Tag Archives: theology

If we’re going to talk about the ‘image of God’ in a foreign language let’s get it right: or why I’m more interested in the ‘selem elohim’ than ‘imago dei’

There is no theological topic I read about as much as what it means to be made in the image of God; it was the question at the heart of my thesis, but my obsession didn’t end when I graduated. It’s a question at the heart of what Christians believe it means not just to be human but to flourish as humans; and the answers to the question have been used to achieve many great things for societies influenced by Christians. There’s no doubt that being made in God’s image is part of what sets us apart from animals, and part of what gives us dignity and an inherent value (see Genesis 9:6) — there are questions about what sort of dignity it carries or what it entails to bear God’s image, and how much we as humans can deliberately or accidentally eradicate that image in pursuit of our own purposes (and very clear evidence about what happens when we refuse to see fellow humans as image bearers).

In church tradition and in the developments of doctrine or ‘systematic theology’ there has been much ink spilled on what it means for humans to be the imago dei — that’s Latin for ‘image of God’. The early church, once it got established and there were people who had the time and space to be theologians, wrote in Latin so there’s plenty of latinisms hanging around in systematic theology/doctrine discussions still. Sometimes the development of systematic theology fails to take into account developments in Biblical scholarship; and I’m pretty firmly in the camp that our theological understanding of the world comes from always going back to the source (ad fontes — in Latin), the Bible, rather than from church tradition (though church tradition does limit totally novel and heretical readings of the source material).

Lots of the stuff I read that digs into what it means to be the ‘imago dei’ is built from church traditions rightly affirming the inherent dignity of the person; and increasingly the embodied reality of our humanity; you can’t be an image and not be ‘physical’ — and that’s true. But it’s often the case that we bring ideas to the text of the Bible that are foreign to its thought world (and developed through the history of the church); rather than trying to get into the world, and once an idea gets a certain sort of momentum or meaning, it’s very hard to rein it back in. This isn’t to say there aren’t systematic theologians grappling with how the text of the Bible shapes a theological concept like the ‘imago dei’; but it does mean we need to be careful of the certain sort of freight tradition brings with it when we use terms, and I think it’s time to start resisting some of that freight to ensure we’re able to do the ad fontes work of building our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him.

Here’s my not so passive act of resistance; I’m happy to talk in english about being made in the ‘image of God’ (not the imago dei) simply because it is clear (more perspicuous — more Latin) and less pretentious (also more latin), but if we’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of the meaning of these words I’m not going to indulge the Latin game. I’m going to be talking ‘selem elohim’ (sometimes ‘tselem’ because the Hebrew letter צ rolls that way). This reminds us of the foreignness of the world of the text to our world (in ways that help us not to forget that this is about more than language — and includes how we understand, for example, the place of the supernatural and the reality of a spiritual realm, which underpins the Genesis story but not many modern discussions around anthropology). It reminds us that we’re always translating. It also reminds us that there’s a gap between the institutional church as it unfolds through history for good and for ill, and the experience of Israel and how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and its expectations and shapes the church and its theology (rather than our understanding of God ’emerging’ and ‘progressing’ beyond the ‘exact representation of God’s being’ walking the earth ala Hebrews 1).

Here’s a few things from Biblical scholarship (selem elohim) I reckon lots of modern systematic theology (imago dei stuff), especially at the ‘popular level’ misses.

