Against all the many varieties of contemporary humanism, the Bible asserts that God is the measure of all things, not humans. Worshiping God, understanding God, and bearing witness to God must all be decisively different because of the difference of who God is and the difference in the way he reveals himself. The Copernican Revolution changes its thinking and living forever, and in every way. Because of who God is, it is completely and absolutely impossible for “Man” alone to the measure of all things. To be sure, of all the life forms on earth only humans measure the world and life as we do. But those very measuring rods–reason, nature, and the scientific method–need to be measure and justified themselves, and none of them can justify themselves by themselves.
The truth, rather, is that “humanity before God” is the measure of all things, the standard of human responsibility, and the secret to a life lived well. None of us will understand or live life well until we see ourselves as individual women and men in relation to the One who is our Father, our Creator, and our judge. Such is the power of the sun that the earth goes round the sun, and not the sun around the earth. Faith in God is a revolutionary faith with a calling to turn the world the right way up.
Guinness observes that humankind has a tendency to define humanity downward, while the faith of the Bible defines humanity upward–as beings created in the image of God. This makes a tremendous difference, Guinness notes, in not only how we regard ourselves, but in how we regard one another. This belief endows the individual with dignity and worth, reminds the individual that they are accountable to their Creator, and charges the individual with the responsible to regard their neighbor, likewise, as a divine image-bearer. Regarding God as the measure of all things has implications for the individual, but also for the community.
First, even if you lived a wretched life, the preacher shouldn’t lie about that. Maybe they should tell us the truth. Maybe the best thing we could hear is that you were a rotten person. Maybe we should make it a goal to live as exemplars of virtue, rather than as warnings against vice.
Second, the proper focus of a Christian funeral is God, not the deceased. A death is only the occasion for gathering. A Christian funeral is a service of worship. We hope we can give thanks for the person who has died. Sadly, there are cases where this is very hard to do.
Third, if you live in such a way as to be remembered by others as a “good” person, I do not want to dismiss the positive outcomes that could result from such an aim. But beware. We do good things all the time from bad motives. It would be better to live for the glory of God, realizing that all is a gift, than from a self-aggrandizing motivation.
Fourth, at a bare minimum, the truth that should be told at a Christian funeral is the truth of the gospel: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That is why we can grieve, but not as those who are without hope.
A genuinely penetrating critique of liberalism must start from the universal Christian confession of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The church isn’t merely another social institution, but the family of the heavenly Father, the body and bride of the incarnate Son, the temple of the Spirit. Through the word, the Spirit gathers and knits us together. In the waters of baptism, we’re made members of Christ and of one another. At the table, we become one body because we all partake of the one loaf that is the body of Christ. For paedobaptists at least, membership in Christ and one another is inter-generational. To the naked eye, the ties that bind members of the church across time and space look fragile. Word, water, bread, and wine are surely no match for blood, flag, and soil. But the Spirit of the living God works in and through the fragile things of earth to form a communal body like no other, a solidarity in the Spirit.
The sheer existence of the church challenges liberalism’s claim to monopolize social order. Here is a differently constituted community of men, women, and children. Consent is real, but the will that makes the church isn’t the will of man or the flesh, but the will of God. Here is a sacramentally and spiritually formed body, living divine life in the flesh and manifesting the spiritual unity of the Father and Son (cf. John 17:20–21). If she does nothing else, the church stands as a witness against the imperialistic hubris of liberalism.
Paul says the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ form “one new man,” a new humanity, the fulfilled humanity (Eph. 2:15). As the body of the Last Adam, the church provides a glimpse of the final destiny of human society. She is the most human of human communities, and, precisely because of her utter uniqueness, she serves as a model and aspiration for other communities. The church has a distinctive rationale for popular participation, grounded not in a common human nature but in every member’s share of the common Spirit. That unique ecclesial form of “democracy” inspires experiments in participatory politics. As a catholic communion, the church embodies the hope for an international peace that embraces every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. International networks, nations, local communities, and families can become false churches, rivals to the body of Christ. When leavened by the church, such groupings can become shadows and images of the divine communion of the church.
