Wednesday, January 11, 2006

reflections on theology

I’ve questioned before who the task of theology is for, who’s obligated to theological reflection? And how do we do it? According to Stanly J. Grenz, a professor of theology and ethics at Regent College, “Every Christian is a theologian. Whether consciously or unconsciously, each person of faith embraces a belief system. And each believer, whether in a deliberate manner or merely implicitly, reflects on the content of these beliefs and their significance for Christian life.”[1]

Everyone does theology in one form or another; everyone believes in something… everyone is a believer. So since everyone is a believer no one can neglect theology; everyone should question things and examine their faith and everyone should do it together. “examine and see how good the LORD is…”[2] When we neglect this discipline we can easily become ignorant.

But how? How do we properly examine our faith? What we have to realize is that we are entrenched in history and tradition. People have been asking questions for all of history and we are still asking the same questions; about the bible, about God, about our reason for being alive. And throughout history theology has been affected by culture and history. The way and direction of people’s thoughts is greatly affected by the things that are happening around them and we are shaped in the same way, by our culture. Any attempt to propositionalize and emancipate theology from culture does not understand or give attention to this contextual nature of theology.[3] If we neglect the discipline of theological reasoning we will not stop being influenced and shaped by our culture, instead, we will become ignorant of who is shaping us.

There are a lot of people who would just like to only read the bible and assume that they are getting a pure instruction. The problem with that is you are never “just reading” the bible. Your interpretation of scripture, no matter how obvious it may seem to you is being influenced. Hermeneutics, a responsible approach to the text, realizes that we approach any given text with presuppositions and biases. Hermeneutics seeks to identify the lenses through which we are reading a text and then remove them as best we can. This means then that I cannot assume that I can just read the bible and get the answers. The bible is much more difficult than that. We are reading scripture through an American, western culture, 21st century lens. How do we remove that lens? Well, first we have to know something about the lens through which the text was actually written. The writers of the bible were shaped by a completely different culture than we are today. Why do you think the bible is constantly being retranslated into “contemporary language?” It’s because language changes.

The bible you read today, unless it’s written in Hebrew and Greek, is an interpretation of the bible in itself. The interpreter had to decide what the writer was actually saying, they had to make sense of language that is very unfamiliar. And we’re not just talking about moving it from Hebrew to English, we’re talking about going from literality to understandability. Take for example currency. In the King James Version of the bible Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.”[4] Now, immediately one question arises; what on earth is a farthing? There is really no help for the reader here. Through Jesus cultural lens it seems obvious to Him what a Farthing is, He doesn’t stop and explain it. But the truth is this word "farthing" wouldn't have made any more sense to Jesus than it does to us. It would have made sense in 15th century england, maybe (since this is the King James Version), but it doesn't make sense to us. Why is it more difficult for us? Because we don’t have the same lens. We don’t live in 15th century England and we don't live in 1st Century Galilee. In the New Living Translation the interpreter helps us out. It says “Not even a sparrow, worth only half a penny, can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”[5] We’re told here that a farthing is about a penny. The research we would have to do to understand the term farthing is already done for us which bring up a very important point. We can’t interpret the bible alone. We will always have to refer to someone else’s research. We are incapable of testing everything for two reasons.

First, we will never live that long. To do the type of historical, social, and archaeological research that is required in biblical studies would take far more than a lifetime. Second, we just don’t think of everything. Theology is best done in community because we won’t always ask all the right questions. Your neighbor might think of something you don’t and that thought could change your life forever. Because of these two components we read books and research historical theology and Church history. When we read books and consider our neighbors thoughts we enter into community with them. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote; “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”[6] King understood community, he understood that we are not isolated beings who are meant to fend for ourselves and think to ourselves. Our thoughts ma be just the thoughts that will help someone understand the greater meaning of life. And someone else’s thoughts may be the thoughts that will help you to understand something you may not have even been wondering about.

When we pick up a book we are entering into communal theology and we are taking charge of the things that influence our interpretations of scripture and the whole of our theological thought. When we discuss with a friend the deeper meaning of existence, we enter into the ancient tradition that brought us the bible. The tradition of asking questions and examining what we believe in the context of community.


End Notes
[1] Stanly Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994) 1.
[2] Psalm 34:8
[3] Grenz, 6.
[4] Matthew 10:29, KJV
[5] Matthew 10:29 NLT
[6] Martin Luther King Jr., The Measure Of a Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2001) 43.

25 comments:

Mike Exum said...

Wes,

Bravo. I left a comment bookmarked in the unfolding discussion on "inerrancy of scripture" below. This post seems to touch a cord that is still ringing from that discussion.