  1. That the word ‘image’, when it’s not about our role as humans, is almost exclusively used for idol statues (one exception is the weird models of the tumours in the ark in 1 Samuel).
  2. That the word ‘selem’ is what’s called a ‘cognate’ the same consonants are found lumped together in the ancient near east (and vowels are a later edition to the written word); and it has the same meaning in those other nations which establishes a particular context for its use. I’ve written elsewhere about how a ritual for giving life to a ‘slm’ in nations outside Israel parallels in a fascinating way with Genesis 2.
  3. That to ‘be a thing’ (ontology) in the ancient world, including to be ‘created’ (Hebrew ‘bara’) in the Old Testament was to have a function; to be a selem elohim was to do something in particular; a vocation. If we’re not doing it, there’s a question as to how much our ‘material’ is actually being the thing we’re made to be. So there’s a question, from the Biblical narrative, as to how much the ‘imago dei’ is a permanent imprint rather than a purpose that we might systematically eradicate. The human equivalent to the ‘selem elohim’ outside of Israel was the king-as-god (who’d ultimately become part of the gods of a nation).
  4. There’s are many important distinctions between Israel’s ‘selem elohims’ and the nation’s. In the nations around Israel people make images and the gods decide to live in them if they tick the right boxes; in Israel’s story — God breathes life into living images. In the nations only the king is ‘godlike’, in Israel’s story all of us are rulers of God’s world.
  5. This understanding of what it means to be human has some pretty big implications for how we understand human failure — sin — as a failure to uphold God’s image and the pursuit of other ‘images’ that we make for ourselves. All theology is integrated.
  6. That ‘male and female’ carry out this role together means we’re not simply talking about the ‘imago dei’ being an inherent dignity to the individual thing, but something we carry out in relationship with each other (and the God whose image we bear). The plurals in Genesis 1:26-27 and their significance are debated beyond this (whether it’s the Trinity or God addressing the heavenly court room, for example), but what is reasonably clear (including from Genesis 2) is that a man alone isn’t fully fit for purpose. The Old Testament theologian John Walton makes the case that ‘being’ in the ancient world isn’t just about ‘function’ but ‘function in relationship with everything else’
  7. There’s a plot line that runs through the Bible where other ‘selems’ form the heart of the Israelite imagination of the good life, and where instead of being God’s images, Israel is conformed into the image of other gods. When Israel entered the nations they were to ‘destroy all their carved images and their cast idols’ (Numbers 33:52), which they do at least in their own land in 2 Kings when they get rid of the temple of Baal (2 Kings 11:18). Israel is constantly warned (in the Law, Psalms, and Prophets) to be God’s representatives, emerging through the smelting furnace of exodus, rather than to worship idols — the warning is they will become what they behold. Breathless and dead. Or the images of the breathing, life-giving, God.
  8. This line creates a better ‘Biblical Theology’ or narrative of fulfilment where Jesus, the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1) and the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1) is the new pattern for our redeemed humanity that we’re transformed into by the gift of God’s spirit on top of the breath of life (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8). There’s admittedly a jump from Hebrew to Greek in the move from Old to New Testament, but the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) helps track that jump for us.

What it means to be made in the image of God is fascinating and important, and a vibrant part of the narrative of the Bible. It’d be a shame to remove it from that context and make it mean all sorts of other good things. The best systematic theology already deals with lots of the ideas above — and these ideas make the image of God a pretty big deal — but the best understanding of what the flourishing human life looks like; caught up with who we were made to be comes from going back to the text of the Bible and seeing what it really says and means, letting the Bible shape our world, rather than our world (and traditions) shape how we read the Bible (though this is more like a dialogue than a thing where we pit one against the other).

Join the resistance.

12 propositions about image-bearing being at the heart of the Biblical Narrative

Everywhere I turn these days, in the pages of the Bible at least, but also in some thinking about media and communications stuff I’m blown away by how significant the “image of God” is in the storyline of the Bible. It is vastly unrelated as part of the narrative.

You can basically chart how well humanity is going at being human by how near or far they are from carrying out their function as image bearers. What their hearts are beating for. The heart functions as something of a yardstick for measuring imageness.

Like the whole story of the Bible, it culminates in Jesus.


Here are some of the things I keep noticing.

1. Bearing an “image” is about representation, not just replication. Images have always had an incredible power to communicate and change others. And have been used as communication tools by nations and religious organisations since Genesis was written. Idols in ancient near eastern temples were made alive by a ceremony where their mouths were opened. Once they were “alive” – they were believed to manifest, and speak for, the god they represented. Eden is a temple. Adam is God’s image in the heart of his temple. The word image in Genesis 1-2, and its near eastern cognates (words that sound like it in other similar languages), is almost universally used for these idols of gods and god-kings (kings who presented themselves as divine representatives).

2. We all bear the image of something – at the heart of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God was a decision to promote their own image. You can’t not bear an image of the god you worship – even if the god is yourself and your picture of success. I think it’s telling that while Adam was created in God’s image, Seth was created in Adam’s…

5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. – Genesis 5.

