Tag Archives: Theology

Forgiven? How Do We Know?

My academic teaching and writing require me to consider all aspects of Christian teaching and theology. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the atonement, that is, the meaning of Christian confession that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). In the past year I’ve read thousands of pages looking for insight into this great theme. In the semester just completed my students and I spent five weeks reading and discussing N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. What events led the first believers to view Jesus’s death as a saving event? What do Paul and other New Testament writers mean when they say that Jesus died for us? How does his death deal with our sin? These questions and many more have been on my mind for months.

In a chapter for a book I am currently writing I briefly discuss seven theories of the atonement: (1) The Ransom Theory, which says that Jesus offered his soul to the devil in exchange for all human souls; (2) The Christus Victor Theory which says that by dying Jesus defeating the evil forces that hold us in the miserable condition of slavery, weakness, deception, corruption and death; (3) The Recapitulation Theory, which says that by living through all stages of human life, including death and resurrection, and getting it right Jesus undoes Adam’s wretched history and gives humanity a new start; (4) The Deification Theory, which argues that the Son of God by living a full human life, dying and rising, makes his divine life available to all who become united to him; (5) Satisfaction Theory in which Jesus’s death in our place pays the debt we incurred by offending God’s dignity and honor in our disobedience; (6) The Penal Substitution Theory in which Jesus voluntarily endures the just punishment merited by human violation of God’s eternal law; and (7) The Moral Influence Theory in which God’s love demonstrated on the cross provokes our repentance and evokes our love in return.

While meditating on this subject day and night for a year, something dawned on me. I asked myself this question: why do I believe I am forgiven? Why do I believe God loves me and extends me grace? Why do I believe I am free from the power of sin, death and the devil? Why do I believe God gives me a new beginning every day…that I do not need to carry a burden of guilt? What is the bottom line my assurance?

It’s not because I deserve it! If we could deserve it, we wouldn’t need forgiveness in the first place. Also—and here is the main point—it’s not because one or more of these seven theories of the atonement makes everything clear to me. In my view, each of them points toward a truth, but each is also troublingly obscure in some way. So, here is my bottom line: I believe that God’s loves me, that I am forgiven, and that God is my Father because Jesus said so. And I believe Jesus told the truth in all sincerity because he sealed his word with his blood. And I believe Jesus knew the truth of the matter because God raised him from the dead and placed his own seal on the new covenant.

Perhaps there are more reasons, more profound explanations of the atonement, more nuanced treatments of the justice and mercy of God…but this is my bottom line. When my best reasoning fails to bring peace to my heart, I cling to Jesus’s words: “Do not be afraid; you (Ron…and Susan and James) are worth more than many sparrows!” (Luke 12:7).

 

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A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Denominational Church Living in a Post-Christian Culture

Happy New Year! Today marks the beginning of the third year of ifaqtheology! And my new theme is announced in the title of today’s post.

I suppose it’s always been a problem, but it seems to me that the average churchgoer in the United States (elsewhere too I am sure) is becoming less and less familiar with the full range of Christian teaching. I don’t intend to quote surveys and studies of this phenomenon. It’s just an impression, and I will work with that. Few observers would question the assertion that denominational loyalties and confessional identities have declined dramatically in recent years. And we see evidence every Sunday that contemporary churches place less emphasis on teaching, learning and remembering than on the “worship experience” in which one expects to feel joy in the presence of the transcendent. Experience has moved from being considered a by-product of the encounter with word and sacrament to the central goal of Christian gatherings. Has thirst for experience replaced desire for understanding or has loss of understanding leading to greater thirst for moving experiences? Is the loss of confessional and denominational loyalties the cause or the effect of the loss of teaching and learning? I suspect they are interrelated in ways too complicated to describe.

At least since the early 19th century, American Christianity has been expressed, lived, taught and learned in a denominational form. Denominational bodies competed for the minds and hearts of people by touting the strengths of their particular package of teaching and church life. (Undoubtedly, social location also has a huge impact on which denomination one chooses.) Denominations for the most part are confessional bodies and have an interest in teaching the full range of their doctrine to prospective converts, new converts and children. As long as denominational or confessional consciousness is strong the task of teaching doctrine will be high on the agenda of a church’s priorities. The disadvantages of denominationalism—as opposed to an established, territorial church—are the presence of multiple contradictory voices all claiming to represent Christianity and the animosity created by such division and competition. But one positive thing that derives from the denominational and confessional form of Christianity is that most members of such Christian bodies receive the full range of doctrinal instruction; doctrinal teaching is important to these bodies, if for no other reason than to reinforce denominational loyalty.

In the present environment, with denominational loyalties at historic lows and confessions of faith gathering dust on the pastors’ shelves, churches have lost a major incentive to teach the full range of doctrine. To the contrary, church leaders deemphasize doctrine to broaden their appeal to prospective members. Taking the most generous interpretation of this practice, the goal is more effective evangelism. A less generous interpreter might conclude that growing a big church has become an end in itself. The consequence of this development is disturbing: the people don’t get taught at all! Hence the appalling ignorance of churchgoers, lay church leaders and even clergy in contemporary churches. Surely ignorance cannot be a means to any good end! But many evils befall the untaught.

