christian faith. While this may seem like a given, I find it vital to the conversation. It is a human trait to try and out talk the other person while never really answering the questions at hand.

For a more theologically perceptive person, I would find it most productive to explain the trinity by way of defining personhood through relationships. The trinity is the perfect relationship and in that relationship is such a unity that the three distinct members are each one in will, substance and power; their diversity lies in their self-awareness and the implicit differences in their internal relationships such as Spirit to Father vs. Son to Father. This covers, in my opinion, the most accurate picture theologically speaking and preserves both the unity and tri-unity of God.

For the believer who not spent much time in thought over the complexities of the trinity, I would more than likely use the metaphor utilized by early church fathers that the trinity is like a divine dance that is ever evolving and becoming more beautiful turn by turn. For context sake, I would add that it is into this dance that we are invited as adopted children of the Father by way of our divine brother, Jesus through the power of God’s Spirit. The three dancing members are such that each compliments another and none are out of rhythm in any way; this also preserves the unity and tri-unity of God.

Finally, for a non-believer, I would probably explain the trinity as the ideal community in which each member considers themselves in servitude to the other two. By this explanation, one can understand that it is indeed love and nothing else that bonds the members; God is unified by way of the substance of love. This community is the ideal for humanity to imitate in all relationships. Jesus leaves the command to love others as he has loved us (John 13:34) as an invitation to learn to love the same way that God loves; in community and as a servant.

There are a great many things to be said about the trinity, most of which I have not the space to cover. What is important in communicating this foundational belief of ours is in the idea that, however complex, paradoxical and perplexing it may seem, God is indeed one God, always undivided and always good while at the same time maintaining the distinction of three individual persons who are different in many relational ways. It is God’s unity that we are loyal to and it is to the collective glory of all three members that we strive to further the kingdom.

The Dread

[1] Hart, David Bentley. "The Age of the Fathers." The story of Christianity: an illustrated history of 2000 years of the Christian faith. London: Quercus, 2007. 75-76. Print.
[2] Baird, Forrest E.. "Augustine." From Plato to Derrida. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011. 290. Print.
[3] Pinnock, Clark H.. "Spirit & Trinity." Flame of love: a theology of the Holy Spirit. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996. 22. Print.
[4] Moltmann, Jürgen. "Trinitarian Theology Today." The Trinity and the kingdom: the doctrine of God. !st Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993. 19. Print
[5] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "The Doctrine of God." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 49. Print.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Critical Review on St. Athanasius' "On the Incarnation"

First fodder from my Systematic Theology II class. Enjoy! B-)

What does a Christian believe? This is a simple question, and still there have been thousands of years of debate recorded on the subject. It is to this timeless question that St. Athanasius of Egypt sets out to instruct his student, Macarius and it is his answer that we get the opportunity to listen in on. I myself am not completely unfamiliar with the writings of Athanasius, having read his “Life of Antony”, and once again, I am glad to encounter a passionate teacher of the faith communicating our basic Christian beliefs with eloquence and fervor. I intend in the following space to bring out a few of the most notable points of discussion in this classic work of Christian literature and give my humble impressions.

Athanasius skillfully sets up the story of the God/humanity relationship in a systematic way in order to give Macarius a framework of the circumstances that humanity found itself in from the beginning:

“This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created.”[1]

We see here Athanasius beginning his letter with an explanation of the great human deficiency to get back to a level of purity that is acceptable to God.

Athanasius goes on to describe exactly what he believes happened during the incarnation; that is, that God was no less God because he was man and no less man because he was God. He doesn’t shy away from this paradox. He continues to illustrate the death of Christ and its significance as the only option for salvation for humanity due to our lacking aptitude to correct our relationship with God. Next, Athanasius goes on to explain why the resurrection was also the only feasible option in truly killing death. On Christ’s death, he elaborates in many ways including his comments on Christ’s physical health[2], why it had to be a public death,[3] and why he had to stay in the grave exactly three days[4].