3. The image we bear is closely related to the things we turn into idols. The things we get excited about. The desires of our hearts. Our hearts no longer desire God. They are broken.

“The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9

Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? – Ezekiel 14:3

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. – Genesis 6

4. Part of the brokenness we feel, and the longing we naturally have is to do with trying to recapture the image we were created to bear. This supplies the narrative tension in the Old Testament.

But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul. – Deuteronomy 4:29

Then in the nations where they have been carried captive, those who escape will remember me—how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from me, and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols. They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done and for all their detestable practices. – Ezekiel 6:9

“But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.” – Ezekiel 11:21

5. We can only recapture that image if God re-creates us.

Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’

6. The residual image of God in our humanity gives humans dignity and value, even if the image of God is no longer fully realised. It also enables us to know what “good” is, even if we can’t do it. I think this is the tension Paul is reflecting on in Romans 7 (which leads to Romans 8, which culminates in Romans 8:29).

7. We become, and bear the image of, the idols we behold. Part of the damage sin does to what it means to be human is that we can’t behold God the way we were made to. Our idols work because they shape our lives around our desires.

Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 115

For their hearts were devoted to their idols. – Ezekiel 20:6

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. – Ezekiel 36:26

8. The tools we use shape us as much as we shape things with them. Nothing is neutral. The things we choose to use and make part of our lives rub off on us. We should try really hard not to become beholden to the things we hold or methods we use.

9. We can’t re-image God without a change of heart – the whole narrative of the Old Testament, culminating in becoming New Creations in Jesus, by God’s Spirit – can be understood as telling the story of humanity’s repetition of Adam and Eve’s attempt to make a name for themselves, not God (ie build their own image), and our inability to properly bear God’s image, even in our best moments. The promise of the new covenant and new hearts is a promise to restore the image of God and its communicative function in humans.

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deuteronomy 30:6

I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. Jeremiah 24:7

7 The path of the righteous is level;
you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.
8 Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws,
we wait for you;
your name and renown
    are the desire of our hearts. – Isaiah 26

10. Jesus being “the image of the invisible God” is hugely anthropologically significant. Especially when we are being conformed into his image. This transformation isn’t just restoration, it’s renovation.

11. The image of Jesus is at the heart of Paul’s imitation of Jesus – especially, this is the image of Jesus on the cross as described in Philippians 2. It’s also at the heart of the ethos bit of our communication as Christians – people who bear the image of Jesus and become more like him through the transformation of our hearts.

12.The mission of God, and thus the mission of the church, is to see the image of God restored in people, by the Gospel of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. These people become communicative agents of God as they represent God through their changed humanity and heart.

Who is the one who died so all died?

Right. I’m preaching on Sunday – the second part in a two part series called “Where is Jesus now?”… The first talk will be online some time this week. In the mean time – my answer to this question this week is that he is in the church – his body. That we bear his image. And that people should be able to find him by looking at us (and that being Christ like is particularly tied up in being cross like). I’m getting there from 2 Corinthians 5.

So here’s a question I have. And I’d like your input. So put your thinking caps on.

Here’s the passage.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creationhas come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I’m particularly interested in the first two verses.

These appear, at face value (and as promoted by universalists) to say that Jesus’ death covers every one.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

It seems people universally accept that the one who died “for all” is Jesus, and is the same as the “he” who died for all in verse 15. I think 14 is talking about Adam, and 15 is talking about Jesus. The only good reason I can think of not to think this is that I can’t find anyone who agrees with me yet…

I’m struggling to figure out how 14 helps Paul’s argument if he isn’t really developing it, but repeating it, in verse 15. I think verse 15 is a contrast where a second person has died for all. And I think Paul is using the same comparison between Jesus and Adam that he uses in Romans (chapters 5-8), and 1 Corinthians 15. I think Paul would say that all die because Adam died. So, in fact, Adam also died for all…

Here’s a bit from Romans 5…

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…”

17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”

And a bit from 1 Corinthians 15…

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

I don’t understand why this is even a question? The comparison seems pretty obvious, but I can’t find anyone who makes it (I’ve googled a bit, and used my whizz bang Bible software).

