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What Should a Theologian Talk about First?

Evangelical-TheologyWhat do you have to say before you say anything? That’s the question that Mike Bird uses to frame the introductory chapter to his new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013). And the way Bird answers that question says a lot about what he thinks theology is and how it should be approached.

We started working our way through Bird’s theology a few weeks back. And, after a slight hiatus due to conferences and Thanksgiving, I’m picking it up again, focusing this time on what he has to say about the prolegomena of theology–i.e. the things that you need to say before you can dive into the doctrines themselves.

(And, by the way, it would take way too long to blog on every section in the book. So I’ll just highlight a couple of interesting sections and then post a review of the whole book, hopefully by the end of the month.) 

There are several things to appreciate about Bird’s approach in this section. First, I loved his definition of prolegomena as “pre-theology theology” (p. 32). Theologians often make the mistake of presenting prolegomena as though these are the issues that you deal with before you do theology, masking the fact that there really isn’t anything you can say about theology that isn’t already theological. Bird captures that nuance by recognizing that prolegomena comes before theology in one sense–the things that need to be said first–but that they are all thoroughly theological in their own right. As he says a bit later, “There is a theological prolegomenon, but it is not what one does before theology; rather, it is what one does first in theology” (p. 38). Well done.

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Clearing Up a Common Confusion in the Debate about Gender and Ministry

There’s a common mistake at work in the debate about women in ministry, one that infects people arguing on both sides of the issue. And, while fixing the mistake won’t end the debate, it should provide more clarity about what’s involved in the conversation, which can’t be a bad thing.

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Confusion at Work

The mistake I have in mind is a common one that affects many arguments. So before we look at the gender debate specifically, let’s take a brief look at the problem in general.

In its simplest form, the mistake involves thinking that one concept (A) requires another concept (B) in such a way that if B is false, then A must also be false. That’s often a valid way of thinking. For example, if I believed that (A) the tooth fairy exists and (B) she puts money under pillows in exchange for teeth, disproving B would be a pretty strong blow for my belief in A. (Technically I could still believe that she exists and just drop the belief that she’s involved in the tooth/money deal. But why would I want to?)

The argument becomes a problem, though, when we’re wrong about the relationship between the two concepts. If A and B just happen to hang out together a lot but A doesn’t depend on B in any meaningful sense, then disproving B doesn’t really have any affect on A. Sure A will get a little lonely now that it doesn’t have B to hang out with on Friday nights, and it will probably end up watching too much TV and eating bad ice cream. But it will get over it eventually.

Consider an example from another contentious discussion: the relationship between (A) biblical inerrancy and (B) a “literal” reading of Genesis 1 (young earth, six 24-hour days, etc.). I often hear people present these two arguments as though they are logically linked in such a way that you can’t drop one without losing the other. And people on both sides of the discussion do it. So the more conservative side thinks any attempt to read Genesis 1 differently is actually an attack on inerrancy. And people on the other side agree, thinking that if they can prove Genesis 1 shouldn’t be read literally, then they’ve somehow defeated inerrancy. When the simple truth is that both concepts can survive just fine on their own. They’re related historically (i.e. they’ve often been held or rejected by the same people), but not logically.

Once we’ve recognized that, we’re now free to have an interesting discussion about either concept without undue worries about how the discussion will affect the other one.

Confusing Concepts in the Gender Debate

So what does this look like when we turn our attention to the gender debate in particular? Here as well people on both sides of the discussion have assumed that two concepts are logically connected when they’re not. As usual, that’s not helpful.

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When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

Sometimes you just need to put the book down, step away from the computer, and give yourself some space to be awed again by how amazing God is.

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As Walt Whitman said in his famous poem about astronomy and the wonder of the universe:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

……………..~Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900

Whitman is, of course, talking about the danger of focusing so much on the data of science that we miss the mystery and wonder of the universe itself. How much more is this true for those who seek to know God himself.

Take this as a timely reminder to let yourself be awed by him today.

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C. S. Lewis on Love, Reward, and Desire

pleasure (300x295)In his 1942 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis challenged people to consider the difference between love and self-denial, arguing that the Bible’s emphasis on love and reward means we need to reconsider the role of self-denial in the Christian life. He’s not encouraging a wanton lifestyle of excess and selfishness, but one that views human desire and pleasure as good things, albeit twisted by our failure to understand what desire and pleasure are really all about.

I thought it would be good to hear Lewis’ words again as we make our way through this holiday season. They seem appropriate for reminding us both that God created pleasure, so we can enjoy life shamelessly, and that we are created for far higher pleasures than those with which we often try to satisfy our desires.