I am definitely pleased with this little book and indeed agree with C.S. Lewis in his forward to the book that had all Athanasius ever done was write this small book, it would have been enough. His refutations in the last two chapters give some basic apologetic tools for new Christians and his presentation of what happened in the events of the incarnation are simplistic and biblical. While I find areas we disagree with, such as his belief in God’s complete impassibility[5], I find much more common grounds with Athanasius and have every intention of recommending this book to any who might need a starting point in digging deeper in their faith. I find it completely distressing that more churches in western culture avoid using Eastern Church literature such as this in order to disciple new converts. We can stand to learn much from those that lived closer to the events that we stake our faith in. It is our responsibility as modern Christians to continue this tradition with the basics of the faith that St. Athanasius so fluently relates in this book.

Thanks for takikng an interest :)

The Dread

[1] St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. On the incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1998. Print. Page 30.
[2] Page 51.
[3] Page 53.
[4]  Page 56.
[5] Page 93.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

something from nothing

Forewarning: this is one of my papers for my Masters of Theological Studies class, so i'm assuming some things with my audience in this bit that i might not otherwise assume in a normal blog post. Enjoy! Also, there will be some unorthodox (not heretical) views expressed here. no apologies.
The Significance of ex nihilo

The doctrine of ex nihilo is one that I think the majority of Christendom just takes for granted; I know I did. When asked about creation or evolution, the common evangelical, western Christian just assumes that God would have had to create the world out of nothingness; to think otherwise would seem to take away from God’s omnipotence and indeed it does. In the past, I had never looked much past this obvious function of the doctrine. As I read Zizioulas, I discovered a much more rich application of the understanding that God created existence ex nihilo. Deeper than a supporting role to God’s omnipotence, I have found at least four very important applications of this doctrine that help to shape a believers understanding of our role in relation to God and existence.

I will present my own discoveries (though I am sure they have been thought of before) in a progressive order as this is the way I reasoned them out while reading through Zizioulas’ chapter on creation and salvation. First, the doctrine of ex nihilo gives us a particular anthropology to found our understanding of man on. In understanding all of creation, including humanity, as created from nothingness, it stands to reason that we as created things contain a “nature of nothingness” in some way. When we understand this as a fundamental part of what it means to be a human, we immediately clear up the issue of death in relation to humanity in particular, but also in the broad decay of nature and all non-human, created things. As finite beings, this doctrine gives an understanding to why there is death in the world at all. To be clear, let me put forth my own definition of the type of death that I am referring to here. I am speaking of a metaphysical death, beyond the physical. Some would frown on this as an annihilationist view of death, but I feel like it makes the most logical sense in light of scriptures. This metaphysical death, I believe, is what God was meaning when he warned man of the death that would result if he were to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2:17. This form of death is not a punishment for the disobedience of man, but the very natural regression that creation is prone to by containing this “nil nature”; that is, we will eventually revert to nothingness if we separate ourselves from God. This is an understanding of our finitude. If it were not this way, God would have created demigods essentially in that, after being brought into existence, we would be eternal as he is on our own power or merit.

When our anthropology contains the understanding that apart from the creator’s sustenance we revert to our nature of nothingness, we can start to make sense of the fallen world we live in now. This is the second major application I took away from the reading. We can start to look at the fall by starting with the question “what did we fall away from?” In answer to this, I put forth that what we fell from was not “God’s good side or favor”, but instead, we fell from the position we were meant to occupy as the bridge that would connect finite, created things with the uncreated, infinite creator. Humanity, in its original state, was able to bear this role for all creation as we are the “only creature who both includes the material world and also exceeds it”[1] in the fact that we bear the imago Dei in that we have souls that reflect God. In choosing to disobey God, man essentially decided to deviate from God’s plan to bring creation into an eternal relationship with him. Unfortunately for man, this created a sort of metaphysical trap in which we revert to our “nil nature” after our physical death due to the lack of the eternal communion with the creator. This derailment, however, didn’t cause God to abandon the plan altogether, but only to come up with an alternative plan to connect creation with God. This view of the fall and the fallen world we live in not only explains why creation all around us is slowly reverting to nothingness (in the decay of nature and our own increasing immorality) but it also explains why the events of Golgotha were necessary.