Rudd and Theology

Oh yeah… and while I’m on the subject of Rudd bowing out of the Prime Ministership… I’ve said before that Rudd likes hitching his wagon to whatever engine is driving past at the time… but who did he think he was pleasing when he paused for his moment of theologising when he tacked “or her” on the end of thanking God… it was looking so good up until that moment – a loser thanking God, which helpfully combats every winning sporting superstar who claims God gave them victory as though he’s in their sports bag… bowing out with grace… but “or her”? What? How can “or her” be referred to as “our father”? Bonhoeffer would be rolling in his grave. Maybe he was caught up in the moment – seeing Gillard’s siezing the throne as divine. Maybe when he said “theology” he meant “self reflection” and his God complex was catching up with his loss of power? I don’t know. But it was dumb.

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Biblical Theology 101: Scobie

Scobie’s “The Ways of Our God” is a significant tome introducing a slightly altered framework of Biblical Theology – God’s Way, God’s Servant, God’s People, and God’s Order…

It opens with a history of Biblical Theology that alone is worth the price of admission – he charts scholarly thought from Augustine (and earlier) through to the reformation, and finally the last 500 years (or thereabouts).

Consensus, at least in the “German School” of textual criticism which sees the Bible as a patchwork document of odd bits and pieces thrown together at the last minute and missing lots of valuable pieces that have been lost forever, is that Biblical Theology is impossible, not only is a unifying idea for the whole Bible impossible in their minds, but to suggest such an idea is possible for either the New Testament or Old Testament is lunacy. Scholars can be dumb. There. I said it. This is one of my most significant epiphanies. Academia is “the emperors new clothes” come to life… let me give you a tangential rant…

Hegel was the ultimate hater of conflict. He’s a compromiser. And proud of it. Hegel believed that in any conflict there were two sides just waiting to be synchronised. This may be a strawman version of his actual position, but it’s a strawman many people have since dressed up and carried around Oz looking for a brain to give him. Hegel’s dialectic works a bit like this:

Someone comes up with an idea (it doesn’t really matter if it’s a good idea or a bad idea). This is the “thesis”…

Someone voices a disagreement with the thesis (it doesn’t really matter if it’s a good disagreement or a bad disagreement). This is the “antithesis”…

We have conflict. Now, suddenly, it’s a good idea to bring those two positions together. In balance. Rather than rejecting either faulty thesis. And that gives us our understanding, until another idea comes along.

There doesn’t, in my mind at least, seem to be any sense of quality control. And so, to continue the Wizard of Oz metaphor, we end up down a yellow brick road wondering why we’re no longer in Kansas, but rather in a mythical land created by our imaginations.

This is pretty much what happens with scholarship. This digression is now over. Lets get back to Scobie’s history of Biblical Theology. Textual criticism (be it sociological, historical, structural, or form) started by doing away with any notion of authorial intent (how very postmodern). As a writer I find that pretty insulting. What’s the point of writing something if you’re just going to interpret it with zero regard to why I’ve written it? I don’t write for writing’s sake. I write to communicate something. The convenience for textual and form critics is that redactors (later editors) play a big part in their understanding of the writing of scripture – which means that anything that disagrees with their presuppositioned conclusion (yes, it is an oxymoron) can just be attributed to an editor and cast off as the scholar burrows into the “true meaning” of the text. Which is whatever they want it to mean. Dumb. Don’t get me started.

Scobie, in discussing the presuppositions that are inherent in any textual criticism makes the following point:

“The underlying assumptions of many practitioners of historical criticism have frequently been positivistic and rationalistic. While claiming to be neutral and objective, many scholars have in fact ignored the most central assertions of the Biblical texts themselves, those relating to the presence and activity of God.”

To paraphrase, Scobie is saying these guys may as well be atheists. That’s how they approach the text.

Brueggemann is more interested in sociological criticism – understanding how texts functioned in terms of shaping the identity of the reader, how they were intended to function in that manner, and how the identity of the writer shaped the writing. This is much more useful, so long as it is approached from a position of acknowledging that God plays some part in shaping the identity of his people via the pen (or quill, or chisel) of the writer.

Scobie concludes his piece on the textual critics by acknowledging that such criticism has a place in establishing the “world behind the text” but he suggests this must play a subsidiary role to the theological function of the texts. And particularly the Biblical theological function of the text. Scobie argues that textual criticism should be focused at the level of the canon as a united work, rather than in parts.

