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When Angels Dance: The Practical Value of “Impractical” Questions

angel pinWhen people want to harp on the impractical nature of theology, there’s one “go to” analogy that shows up more than any other: the medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the point of a needle.

After all, could there be a better example of theological time wasting? Who really cares? Even if we knew the answer, would it help us feed starving children? Would we be better prepared to share the gospel? Would it accomplish anything useful?

I won’t debate that theologians are sometimes be guilty of wasting time on unimportant matters. But this question may not illustrate what we think. Rather than showing how impractical theology can be, it may be a better illustration of something I talked about in a related post. Theology seeks to help us understand a complex universe created by an infinitely mysterious God. That means it sometimes pursues odd questions, but those often come with unanticipated benefits.

This is the beginning of my latest post over at Christianity.com. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Imitating God in Christ

The concept of imitation has fallen on hard times in recent years, with many Christian thinkers expressing concerns about the implied legalism/moralism of trying to “live like David” or “be like Ruth.” Should we really respond to the difficulties of the Christian life by giving people ideal examples that we must strive to emulate? Where’s the grace?

9780830827107According to Jason Hood, though, the concept of imitation is a biblical one that we desperately need to rediscover today. In his Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (IVP 2013), Hood offers a biblical theology of imitation, one that emphasizes both grace (the Christian life always begins with what God has done for us) and vocation (the Christian life is also one of human action expressed in response to God’s grace). And he does so in a way that is compelling, readable, and thorough. This is a terrific book for anyone wanting to think more deeply about what it means to imitate God as one of his image bearers in the world.

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Does Theology Have to Be Practical?

young boy stressed with workTeach theology long enough and you’ll face countless forms of the same basic question: What does this have to do with real life? Will it affect the way we do ministry, how we share the gospel, or what we do every day? How is it relevant to the problems and challenges the average person faces? You know, is it practical?

And the deep suspicion lying behind such questions is that most theology is rather impractical. Theologians spend all their time wrestling with things like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and whether we should say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone. Unless we can explain why these things matter for the everyday lives of regular people, we should stop wasting our time and get on with more important issues.

I’ll admit that part of me resonates with such concerns. If we can’t explain why theology matters, we have a problem. And it should matter for everyday life. After all, that’s where we do all our living. So there’s a sense in which I want to say a hearty “Yes!” to the question of whether theology should be practical, but only if we carefully redefine what that means.

4 Reasons for Thinking that Theology Is “Practical”

[This is the beginning of my newest post over at Christianity.com. Head over there to check it out, and let me know what you think.]

Are You Human?

Framed-Expression

This is the human test, a test to see if you are…a human.

Thus begins Ze Frank’s recent TedTalk, with a series of questions designed to ascertain whether you qualify as a “human.” As the talk develops, Frank moves from the sillier end of human experience (Have you ever eaten a booger past childhood?) to the more painful and poignant (Have you ever lost the ability to imagine a future without a person that was no longer in your life?).

The gist of the test, of course, as people all around the room raise their hands in response to Frank’s questions, is that “being human” involves a whole range of experiences that we have all shared, some silly and embarrassing, others tragic and painful. Being human can be a lonely when we think that we’re the only ones wading through the murky waters of our own experiences. But Frank reminds us that we’re wading together.

As much as I appreciated the video, though, I would like to render one objection. Continue Reading…

The Best Theology Books from the First Half of 2014

2014

According to the Englewood Review here are the 6 best theology books so far in 2014. And as usually happens to me when I read lists like this, I’m left with a bewildering sense of inadequacy as I realize how many good (and possibly important) books there are that I haven’t read! I’ve read a grand total of two out of the six that they list: Sarah Coakley’s God Sexuality and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’,  which I started to review in “The Death and Recover of Systematic Theology,” and The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community (IVP, 2014), which I may get around to commenting on sometime.

But a few of these weren’t on my radar at all (esp. Lohfink’s No Irrelvant Jesus and Kostamo’s Planted). They look interesting, but I’m going to need a little more convincing before they hit my must-read list. If anyone has read (or even heard about) these and wants to let us know what they think, that would be great. I’m always willing to be convinced that a book is worth reading.

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Become a Heretic for a While

I recently spent several hours trying to convince a class that Arius was right, the Son is not equal with the Father, and Athanasius blew it.