The third major application of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is found in the doctrine of the salvation of man by Jesus Christ. The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection were for salvation; this is affirmed by the greater Christian Tradition. In looking at this idea, I will again start with a question. “What does humanity, need saving from?” In answer to this, I want to say that there are two, interrelated main functions of Christ’s sacrifice. The first function is found in the incarnation of the Son of the Father. This function is in undoing what man did in choosing against God’s will for creation. In order for man to be able to do what he was initially intended to do, there had to be reconciliation between man and God in which a representative of humanity had to whole heartedly submit to God by their own volition just as Adam (being a representative of humanity) had said “no” to God by his own volition. Mary provides us with this in her free choice to say “yes” to God’s plan for the incarnation to occur through her. “Her consent was the free consent of humankind to the initiative of God.”[2] The second function of the incarnation was the crucifixion-resurrection event; this event was in a very basic way Jesus accomplishing what Adam had failed to in uniting creation to the creator in his own person by submitting to the will of the Father. In this act, we are saved from our natural obligation to revert to nothingness after our physical death as well as gaining the gift of sustained relationship with God after physical death.

This understanding of the crucifix events gives us the fourth major application of the doctrine of ex nihilo in the form of a personal eschatology. Following from the idea that we are saved from our own nature of nothingness, or our nature of becoming void of the existence that comes from fellowship with God, is a different understanding of what “heaven” and “hell” is. If we define “heaven” solely as eternal relationship with God as I believe we should, then heaven is not a reward for the righteous in the superficial sense, but instead it is the natural and logical end to maintaining a relationship with the creator; that is, after our physical death, we now, through Christ, have the luxury of ongoing existence through the continued relationship with God. Concurrently, “hell” defined as eternal separation from God is not a vicious punishment from an all loving God, but it is the natural and logical end to divorcing oneself from the creator in the physical existence after which, one would simply revert back to their “nothing nature” and be eternally – that is permanently – separated from God. This gives new light to the necessary decision that man is to make on an individual basis to join in and maintain relationship with God through the Spirit of the Son or choose otherwise. With the understanding that we come from nothingness and, apart from God, we will revert to nothingness; the choice to not have a relationship with God is literally metaphysical suicide regardless of how moral a person’s life may have been.

While the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is, in my opinion, one of the fewest talked about doctrine of the church, it packs a load of theological implications. A non-exhaustive list of those implications are (in summary) an understanding of who we are as humans in a created and fallen world as well as why Christ came and reconciled us to the Father and rescued us from our natural reversion to non-existence and, finally, why it is imperative for us to make the free will decision to commune ourselves with the creator of existence; namely, so we can continue existing.

The Dread

[1] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "Creation and Salvation." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 88-91. Print.
[2] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "Creation and Salvation." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 104. Print.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Doctrine as the Teaching of the Church

Christian Doctrine

Christian doctrine is an area of theology that is essential to the life of the intellectual Christian. It is in this area, however, that the average Christian is largely unlearned. I say this as one who was not raised in a liturgical tradition; this, to me, has been crippling and paradoxically liberating. Crippling because of the lack of eloquence I am able to refer to the formal teachings of the church and at the same time, this lack of experience is liberating as it has afforded me the luxury of being able to approach certain topics in the church from an objective point of view. “Christian doctrine tells us that there is redemption for us and for the world, and each particular doctrine articulates some aspect of this redemption.”[1] Zizioulas articulates the driving power behind doctrine well in his first chapter entitled Doctrine as the Teaching of the Church. It is to the end of telling the redemption story of Christianity that we use doctrine in our communities.

The purposes of doctrine are pointed out in the title of this first chapter well. Teaching is the fundamental purpose for doctrine as it is the retelling and reinterpretation of the dogmas or beliefs of a particular system or people; in this case, Christianity. Without the tradition of indoctrinating our children and new believers, the beliefs and convictions of our original church fathers are not able to perpetuate into the next generations. It is this line of doctrine that has linked the modern church to its familial roots that were planted by the original disciples and authors of the bible — it is our lifeline to remaining a distinct people. Along with the purpose of keeping our beliefs relevant is the pragmatic reason of accuracy that doctrine affords us. Without some standard of beliefs set down, it is easy to see how any particular set of beliefs can be distorted until they no longer resemble the original beliefs. Moving beyond simply maintain relevance, Moltmann points out that the effect of the doctrines that we teach is to “develop and practice…thinking as well [as working out our doctrines].”[2] A theoretical doctrine is only so helpful if one does not allow it to affect their thinking and practice. This is a major part in understanding why we use doctrine as a means of communicating our faith.