Brueggemann, and others, also want to treat the Bible as literature, paying attention to genre and the art of the text. Which is, I think, my default interpretive position (with the assumption that that will reveal the theological truth). The problem with some of the language used surrounding this literary approach – rhetoric, literary, etc – is that it creates a dichotomy between literature and truth. Not all literature is fiction. Not all fiction is untrue. Fiction – through fables, analogies, allegories, and extended metaphors (all pretty much the same thing) – can be used to express truth. History can be recorded with literary flair.

Scobie shares a good quote from Longman:

“While the Old Testament prose narrative consists of selective, structured, emphasised and interpreted stories… a literary analysis of a historical book is not inconsistent with a high view of the historicity of the text.”

He follows his history of scholarly thought with a short history of the Biblical canon before arriving at the bit that is of interest – a reflection on frameworks or themes identified in popular Biblical Theologies.

He mentions covenantal theology as “foundational” and tracks its development under Eichrodt. Who took the covenant as a heading and proposed:

  1. God and Nation
  2. God and World
  3. God and Men

As three sub-themes of the Old Testament.

Kaiser goes with one idea – “The Promise”…

Von Rad (who has an awesome name) said of the Old Testament, in response “there is no focal-point such as there as in the new.”

He acknowledges the sovereignty of God as a key theme identified by Goldsworthy, and “redemptive history” as a product of German thinking (notably Von Rad).

Scobie says that while the debate has failed to identify one major unifying theme it has recognised multiple important themes that run through the whole Bible.

He comments on a work by Dumbrell that loosely identifies Revelation 21-22 as positing five themes, which Scobie synergises into his own four themed approach which he bases on a proclamation/consumation model of interaction between Old and New Testaments.

His themes and their explanations follow:

God’s Order

Essentially a rebrand of Goldsworthy’s “God’s Rule” – encompasses God’s role and relationship with his creation. It is fulfilled in Christ who brings the dawn of the age, promised in the Old Testament. He brings five sub-themes under this heading.

  1. The Living God
  2. The Lord of Creation
  3. The Lord of History
  4. The Adversaries
  5. The Spirit

God’s Servant

This is obviously fulfilled in Jesus, but the role is played by other characters in the Old Testament  – from Israel holistically to kings, prophets and priests… This is essentially a rebrand of part of Goldsworthy’s “God’s People”. But it also tracks the development of messianic themes and other prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus.

God’s People

The part of Goldsworthy’s “God’s People” that wasn’t expressed by those specifically acting as God’s agents (above), falls under this category. This captures the ideas of covenant, the theme of God relating to people, and doctrines like election and the church. He also brings Goldsworthy’s “God’s Place” under this heading, arguing that God’s people were always, and are always, intented to be in God’s promised land – from Eden to the New Creation.

God’s Way

Here Scobie departs from previous frameworks to include things like the law, righteousness, ethics (particularly Old Testament ethics – following Childs (1992) who argued that “the Old Testament portrayal of ethical behaviour is inseparable from its theological content.” These ethics are ultimately consummated in the ethics of Jesus and the injunctions of the Epistles.

143 things you need to know about in order to teach the Bible

According to Acts 29, a minister should, amongst other qualities, be able to comprehend, and communicate effectively on these 119 issues.