We need a catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture. And my goal for this year is to work on developing this catechism. So, what is a catechism? It is a summary of a church’s teaching prepared for the instruction of children and new converts. The printed version of the Roman Catholic Catechism is 800 pages long and covers a huge range of topics. Perhaps the most famous Protestant catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The word “catechism” derives from the Greek word katecheo, which is used in Acts 21:21; Gal 6:6; and 1 Cor 14:19. It means to teach, inform or instruct. In time, it came to mean specifically the process of instruction in the basics of the faith in preparation for baptism in the case of adult converts or instruction of children in case of those born to Christian parents and baptized as infants. Its goal is not preaching the gospel to prospective converts. It is not an exercise in theology seeking deeper meaning and connections within the Christian faith. Nor does it aim to provide evidence for the truth of the faith or to defend it from attack. It aims to teach the full range of the faith at a basic level.

What is mere Christianity? And what kind of catechism can serve the needs of a post-denominational church? And why do we need to take into account the post-Christian environment within which the church lives today? Next week we will address these questions.

Who is God? (Part 1)

Who is God? (Part 1)

This post is the first in a series entitled “Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology.” Professional theologians, of course, ask “infrequently asked” questions. That is their job. But I am not writing for them. I am writing for non theologians who are interested in theology and in reflecting on faith at a deeper level than they ordinarily do.

In asking the “who” question we are inquiring about personal identity. It makes no sense to ask, “Who is that tree?” or “Who is that boulder?” Hence even asking the question “Who is God?” presupposes that we believe God possesses personal characteristics analogous to those of human persons. At minimum, to think of an existing thing as a person is to consider it rational and free by nature. Boethius (c. 480-c. 524) defined a person as a “rational, individual substance” and Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) added “incommunicability”  (i.e. ineffability and uniqueness) to this definition. Others add the phrase “in relation to other persons.” Much more could be said about the concept of person, but the point I want to emphasize is that the question “Who is God?” asks about the particular personal characteristics that distinguish God from other persons, divine and human, and help us to enter understandingly and empathetically God’s personal dimension. We need to know “who” God is so we know how to relate to God: What should we say and do in relation to God and what may we expect God to say and do in relation to us?

What sort of information could satisfy our need for an answer to the “Who” question concerning a particular human being? It will not help to hear about their generic human characteristics; these they share with other individual human beings. We want to know things that distinguish them from others. First we want to know their name, which stands for their whole personal identity. Next, we want to know what forces and events shaped their characters. We also want to hear about their significant actions, choices and aims. What they’ve suffered and to whom they are related and in what ways. In sum, we learn something about who a person is by listening to their story, the story of what made them who they are. A person’s story is unique to that individual; it distinguishes and identifies them, gives us a sense of knowing them and makes their actions meaningful and to some extent predictable. In the end, however, only by entering into a relationship with someone and by becoming a character in their story and they in ours can we really know another person. I’d like to state a principle here: it is in their personal characteristics, best understood by hearing a story and by mutual participation in a common story, that one person is distinguished from another and that a person can be known in their unique personhood.

Many religions and philosophies speak about “God.” But what do they mean, and of whom are they speaking? There are two questions here: “What is God?” and “Who is God?” I will post another essay on the “what” question later, but think about this: even if two human beings possess in common every quality that makes human beings human, they are not the same person. In a similar way, even if two people speak about God as possessing the same divine attributes they are not necessarily talking about the same person. If the stories they tell are different and the personal characteristics those stories portray are different, we may not be speaking of the same one. It is as if two people were talking about “Kimberly,” whom they think may be a common friend, but tell such different stories and relate such dissimilar personal experiences that they begin to think they are speaking of different persons with the same name.

But why is having the right answer important? And what is Christianity’s answer to the question “Who is God?”

To be continued…

An Invitation to Thoughtfulness in Religion

In these pages I will address…

Infrequently asked questions, Frequently asked Questions, God and the Self, Human Freedom, Human Dignity, Moral, Creation, Providence, Human Existence, The Human Condition, Humanism, Atheism, Liberal Theology, Agnosticism, Theology and Empirical Science, The Problem of Evil, Jesus Christ, Church and other topics as needed.

I really don’t like...

Dishonesty, hypocrisy, double-speak, self-deception, narcissism, cynicism, misrepresentation, confusion, ignorance, humbug, obfuscation, deception and other intellectual and moral vices.

I really like…

Clarity in thinking, precision in speaking, honesty, truth, common sense, intellectual humility, thoughtfulness and fairness.

Where I Stand…

I see the world through Christian eyes. My understanding of God, nature, human existence, and moral and religious life is conditioned by my faith that in Jesus Christ the identity of God and the nature and destiny of humanity have been revealed. I hold to what many would call conservative or traditional or orthodox Christianity; but for me it is just the original, simple and authentic faith. Paraphrasing one of my favorite authors, Søren Kierkegaard, I do not believe I have the right to judge the hidden relationship any human being may have with God—that judgment is for God alone—but I think I know what Christianity is and what it teaches. That is what I believe and want to become. And that is the position from which I write.

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