All of this usefulness would be for naught, however, if the Christian church at large does not maintain clarity. Our doctrines also provide this for us; a base line of sorts to which we can hold all beliefs that come our way in order to discern what is worthy of ascription. An example of this is in a case of the original councils in which beliefs such as Arianism were dismissed as heretical to the doctrines that were set forth. While this divisiveness may superficially seem contradictory to the inclusive message of Christ, it serves the function of keeping the truths that were learned and reasoned from the God-man, Jesus untainted by personal preferences and cultural relevance. Following from this clarity is the essential common ground that believers can stand on. While there are definite differences between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Western Protestant theologies, the distinct common ground of Trinitarian theology, the divinity of Christ and the works of the Holy Spirit is an essential bond that truly makes us “one, catholic, apostolic church”. Jesus calls the church to exist as one functioning body and to do this there has to be some agreement as to what metaphorical DNA we will have. The doctrines of the Christian church are that DNA that unites the hand, foot and nose of the entire church body despite our differences.

True to the purpose of distinguishing the Christian religion from all other world religions, there are friction points that are unavoidable. The most obvious to point out would be the great schism between the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east. The fact that what divided these two similar traditions was the minute interpretation of a particular phrase that was contingent on dialectical differences in concert with the political plights of Charlemagne gives testament to the fragile nature of religious beliefs in general. It is because of the great fragility of such matters that doctrine must be scrutinized carefully because there is potential for unnecessary division among the body which is against the basis of our faith that lies in Christ’s calling us to one body. Another area in which friction has turned into permanent change is in the Christian cults that have cropped up over time. Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons find their roots in Christianity but became heretical when they denied fundamental teachings of the church. In such cases, it is right that those holding to the heretical beliefs be pointed out and publically spoken against if they refuse to alter their beliefs. The friction that comes along with definitively stating what one believes is a healthy friction because it only serves to further purify the beliefs that have been set forth. A more recent area of friction is in the doctrine of hell. A couple years ago, pastor-theologian, Rob Bell released his book Love Wins which stirred up a lot of controversy in conservative Christian circles and, in fact, indirectly led to my older brother leaving a pastoral job at a church in Kansas. Many brought accusations of heresy against Bell and his book but were unable to point out in exactly what way he deviated from true Christian dogma. It is in the crucible of such friction that Christians grow, mature and stretch their minds in a progressive way.

I myself have encountered several discussion indirectly related to doctrines of the Christian church. One such example is when, in December of 2011, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church decided to cancel Sunday services in exchange for his entire church committing to doing acts of service in their community. While promoting this event, some other pastors across the country had opposing feelings; one such pastor, Erik Raymond, felt strongly enough to write a blog about it. My best friend who lived near Raymond’s church sent me the blog and asked my thoughts. The basis of Erik’s argument was to pose a dichotomy by asking if churches are primarily called to meet formally or to acting in service to the community. This gets right to the heart of the ecclesial doctrines of the church i.e. what is our function? I unfortunately never got a response from Raymond, but it is just as well since my purpose was not to confront him, but to give my two cents in response to his two cents. As alluded to before, I have also been privileged to witness my older brother who is a youth pastor in Iowa confront different doctrinal issues in his ministry career such as the aforementioned doctrine of hell.

Overall, I appreciate my experiences with doctrinal debates and the education that I have gained from pursuing a Christian academia. My understanding of doctrine is a little more liberal and abstract due to my lack of liturgical upbringing, but is no less a large part of my beliefs today. The purposes of defining ourselves, clarifying ourselves and purging our beliefs of falsehoods is a noble and well working function that the Christian church has yet to cease benefiting from.

The Dread

[1] Zizioulas, J., & Knight, D. H. (2008). Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark. Page 1.
[2] Moltmann, J. (1993). The Trinity and the kingdom: the doctrine of God (!st Fortress Press ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Page 20.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

for my college peeps

I wrote this for an online newspaper :) enjoy!

College can be an amazing adventure with many challenges and many rewards. One such challenge is often the professors themselves. While the majority are approachable, kind and helpful, every so often one has a professor that seems to have it in their mind that part of their job description is to make the students life miserable. While this is completely unfounded logic, it often seems so and, because of this, the student is left with the conundrum of how to handle the situation.