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Defining the “Gospel” in a Gospel-Centered Theology

Evangeilcal TheologyRecently I’ve been doing my morning devotionals from Mike Bird’s new Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic IntroductionI know I’m supposed to be reading the Bible, but it gets confusing at times. And Bird’s book has more jokes.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Bird’s goal is to present a truly gospel-centered systematic theology. So it should come as no surprise that he thinks it rather important for a theologian to define the gospel as a central part of the theological endeavor. Although  you’d think this would be a fairly obvious thing to include in a systematic theology, it’s actually somewhat rare. So kudos to Bird for not only using the word “gospel” a lot, but taking the time to explain what it means and how it should shape an evangelical approach to theology.

Here are the six key things that Bird thinks are essential for understanding the gospel (pp. 47-52). And it’s in sections like this that Bird’s strengths as a biblical theologian really come to the forefront.

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The Neuroethicist Strikes Again

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via SMBC

An Ode to Envy

What is jealousy? What drives us to envy others? Why do we all seem to find jealousy both detestable and secretly enjoyable at the same time? And why is jealousy such a prominent theme in most of our greatest literature?

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These are the questions Parul Seghal explores in this eloquent lecture (video below). As she says, “Jealousy baffles me. It’s so mysterious, and it’s so pervasive.” And in thirteen minutes, she offers a brilliant analysis of the intersection between jealousy, literature, knowledge, and relationship.

Here are some highlights that I found particularly valuable:

1. The best analysts of jealousy are novelists

If you’re not yet convinced why it’s important to read fiction, listen to what Seghal has to say about jealousy in literature.

“I’ve never read a study that can parse to me its loneliness, or its longevity, or its grim thrill. For that we have to go to fiction. Because the novel is the lab that has studied jealousy in every possible configuration.”

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Could Jesus Be “Mostly” Divine?

Most Christians know you’re supposed to say that Jesus is divine. After all, you’ve got the Trinity, so you know you have to connect the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in some way. And you’ve probably heard that Jesus needs to be divine for salvation to work. It might be tragic for some random human to get crucified, but it’s hardly going to save the world. If Jesus is going to accomplish our salvation, he has to be divine.

But what if he was just mostly divine?

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That’s the question I received in an email from a friend the other day. He knew perfectly well that the gospel doesn’t work unless the Son is divine, but he still wanted to know if mostly divine was good enough.

Princess Bride Theology

If you’re like me, anytime “mostly X” comes up in conversation, you hear echoes of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride. And I can imagine how the relevant christological conversation might have unfolded:

Inigo Montoya: He’s divine. He can’t be otherwise.

Miracle Max: Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly divine. There’s a big difference between mostly divine and all divine. Mostly divine is slightly not-divine. With all divine, well, with all divine there’s usually only one thing you can do.

Inigo: What’s that?

Miracle Max: Go through your clothes and look for loose change to tithe.

Okay, maybe it wouldn’t have gone quite like that. But you get the point. Does it make sense to draw a distinction between “all divine” and “mostly divine,” affirming only the latter of the Son?

This approach would seem to have some real advantages. On the one hand, you’re still saying that the Son is divine. So you don’t seem to have any problems affirming that he is the Savior of the world. Since he’s not as divine as the Father, though, you have a neat way of distinguishing the Son from the Father, thus avoiding all the complex logical problems those goofy trinitarians face. 

Mostly divine. Sounds good.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in John MacArthur’s Opening Address

John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference enters its third and final day today, continuing to stir things up with its message that the modern “Charismatic Movement” is not just wrong, but badly wrong, dangerously wrong. And MacArthur’s opening address kicked things off with a bang, but one that needs a closer look.


I wasn’t sure that I was going to weigh in on the conference, since plenty of people have already done so. But most of the coverage I’ve seen so far falls into one of two categories: (1) basic summary and (2) strong critique. What I haven’t seen is anyone try to comment on both the good and the bad in the conference. So that’s what I’m going to try here, which means I’ll probably just succeed in annoying everyone. But that’s what I like to do anyway.

The quotes in this post will come from the transcript amazingly compiled on the fly by Mike Riccardi. So the quotes may not be 100% accurate, though they look pretty close. You’ll have to wait until they release the audio/video if you want to double-check everything.

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Developing a Doctrine or Transforming a Tradition: A Review of the Quest for the Trinity

One of the most remarkable features of twentieth century theology was its emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the most central and important aspects of Christian theology. The Trinity isn’t some abstract and speculative idea that we can discard in favor of the more important and practical aspects of the Christian faith. According to many modern theologians, what we believe about the Trinity shapes Christian faith and ministry.

quest for the trinityThat all sounds great. But in his new book, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (IVP, 2012), Steve Holmes argues that there’s a lot more to the story. These modern theologians haven’t just reemphasized the importance of the Trinity. Along the way, they have reconstructed it, subtly changing the doctrine in ways that run contrary to what the church has always believed.

This outstanding resource should be in the “must read” category for anyone wanting to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and/or the contemporary theological scene.

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