Open window on brick lined wall

So we looked at all the biblical data suggesting that the Son is subordinate to the Father. We discussed Greek philosophy and how the Nicene view of three persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia) necessarily entails either modalism–i.e. the one substance (God) just manifested himself at different times as different persons (Father, Son, and Spirit)–or tritheism–i.e. the one substance (deity) gets expressed in three distinct beings (Father, Son, and Spirit) just like our one human nature gets expressed as many particular humans. And, most importantly, we talked about the Cross, how Athanasius’ overly divine Son downplays the real human suffering on the cross that is a necessary part of any true atonement. 

In short, we presented a pretty compelling argument for the truth of Arianism. Indeed, when we were done and had summarized all the strongest arguments for Arianism on the board, I asked the class to refute them. And they were stuck. They still felt intuitively that Arianism had to be wrong, but they couldn’t find the chinks in the armor. It looked so compelling.

That’s when I knew we’d arrived.

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Why Do Animals Suffer When They’ve Done Nothing Wrong

Many theologians have claimed that all the suffering that we see in the world around us is a result of the fall. In the Garden, there was perfect peace. After the fall, suffering and death were introduced, not just for humans but for all of creation.

But does this really make sense?

death before the fallIn his new book Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP, 2014), Ronald Osborn says no. That answer results from an overly literal reading of the Creation/Fall narratives, and it fails to account for the fact that animal predation, and the corresponding death and suffering of animals, seems to be part of the natural order (e.g. lions look like they have been painfully devouring gazelles from the very beginning).

With this book, Osborn joins a growing list of scholars dealing with the problem of animal suffering from a biblical perspective. In just the last few years we have Michael Murray’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (OUP, 2008), Nicola Creegan’s Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (OUP, 2013), and Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics (OUP, 2009), among others. So clearly this is a question whose time has come. But has Osborn done the question justice? That’s what remains to be seen.

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A Common (But Bad) Reason for Rejecting Penal Substitution

Crows-Celtic-CrossAs a theology professor, I routinely hear people claim that Anselm  invented the penal substitution  view of the atonement. This is the idea that Jesus bore the punishment that we rightly deserved because of our sin, and that this was necessary for us to be reconciled to God.

Before Anselm, the church had a view that focused almost exclusively on ideas like victory—i.e. on the cross Jesus defeated the enemies of humanity like Satan, death, and sin—and healing—i.e. the entirety of his incarnate life healed our broken humanity and made it possible for us to resume the path to godlikeness. (If you’d like some examples, see here  and here .)

And people often use the relative newness of the theory as a reason for rejecting it. If the early church didn’t think of the cross as some kind of vicarious punishment, if that was just a medieval invention, let’s get rid of it.

There’s just one problem with this: it’s wrong. And it’s wrong for two important reasons.

[This is the beginning of my newest post over at Christianity.com. Head over there to check it out, and let me know what you think.]

5 Affirmations on Inerrancy

inerrancy-197x300Inerrancy continues to be one of those hot-button theological issues that frustrates some and fascinates others. In some contexts, denying inerrancy will get you fired, labeled a heretic, or possibly both. In other contexts, affirming inerrancy will get you disregarded, labeled a fundamentalist, or almost certainly both. And many of the books on inerrancy slide annoyingly toward one extreme or the other. So I’ve been looking forward to reading Zondervan’s Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy since it came out last Fall, hoping that it would offer a more nuanced exchange of perspectives on such an important issue. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Since quite a few reviews of the book have already been written (see esp. Gavin Ortlund’s review), I thought I’d do something a little different. As I was reading through the book, I was struck by the fact that each of the five essays offered something important to the discussion about inerrancy, even the ones that were most critical of the concept. So I’d like to focus on five affirmations that we can and should make about inerrancy, drawing from each of the five essays.

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The Magic Is in the Mundane

My daughters love the Lord of the Rings, but they agree that there’s one major flaw. The magic. It’s just not that impressive. Gandalf is supposed to be one of the most powerful wizards in the world, but he rarely does anything all that magical. He spends most of his time eating, smoking, and getting other people to do all the hard stuff. Sounds like good work if you can get it. (And don’t even get me started on Dumbledore.)

Magic should be more dramatic. Something noticeable, unusual, even startling. In most of the other stories, magic is impressive. But Gandalf is pretty normal most of the time.

prestige

I think many of us have the same frustration with God. After all, he’s the most powerful wizard out there, right? Surely he could do some amazing stuff if he wanted to. And he does in the stories: parting seas, raising dead people, turning rivers into blood. That’s the kind of magic we’re looking for. But most of what we see around is pretty run of the mill. The wind blows, the sun shines, the earth revolves, and people drive like idiots. Normal. Boring.

Where’s the magic?

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