1. Adoption
2. Ammillenialism
3. Angels
4. Apostle
5. Aseity
6. Baptism in the Holy Spirit
7. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit
8. Body of Christ
9. Born Again
10. Canonicity
11. Common grace
12. Communicable and Incommunicable Attributes
13. Complementarian
14. Conversion
15. Cosmological Argument
16. Covenant
17. Covenant of Grace
18. Covenant of works
19. Covenant community
20. Credo Baptism
21. Deacon
22. Death
23. Decree of God
24. Definite Atonement
25. Demons
26. Dichotomy
27. Disciple
28. Doctrines of Grace
29. Ecclesiology
30. Effectual Calling
31. Egalitarian
32. Eisogesis
33. Ekklesia
34. Elder
35. Election
36. Eschatology
37. Excommunication
38. Exegesis
39. Exorcisms
40. Expiation
41. External Calling
42. Faith
43. Father
44. Final Judgment
45. Foreknowledge of God
46. Forensic Justification
47. Free will
48. General Revelation
49. Glorification
50. Heaven
51. Hell
52. Hematology
53. Hermeneutics
54. Holy Spirit
55. Humiliation of Christ
56. Hypostatic Union
57. Imago Dei
58. Imminent Return
59. Impeccability
60. Imputation of Sin
61. Incarnation
62. Incomprehensibility Of God
63. Inerrancy
64. Infallibility
65. Infinite
66. Intercession
67. Invisible Church
68. Keys of the Kingdom
69. Liberty
70. Limited Free will
71. Lord’s Supper
72. Lordship Salvation
73. Mediator
74. Millennium
75. Miracles
76. New heavens and new earth
77. Officer in the church
78. Omniscience
79. Ontological Argument
80. Original Sin
81. OT and NT Priest
82. Overseer
83. Paedo Baptism
84. Parousia
85. Particular Redemption
86. Penal Substitution
87. Pneumatology
88. Postmillenialism
89. Predestination
90. Premillenialism
91. Propitiation
92. Providence
93. Rapture
94. Reconciliation
95. Redemption
96. Regeneration
97. Regulatory principle
98. Religious Affections
99. Repentance
100. Reprobation
101. Resurrection
102. Sanctification
103. Satan
104. Second Coming
105. Son of God
106. Soteriology
107. Sovereignty
108. Special Revelation
109. Spiritual Body
110. T.U.L.I.P.
111. Teleological Argument
112. The Fall of Mankind
113. Theology proper
114. Total inability
115. Transcendence
116. Tribulation
117. Trinity
118. Virgin Birth
119. Worship

And be able to apply a scriptural argument on the following 24 issues:

1. Annihilationism
2. Antinomianism
3. Arianism
4. Arminianism
5. Consubstantiation
6. Deism
7. Dictation Theory
8. Dispensationalism
9. Doceticism
10. Dualism
11. Evolution
12. Fatalism
13. Feminism
14. Limbo
15. Monism
16. Pantheism
17. Pelagianism
18. Perfectionism
19. Purgatory
20. Soul Sleep
21. The Mass (Catholic)
22. Theistic Evolution
23. Transubstantiation
24. Universalism

This is why I think the Westminster Confession is a good thing. Somebody has done the hard work (mostly) for us.

So how do you score on those 143 items? How would Jesus score (based on his teaching in his time)?

Occam’s razor and theology

I’ve been thinking about my approach to the Bible. The first five weeks of college have been pretty intense for me – but probably not as intense as they have been for other people who possibly feel like the rug has been pulled out from under their feet a little when it comes to the way theologians treat the Bible and the interaction between the historical context and theological truths. Here is my thinking…

My overarching understanding, or first principle, is that the Bible is the clear word of God, our job is to make sense of it based on what we know of the original audience, the way God communicates, and ultimately the work of Jesus. This understanding colours my understanding of everything from Genesis to Revelation, and each form of biblical literature.

Theology is like science – we’re constantly moving to a more perfect understanding of each part of the Bible as we build our picture of the lives of the original hearers and readers of the word. We’re unlikely to ever completely overturn our current “theories” based on this evidence, but we will gain a slightly more nuanced picture of the meaning of different writings if we learn something new about what was going on in the first century (NT) or in the history of Israel.

So understanding that “this current distress” that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7 may refer to a massive famine in the Corinthian region means we don’t have to assume that Paul was a failed apocalyptic prophet who thought the world would end in his lifetime, but rather that he thought it wise for couples not to marry if they couldn’t feed likely offspring. Revelation makes more sense if you understand that Nero was on the scene around the time it was written, that the number 666 was particular to Nero, and that Rome was persecuting Christians around the time it was written… this makes more sense to me than some sort of dispensational premillenialism.

Which leads me to this point of applying Occam’s razor to every “theological” position. If there’s a better explanation that requires less jumps, that is consistent with the rest of scripture, and preferably magnifies the work of Christ – then I’ll be pretty prepared to take that explanation quickly – rather than fighting to hold on to ingrained presuppositions.