You make a good case. We need to be honest about the context from which we ourselves as individuals and as groups in places and times read. And we need to grasp, to the best of our ability(ies), the context(s) of the Bible, its writers, and readers between them and us. Otherwise, who knows what kind of mess we will stirr up and call it "truth" or what ever.

I would just add one element to your thought. So many who proclaim to have some direct connect to "meaning" like a Holy Spirit pipeline straight to some cosmic objective truth (those who come off seeming "gnostic" as Pastor Art pointed out) fail to see their own philosophical and cultural influences, and then try to deny they have any.

I never heard of Augustine or his theodicy before I went to college. But I knew something about the "problem of evil" and the "free will" argument that tries to resolve it - even though I did not know those terms or the great thinker(s) who first espoused them. In my experience with conservative western Christians, I have never met one who likewise was not at least residually familiar, though most had never heard of Augustine or used terms like "problem of evil".

Point being, these things are "man's" thoughts which have filtered into the pop-culture. These things are part of the air we breath. Hardly anyone argues against them, and almost everyone wrestles with them. So many who claim the Holy Spirit pipeline to God,truth, meaning, etc... do not realize their own minds having been influenced by this kind of cultural - and thus contextual - philosophy.

It is one thing to be ignorant of the terms used for such, it is another to arrogantly claim that you are not influenced. We must humbly recognize that we are influenced. Some influences are good, some bad, but we must contend with them. We must be honest about them. We must evaluate them to the best of our abilities with the best tools available to us at any point.

But some resist this. That is okay, in so far as they do not go around condemning others for not obtaining their "pipeline".

Good thoughts. Thanks for sharing. I have rambled here more with mine than I should. But you (and Pastor Art) have me engaged. That is what blogging is good for I guess.

Many blessings...

Pastor Art said...

wes
AMEN!!!
Pastor Art

Pastor Art said...

Mike
I just read what you said and those are the concepts I was speaking about in another's words.
Pastor Art

WES ELLIS said...

Mike,
You're right Mike, This subject has been on my mind alot. I tried to touch on some of the things you added, I agree. Good points and thank you.

Jason S said...

Mike- I guess I don't completely understand what your point is. Are you saying that because people come at the bible with preconceived ideas that we still can't know the mind of God through
His word?

Mike Exum said...

Jason,

I am saying no such thing. What I am saying is that if you insist on saying that you have a direct connection with some objective divine truth that is not influenced by context, then you are deeply mistaken. If you insist on it and condemn others for not achieving it, then you are not only mistaken, you are causing trouble. To deny such influence is actually dishonest.

So the key is to use a little humility, and search honestly with the tools you have. God honors that. God always honors humility - look at the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2.

----

Pastor Art,

Yes, I agree that you and I are saying much the same thing. I concur. Good thoughts. I enjoy the exchange.

Jason S said...

If we can't apprehend divine objective truth, then what use is the bible?
Wasn't the bible written for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness? How can one know what to reprove or correct if he can't objectively understand the scriptures?

Maryellen said...

I don't think the LORD used the term "farthing". Isn't that an old British coin? I agree with what you are saying Wes, and I have come to much the same conclusions as I have delved deeper into the Word. A debate rages about contextualizing the Bible, or the Gospel. But that is exactly what the English Translators did when they translated it from the Greek and Hebrew. Ofcourse we don't all need to be Greek and Hebrew scholars, the Holy Spirit can speak to us through any and all translations if we are truely seeking Wisdom and Understanding as we are commanded to do. But there are some things all us theologians need to understand...I think Mike said it very well.
Oh my gosh, I'll never get that "word verification right...

WES ELLIS said...

Yes you're right Maryellen. Jesus didn't use that word. That was part of my point. We're constantly changing our translations according to the cultural context.

Mike Exum said...

Jason,

I am no epistimologist. So I am speaking outside my comfort zone here. But I will take a stab at it. I can give you my beliefs/convictions for what they are worth, and point you to where I discovered them.

I think "knowing God" as in John 17:3 is a lot more akin to the kind of knowing like knowing my wife or my parents/kids - loved ones- than like knowing the right answer on a test. I am not claiming that there is not overlap between kinds of knowing - I would not know how to pursue that critically. But it is a relational thing to "Know God." You must have faith; it is not objective.

Much biblical knowledge is the same. Some stuff you can put on a test and get it right or wrong - I did that in college. But some stuff is more spiritual and intuitive and definitely relational.

Part of the rub people have with Relative Truth is that it has been made out to implicate an anything goes mentality -especially as it relates to morality. I am not suggesting such a thing. I am saying that when you relate to God, you must be faithful to Him. That implicates the opposite of anything goes.

I do not have the book(s) in front of me at the moment, so I cannot nail down page numbers (which would be handy), but look at N.T. Wright's New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God (NTPG & JVG). There he talks about a hermaneutic of suspicion v. hermaneutic of love. It is a complicated discussion, but worth the struggle to understand.