Leithart’s essay is worth reading in full, and while I think the applications will be most clearly apparent to Catholics, there is something here all Christians can glean from: the church is not “merely another social institution” but the body of Christ. In its fullest sense, church is categorically unique, a challenge to all ideologies and political philosophies. And as such, participation in church radically changes our engagement with and degree of participation in any and all other spheres.
It might be helpful to make sure you grasp what Leithart is addressing here when he writes about “liberalism,” a term that means many things, but here refers to the dominant political philosophy in the Western world.
So why do I think this important?
I think we participate in the life of the church for any number of reasons while missing out on many of the larger claims that participation in such a body might make upon our lives. If you are a member of a congregation, you are now linked with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in an extended kinship that is not depended on common biological ancestry. You have received adoption into God’s family. You have been conferred status as a co-heir with Christ. You are deemed an “ambassador” of God’s kingdom, and a citizen of the heavenly realms.
Those are political realities that not only have implications for eternity, but for the here and now.
Most particularly for me as a Christian, Jesus’s costly love, death, and resurrection had become not just something I believed and filed away, but a hope that sustained me all day. I pray this prayer daily. Occasionally it electrifies, but ultimately it always calms:
And as I lay down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in the joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising, because Jesus Christ lay down in death for me, and rose for my justification.
As this spiritual reality grows, what are the effects on how I live? One of the most difficult results to explain is what happened to my joys and fears. Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world—the more we grounded our comfort and security in it—the less we were able to enjoy it.
Among Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions, his ninth was this: “Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.”
The modern age has revolutionized our thinking about death, mostly by keeping us from thinking much about it at all. Timothy Keller’s essay, which, as the title suggests, is firstly about his faith while also being about his death, cedes as much. Keller, a pastor for many years, confesses that he too, at least in part, had been taken in by the prevalent assumption that we’ll somehow get out of life alive.
Keller has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The counsel and comfort he had offered to parishioners through the years was suddenly up for a fresh examination. At 70, Keller looked ahead to many more years of life. His diagnosis revealed that death was nearer than assumed.
His essay is worth reading in full. His fullest wisdom, solidified through his experience of his confrontation with death, is to live as a heavenly minded person, not as a way of escapism from this world, but as a means of entering into gratitude for this world and everything God has accomplished and will accomplish through his glorious work of redemption, initiated, enacted, and one day fully realized in the already and even yet coming kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Philosopher Susan Stebbing has something important to say to us about thinking clearly. Peter West, writing for Aeon, pass along this crucial insight of Stebbing:
What does thinking clearly involve? One important step, Stebbing argues, is to train ourselves out of bad habits of thinking. For example, she describes what she calls ‘potted thinking’. This is oversimplifying ideas using crude characterizations or slogans. While slogans aren’t always a bad thing, Stebbing thinks that they have a tendency to oversimplify more nuanced or sophisticated views and to hide the intricacies of an idea behind a catchy phrase. . . .
To the contemporary reader, this metaphor is perhaps a little dated, with her talk of ‘potted thinking’, because Stebbing is drawing a comparison with potted meat: a vacuum-packed product such as Spam that you might find in a wartime ration pack. She is careful to explain that we should always stop and examine the metaphors we see being used in public discourse. (As she puts it: ‘Do not accept the metaphor too hastily’!) With that in mind, she explains the metaphor:
Potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted. Also, it must have originally been made from fresh meat, and must not be allowed to grow stale. Similarly, a potted belief is convenient; it can be stated briefly, sometimes also in a snappy manner likely to attract attention.
Her point is that potted thinking takes something that once had high ‘nutritive value’ and packages it in a way that’s easier to sell but harder to find any genuine nourishment in. The worst type of potted thinking, according to Stebbing, is when we grow into the habit of ‘using words repeated parrot-fashion’ – put another way, when we start talking in slogans that have no thought or consideration behind them at all.
I thought of our preaching, often characterized by sound bites and sloganeering, catchy phrases and displays of cleverness, perhaps a distillation of something true, but processed nonetheless.