Again, I don’t think this is rocket science or revolutionary – it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

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Theological leanings and Acts 15

After a week of studying theology and one team meeting bandying about a bit of (in my opinion) a speculative theological interpretation of Acts 15 (see Andrew’s blog for details) I’ve been wondering about how to balance the excitement I feel at new “special knowledge” interpretations of old passages.

On the one hand I think there’s lots to learn from better understanding the original culture and context of passages and grappling with different nuances of the original languages – and on the other I have a high view of God’s sovereignty and the perspicuity of scripture (the idea that God teaches truths clearly through his word).

So I wonder what place new theological ideas grounded in particular and special knowledge (as opposed to general knowledge and a plain understanding of the text understood in the context of the Bible rather than in the context of history) has when it comes to application.

Because I’m now all about nuance and balance I have come up with this fence sitting position where you can own both the perspicuous reading of a passage and the more historically and theologically nuanced position at the same time – unless they are in direct conflict with one another.

The example I’m thinking most about is the Acts 15 passage that Andrew wrote about. Acts 15 is a little story where the church leaders are called on to decide how Gentile converts to what is essentially the continuation of the Messianic Jewish faith should conduct themselves. Some Jews want Gentiles to circumcise themselves and obey the law – but the church leaders decide this is unnecessary because salvation is through grace, not the law.

But they do give the Gentiles some ground rules – rules that have been traditionally understood as relating to how Gentile and Jewish Christians could share “table fellowship” – ie eat together as brothers – while not causing one another offense.

Kutz’s position (based on someone else’s position) on Acts 15 is slightly more exciting. The Gentile Christians are given a list of four things they are not to do as Christians. They can’t eat food sacrificed to idols, food strangled, food with the blood still in it, and they can’t engage in sexual immorality. These requirements tie in to the Levitical law (and in Leviticus also apply to gentiles sojourning amongst believers). The exciting new bit is that this may well have been shorthand for not participating in first century idol temple worship. All of the prohibitions address elements of that practice.

I would argue that the everyday Christian believer throughout the last two thousand years would understand this passage on the basis of table fellowship – I don’t think the new argument is convincing enough to do away with this perspicuous understanding – it is enough to nuance it though. We can better understand that these actions were synonymous with the worship of idols, but that doesn’t negate the understanding that Gentiles should be avoiding that conduct in order to stay in fellowship with Jewish believers.

In conclusion, I think it’s a case of “both” not “either”. And I wonder how this is going to work out as we continue to grapple with new and exciting ideas. I think the temptation can be to throw out the old understanding when we come up with something better, rather than improving our understanding of the old. And I don’t know what that does to two thousand years of church history which if you’re a trinitarian and Calvinist is Holy Spirit inspired and God ordained.

10 further reflections on atheism

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook (and you’ll find a link to add me on the right hand column of this site) will know that my status yesterday was “is looking for a fight”. Well, I found one, a bit, over at the FriendlyAtheist. 

It’s an interesting site. I have some reflections from my discussions there that I think are worthwhile. 