The world is changing. Science and Enlightenment have proven that they are not all they were cracked up to be. I suspect you feel the world coming apart around you as there seems to be less and less solid ground to stand on, as it once seemed there was. This holds for Bible study as much as anything else.

Also read Colossians Remixed by Walsh and Keesmaat. In that book, I'm thinking ch 3 or 4 -ish, there is a discussion of relative truth v. objective truth. It is a much simpler read than Wright, but also challenging. There they make a case that fits the kind of language I am using much closer. They talk about how "truth" comes from the word "troth" as in "betroth". It means faith/trust. To know this truth would require a hermaneutic of love and a jettisoning of a hermaneutic of suspicion, which actually comes from the Enlightenment and Science - the very things that have waged so much war with a biblical worldview for the last 300 years or so.

I hope that helps.

Many blessings...

Jason S said...

Mike- The only way we can come to know God is through His word. So, His truths must be readily available to us or else He would be the unknowable God.
You mention faith, but what is your faith based on? One can have faith in Christ, but what are you exactly trusting Him for?

KJKEB said...

It has been said that Jesus comes to us "dressed" in the clothes of our own culture. If that is so, then the Bible comes to us through the lens of our culture. It speaks to us in relevant and personal terms. The Holy Spirit makes the words real. The Holy Spirit applies it to our hearts and lives.

~Kevin

WES ELLIS said...

Kevin,
Thanks for that wonderful analogy. The Beauty of Jesus' act of coming into the world is that it still happens. As Jesus came in a manger long ago, the son of a carpenter, to Jewish people as a Jew. He comes to us wherever we are and in whatever situation we find ourselves in.

The cultural lens can either help or hinder our interperetation of the scripture. We can see as it is and explain it to our culture (which would help us) or we can emancepate it from its own culture and forget the heart and soul of what is really being said.

KJKEB said...

The key is allowing the Holy Spirit to apply the Word to our life. My problem is often, not knowing or understanding what the Bible says, but doing what it says! Obedience to His Word takes care of the cultural lens. I admit I do not exactly know how to reconcile a deeply personal faith as revealed through His Word and applied by the Holy Spirit with a social or cultural awareness. Nevertheless, I am "pressing on".

~Kevin

WES ELLIS said...

good point... let me see if I really follow you... Are you saying that faith is more personal when we remove our 21st century lens and try to understand it in its own culture? If that's what your saying... I agree. My faith grew leaps and bounds when I started examining the contextual component of scripture. the question "what does the Bible have to say to me or us, now?" is much easier to answer when we know what it meant to him or them, then.

Jason S said...

You said.."what does the Bible have to say to me or us, now?"

Are you implying that the message has changed?

WES ELLIS said...

good question Jason. I encourage you to think about that one for a while.

Jason S said...

I have thought about it , and this I know..the meaning of scripture is unchanged whether or not Wes Ellis existed or not.

WES ELLIS said...

Jason,
I agree. My exsitence doesn't change the meaning of scripture. There's a saying I've heard before... "the methods change but the message stays the same." How we apply the scriptures changes from culture to culture. We live in a totally different world than the the people in the bible did. It's the task of every generation to do the hard work of theology; discovering what it means to be the Church.

Jason S said...

The truths are plain and simple in the word of God. A child can understand the gospel.

By the way, you mentioned before that you have a greater appreciation for scripture now that you understand that it was penned by human authors. You didn't really believe that the bible fell out of heaven did you?

Is your appreciation greater now because you feel that take the objective truths and make them subjective?

Maryellen said...

Wes, you are gentleman and a scholar. I appreciate your wisdom and your restraint.

Mike Exum said...

Well put, MaryEllen.

WES ELLIS said...

Thanks Maryellen and Mike. I guess God is teaching me patience.

Ashley said...

Amazing post Wes. Thank you so much for your wisdom and your heart to share it with us. You really hit the nail on the head!

KJKEB said...

In the forward of H. Ray Dunning's book entitled "Grace, Faith & Holiness" he states that "It is imperative that these theological expressions be stated in the language and thought forms of every new generation if the life of the church is to be nurtured and sustained." He also says, and I agree, that "theology is an unavoidable task from which no one, clergy or lay, is exempt." He goes on to say "the task of theology is to be the business of the whole church, not simply a few scholars who are kept sfely insulated from the life of the real world."

As you can see, I have quite a passion for Theology. Your "reflections on theology" post is the kind of stuff that I am searching for to help me continue to work out my theology. I will stay tuned to your blog (and some others) to see how you are working out yours as well. I have linked to your blog from mine in hopes that folks will continue the dialog.

~Kevin