             Most students either opt out of the class or squeak by with a “D” for a grade. While both of these options seem justified, neither is actually helpful. In the first place, the student is still left with credits to fill. This can be particularly problematic if the class is one that is necessary for the student’s degree. The latter works to an extent but is still not ideal since grades like that or lower can be detrimental to a student’s GPA, thus costing potential scholarship money and chances at grad school. So what is this poor, academically abused student to do?

              I propose that the problem is often not with the professor at all, but with the way that the student regards their education. Now before you stop reading and throw this paper in the trash, I challenge you to consider for a moment.

             While I admit that there are those few disgruntled teachers who probably do have some vendetta against the potential that each student possesses, I think it is more accurate to say that most teachers’ main goal is to help students succeed. This reflects well on the teacher and is often the inspiration for going into education in the first place. If this is (generally speaking) their main goal, then it is highly unlikely that a “tough teacher” is actually being hard on you in particular. This begs the question: if this is the case, then why the struggle? Why is it that my professor seems to always assign the hard assignments during homecoming week? Why the ten page essay on a topic that I could not care less about? There must be a rational reason. Right?

             As previously mentioned, I think that the true problem is in the eyes of the beholder and not the object beheld. What I mean is that I think it is accurate to say that most students are in college to get a degree. Profound, I know; I point this out, however, because there is a fundamental problem with seeing a college education this way. Going to college simply for a degree that will help you make money later in life in order to gain some sort of faux financial stability in an economy that is largely unreliable anyway is a very non-motivational reason to be spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours. I think that there is a lot of evidence of this when you look at how frequently students change majors, how many students drop out and how many students openly admit that they hate going to class.

               So what is the solution? A mind switch. No, I don’t mean swapping brains with the class nerd; I mean changing how you think about college. What if the reason you went to class was to learn? Again, profound. But seriously, what if the reason you were getting a degree was in order to possess an immaterial gift that no one could strip away? Knowledge. The irrevocable internalization of ideas that were once foreign to you, but now rest tightly in your grasp. That is something worth paying for; that is something worth going to class for and that is a motivational tool that cannot be matched.

               In this light, that hard as nails teacher who is out to get you becomes more like the refining fires that turn coal to diamond. Viewing education as a perfecting process (gaining something) rather than a progressive process (from point A to point B) makes the trying times of your education bearable by holding the goal of attaining something you never had before. Teachers who have high expectations are simply hotter fires who are helping you to refine your thought process.

               During this adventure called college, remember to keep your eyes on the final goal – attaining knowledge, not paper in a picture frame. This is the easiest way to handle difficult teachers. Change what you can: yourself.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Wrestling with God

I thought i'd sit down for a bit jot some thoughts on where i'm at. Right now, i'm a little less than 2 months out from graduation for my Bachelor's degree. In the mean time, i have no idea what God has for me career wise immediately after graduation. This got me thinking about Jacob...

"But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn't get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob's hip out of joint. The man said, 'Let me go; it's daybreak.' Jacob said, 'I'm not letting you go until you bless me.' The man said, 'What's your name?' He answered, 'Jacob.' The man said, 'But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it's Israel (God-Wrestler); you've wrestled with God and you've come through.' -- Genesis 32:22 and following.

More often than not, the above picture is how i've been feeling lately.

The thing that blows me away about our relation ship with Christ is the invitation. Jesus says to us in Luke 11 "seek and you'll find"; this is an invitation to a hunger type of life style that seeks to tackle the hard moments in your faith. For me, this word has profound comfort in that I know God is ok with me asking "um...what's next, God?"

The most striking thing about the story of Jacob wrestling God is what happens afterword. Jacob is left with a limp after his wrestling match. That is to say, the man known afterwords as "Israel" never walked the same again. What a painful blessing.

So, God invites our struggle with the divine and afterwords, we'll never walk the same.

might be a little bit of a hasty conclusion, but i think it's fair to say that this is true out of true theophanies (God encounters).

though i'm in a place in my life that i desperately need guidance from our Father, I long to have the kind of blessing that hurts a little each day so that i can remember my true purpose and the things that i've learned about God and life in the process.

I hope this little mental vomit was helpful to you, the reader.