The New Testament speaks of the difference between solid food and milk. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12, in the same passage, contains this rebuke: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”
1 Peter 2:2-3 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”
The challenge in preaching is to offer the Word of God in a helpful way, a way that fosters maturity and invites growth, that aids each person in thinking clearly about the gospel for themselves.
We want people to receive the full nutritional value that comes via knowledge of the truth, not a potted theological substitute.
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian’s task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”
I like this idea. But I am among those who believe that the work of theology is first a work of prayer and second a task of service. Theologians do not firstly serve the academy, though they are found there in official capacities, but rather theologians dedicate themselves to a discipline of inquiry that is intended for service to the Lord and, by extension, to the people of God, the church.
The Anabaptist tradition has also shaped my thinking. John D. Roth says it well: “Anabaptist Christians embrace their political responsibilities – not primarily as citizens, or as representatives of political parties, or as a lobby group shouting to be heard, but as ambassadors of the Prince of Peace who came as a servant, welcomed children and foreigners into his circle, and taught us to love our enemies.”
This perspective can and has led to separatism. That’s why I’m cautious toward the Anabaptist tradition. But I find it compelling because it takes the kingdom of God seriously. Anabaptists are also wary of worldly centers of power. Roth writes:
The most powerful seduction of political engagement, particularly in democracies, is the illusion that true power is in Washington or Ottawa or Asunción or Tehran. Yet Christians believe that history is carried forward by the church, not the state. How would you see the world differently if your primary source of global news came from church leaders around the world or from Christian relief and service workers in other countries rather than from Fox, CNN, or the echo chambers of social media?
That’s a powerful question.
Anyway, people ask me from time to time how Christians think about politics. My answer: “Lots of ways.” Familiarity with various perspectives helps us remain humble, clarifies the perspective best defining our viewpoint, and enables to better understand what we expect from the church and the surrounding political culture. Knowing the perspectives helps us better understand what we champion, why, and how as a Christian, what our goals are, and where the dangers lie.
I’ll return to Rick Berry. He writes:
Our political ideologies are the product of people who simultaneously reflect and distort God’s glory—and no creation is greater than the people who created it. Our goal in the public square therefore should not be merely to champion our political tribes, because that would mean working to empower their sin as much as it would mean empowering their glory. Instead, we should seek to witness to our political tribes, even critiquing our own groups when necessary, and we often must do that by contrasting ourselves against them.
Stated differently, even if we do develop a sound and well grounded approach to politics as Christians, we should never turn our particular viewpoint into an idol, and we must never lose our prophetic voice.
Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.
Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.
Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.
How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”
Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.
In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:
I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.
Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.
Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.
I just happen to disagree.
I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.
But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.
Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.
Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.
Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.
People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.
They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.
Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.
A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.
Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.
How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.
Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.
In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.
In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.
Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.
In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance. At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.” It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition. (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)
More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17. On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.” But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.
Ortlund features several quotes from Augustine’s writings that are too good not to share.
From Sermon 68.5:
Observe the beauty of the world, and praise the plan of the creator. Observe what he made, love the one who made it. Hold on to this maxim above all: love the one who made it, because he also made you, his lover, in his own image.
Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: In the Beginning you made heaven and earth. Moses wrote these words…If he were here, I would lay hold of him and in your name I would beg and beseech him to explain those words to me. I would be all ears to catch the sounds that fell from his lips.
From Sermon 126.6:
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God has made me!”
Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky, and earth, and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light; of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest size are often the most wonderful–the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales? Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at it in storm, and experience the soothing complacency which inspires, by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked? What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger, and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural appliances are there for preserving and restoring health! How grateful is the alternation of day and night! how pleasant the breezes that cool the air! how abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by trees and animals! Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy?
Ortlund states, “for Augustine, the most important aspect of the doctrine of creation is not its timing or the exact mechanics of how God does it, but rather the more basic ontological distinction it implies: that there are two kinds of reality; that the One is the source and cause of the other; and that the lesser exists in radical dependence upon the greater.” Ortlund adds, “There is not a single area of theology that is unaffected by meditation on the implications of such a vision, and it is unfortunate if we pass by such considerations too quickly in our haste to determine the age of the universe” (p. 66).
Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. We are creatures; God is the creator. This is the foundation for our inquiry, and our wonderment.