The Dread

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My Centering Prayer Apology | another responsitory piece

This week in my youth group, we are practicing some ancient forms of prayer such as the Jesus Prayer, the Centering Prayer and other Bodily Prayers such as raising hands, kneeling and signing the cross. I posted a reminder on our facebook group and I had a mom of one of my regular attending students get a hold of me with this article by Matt Slick and asked my thoughts on his article. So I thought that this would be good blog fodder. Enjoy!

So, in opening, I just want to say that what Matt Slick says here ( about the centering prayer is definitely a semi-informed opinion of how Christians should respond to the more mystical practices such as the Centering Prayer. I feel that I can say this with confidence, because from what I have studied on the subject, it is not something that can remotely be said to be outside of the greater Christian Tradition (that is, the tradition that includes Christianity’s entire existence all over the world; I will refer to this as “the greater Christian Tradition” with a big T as opposed to more local traditions with little t’s).


First, I want to talk a little bit about the history that is behind the centering prayer. This prayer pattern grew out of the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. One such monastic was John Cassian (c.360-c.430) who spent 20 years in the desert before being appointed a deacon in Constantinople and by 415 had established two monasteries (one for men, one for women) in France. Cassian was deeply influenced by his time in the desert and left us his book The Conferences about his conversations with other Desert Fathers in order to acquaint Western Christians with their teachings.

Long story short, Cassian’s approach to contemplative prayer was the main monastic practice for 10 centuries in the West influencing St. Benedict, among others. Unfortunately, during the Scholastic period (12th-15th centuries), theologians like Thomas Aquinas brought the West out of the Dark Ages by recovering the ancient works of thinkers like Aristotle and others. After this, intellectual theology became the “Queen of the Sciences,” and spirituality was demoted to a relic of the superstitious past.  

There was, however, a 14th century English mystic who remained anonymous by choice who wrote a book that would become the first spiritual classic in the English language called The Cloud of Unknowing. In this book, the author urges people to return to “prayer of the heart”. The author draws a metaphor of clouds where all creatures and all thoughts dwell in the “cloud of forgetting” and God dwells in the higher “cloud of unknowing”. The goal, then, for the author is to bring the contemplative person into the “mystical silence” which is the space between the two clouds by moving beyond simply thinking into a place of utter stillness with the Lord. Here is an excerpt:

“Here is what you are to do: lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or their affairs in general or in particular. Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them.”

I think this is beautiful. I mean this is really what we want, isn’t it: Communion with God, at least to some degree? With all the noise in the world, I think that it makes perfect sense that this communion would be easier if we turn down the noise on the rest of the world. I’d also like to point out here that this description says things like “keeping your thoughts…” and “center all your attention…” This is not, as Slick says “non-thinking” or “emptying of the mind”, but it is simply being intentional with one’s thoughts. In fact, the method reveals this truth since the practitioner is to hold a monosyllabic word like “love” or “God” in mind and use it to bring the mind back into focus when it becomes distracted (which, we all know, inevitably happens in quiet moments). This is true mental quiet (not emptiness), dwelling with God who came to Elijah in the “sheer silence” in 1 Kings 19:12 (NRSV). While The Cloud was well loved and read by English speakers in its time, the intellectual emphasis of Scholasticism eventually trumped the influence of the book.

 In more recent years, however, Christians have searched for sources of contemplation, meditation and mysticism (none of which are anti-Christian in themselves). As the world has “grown smaller”, Eastern traditions flood the west; in the 1960’s and 70’s, Yoga (a Hindu practice), Zen Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation and other forms of Eastern meditation influenced thousands of Americans. In response, some Trappist (Benedictine) monks have looked to John Cassian and The Cloud as well as St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for direction in how to provide this mode of worship for contemporary Christians who long to live a more contemplative worship life. These monks distilled the teachings of the Christian forerunners into a Christian method of contemplative prayer that has become known as Centering Prayer.

Now that the history lesson is over, I’d like to shell out some theology; after all, this is the real reason anyone would have a problem with the Centering prayer, right?


I’ve already mentioned the theological and spiritual influences of John Cassian in the areas of Christian contemplative life, so I’ll expand a little. Cassian opposed the radical grace of Augustine, the main theologian of his (or any) time. While Augustine held that humans are totally dependent on God’s grace for salvation, Cassian held that humans must take the initial step toward God; thus, choosing him and then His grace kicks in.  This concept is known as Semipelagianism and is seen in Cassian’s practice of prayer: the believer first has to achieve a state of silence and contemplation and then God works in the believer’s heart. While Cassian’s theology wouldn’t be considered unorthodox today, it wasn’t politically wise to oppose Augustine, so Cassian’s writings were originally only influential in France. This is where Slick differs strongly as he is a self-proclaimed five point Calvinist ( and, as such, believes that man has nothing to do with who accepts Christ.

Another theological charge that has been put against the Centering Prayer is “Quietism”. In the 17th century, some people in France took some of the writings of St. Theresa of Avila, who advocated a “prayer of quiet,” to outrageous extremes. Quietists taught the prayer to become utterly passive all the way to the point of annihilating the will. Any thoughts, even of Christ or the cross or salvation or anything good was rejected. The logical end to this train of thought, however, is moral laxity since outward behaviors then would have no influence on the inner quiet of the pray-er. For good reason, Quietism was condemned by the church in 1687 and died out shortly thereafter. This seems to me more of the practice that Slick is speaking out against and to that end, he’s spot on.

Centering prayer, however, isn’t quietistic at all. As opposed to annihilating the will and fully emptying the mind, the pray-er moves into God’s presence and finds rest there. The idea is to first acknowledge the love that God has for his creation and then quiet the mind to rest in, center on and contemplate that love. In fact, the author of The Cloud spends a lot of time emphasizing the Christ-centeredness of the prayer. For several chapters he reflects on the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel (10:38-42) in which Mary represents the contemplative life and Martha represents the active life. In this story, Jesus calls what Mary has found (joy in the presence of Christ) the better thing. The anonymous author imagines that what Mary is reflecting on isn’t Jesus’ body, voice or odor, but has moved beyond the sensory data into centering on Jesus, the Christ, her Christ. She’s simply basking in his love for her. This is drastically different from other meditations such as the Ignatian meditation where the prayer places themselves in the biblical narrative and imagines the sights, sounds and smells in that scene. M. Basil Pennington was one of the Trappist monks who helped develop the modern version of the Centering Prayer and he writes in 1980:

 “Centering Prayer is an opening, a response, a putting aside of all the debris that stands in the way of our being totally present to the present Lord, so that he can be present to us. It is a laying aside of thoughts, so that the heart can attend immediately to him.”

What’s awesome about this is that it doesn’t replace or encompass other prayer styles but instead it supports them. Prayers of petition, thanksgiving and the like are all influenced and pushed to a higher degree because the pray-er has spent a lot of time basking in God’s love.


That’s more or less all I have on the matter. When you look at the history of the centering prayer and the theological concepts behind it, I think it’s safe to say that it is very much a part of the Christian Tradition (big T) and thus completely safe to practice. Now with regard to Slick’s concerns about being open to demonic invasion, I would like to say the following:

Yes, if one were to empty their will and try and annihilate themselves in search of a spiritual high, I think that they might be making themselves vulnerable to spiritual attack; however, this is simply not what the centering prayer is all about. Now one might argue “yes, but meditation itself might open you to spiritual attack.” And to this, I would answer that, if you are a Christian and the Spirit of Christ lives in you, then there is no need to worry about demonic attack. Paul writes that we are delivered from evil in Ephesians 2:2 and Colossians 1:13&14 so, for a Christian demonic temptation and attack is expected (1 Corinthians 10:13) but with the understanding that God will always show you a way out. Also, 1 John 4:4 states that the one who lives in us (the Holy Spirit) is greater than the one who “lives in the world” (the devil) and because the Holy Spirit and a demonic spirit cannot co-exist in the same person (2 Corinthians 6:15), possession isn’t a concern.

All this to say that what I teach to students and friends is the centering prayer of the Christian Tradition that is all about turning down the noise of the world and the noise of our own minds in order to engage and rest in the love of Christ. We need this in our loud world. I think that Slick’s final comment about avoiding the centering prayer and whatever church promotes it is, in a way, him saying to avoid a large part of the Christian heritage in the Desert Fathers and Mothers and thus is kind of a silly thing to say. I do, however, understand him saying it based on his previous occult experiences, I would just say that his conclusion is under-informed and bias.

The Dread