  1. The vast majority of atheists come out of some form of theism – many of the commenters on that blog are former church goers from a range of denominations – there are also a bunch of Mormons. They see their atheism as a natural progression towards enlightenment. 
  2. American culture must be harder on atheists – they all seem so bitter and I suspect that’s largely because the culture of American Christendom is difficult. 
  3. “Good” and moral are different – Christians have made a mistake because of a semantic difference on the definition of good. While Christianity teaches that nobody – not even Christians – is capable of “good” behaviour – this generally means “behaviour that counts towards salvation” – for an atheist it means anything that would be considered selfless or moral. Atheists, as a general rule, seem very angry at the idea they are incapable of moral behaviour because they don’t have God. Which leads them to ask if it’s only God preventing Christians from living immoral lives. (Which was well considered in Andrew’s recent post…)
  4. “Strong Atheists” (those who believe “Absolutely, positively, there is no god.”) are apparently being taught to argue as though they are “Weak Atheists” (those who believe “I don’t believe in God because no one has provided me with any credible evidence that God exists.”) in order to shift the burden of proof to Christianity. 
  5. Thanks to Dawkins and co atheists continue to argue with a caricature of Christianity – and also put forward issues or challenges to Christianity that are considered and covered by the Bible as if they’re compelling evidence – and refuse to accept belief in the Bible on the basis of a history of bad translations, poor doctrine and bad application. For example – David Attenborough, the prominent nature documentary maker – argues that the existence of “evil” in nature (specifically a worm whose only purpose is to burrow into the human brain) is proof that God isn’t loving and doesn’t exist. This dismisses any theological thought put into areas like this – and in fact the basic Christian teaching of the Fall’s impact on God’s creation. 
  6. As a further point on that last one – when the Bible does speak to a “logical” problem atheists have with Christianity it’s rejected on the basis that “the Bible would say that wouldn’t it…” as though considering the issue is part of a grand scheme to dupe us. 
  7. Faith is seem to be a “superstitious logical jump” in the face of conflicting evidence rather than a conviction of truth without all the  evidence.
  8. Atheists hate being compared to Mao – but love comparing Christians to the Crusaders (or in fact any nasty people carrying out nasty acts in the name of Jesus). When you suggest that these Christians weren’t being Christian you’re guilty of breaching the “no true Scotsman” fallacy – when you suggest that their anger at the Mao analogy is similarly a “no true Scotsman” fallacy you’re told that Mao was not motivated by his atheism… is it just me seeing this as contradictory?
  9. A whole lot of bad teaching is coming home to roost – doctrinal clarity is important. Ideas like “God is love” that don’t speak to God’s wrath, holiness, or judgement have caused more harm than good. This is what happens when only part of the gospel is considered with another part swept under the carpet. 
  10. At the end of the day – my staunch “Reformed” understanding of evangelism and election means that I’m not in any position to convince those whose hearts are hardened to the gospel. The parable of the sower would tend to suggest that the standard atheist experience of a choked faith is natural and to be expected for many “converts”…  
  11. And a bonus point – “evidence” is seen to be some sort of magic bullet for atheists – but naturalism presupposes the supernatural – and as soon as something supernatural is demonstrably tested it’s no longer supernatural but just an undiscovered natural entity – God is, by definition, supernatural. He can not possibly be tested in this manner, because we can’t expect him to conform to our “testing” and act the same way over and over again… There are biblical examples of God being tested – Ezekiel and Gideon spring to mind – but these are of no value to this argument… because of point six. This link should take you to what I think is a nice little evidence analogy in one of my comments.

These reflections come from my experience and discussions on these posts. Feel free to critique my arguments or approach in the comments.

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Evolution of a Nerd


My first post on this blog highlights my ongoing descent into nerdhood. While I don’t have the bespectacled (yet), triple-chinned, past-eating figure as described here, I have taken some healthy steps in the direction of becoming a nerd.

1. Blogging. To the readers who have ‘tuned in’ (sorry I don’t know what the web equivalent is) hoping for some of Nathan’s regular rants, my apologies. You got me. Some of you might think this is an improvement but let me assure you that I have much less creativity than my much more linguistically apt other half.

2. Study. Nathan and I have embarked upon a year of “pseudo study”, in which we’re learning Greek, going through the Westminster Confession and reading Calvin’s Institutes. Nathan is also preaching once a month and I’m sure that other opportunities will present themselves throughout the year.

As for Greek I’ve found it less tiresome than I’d anticipated. I actually like it. Bring on the Greek. Some days I catch myself at work wishing I was at home studying. Point in case for nerdish behaviour.

3. Glasses. Recently I’ve found myself asking my children to write bigger in their workbooks. I’ve also been looking at the dots on the tops of the Greek letters and wondering why the author was too lazy to write them properly. I’ve been getting headaches if I study for more than half an hour. I’m pretty good with reasoning and logic so I knew it was time for a visit to the optometrist.

Thankfully the news was good. I have two relatively minor problems which weren’t real concerns, however, as they were causing me trouble studying we decided to invest in a pair of specs. I don’t want glasses and I don’t like them. Nathan assures me that he thinks I’ll look great in glasses but I’m not so sure he’s telling me the truth. We’ll wait and see.

4. I use Chrome. Google Chrome that is. I didn’t even know that using Chrome was a sign of nerdhood but apparently it is.

Despite embracing these facets of nerdhood be assured that I won’t start playing World of Warcraft, develop poor hygiene or start talking about RAM any time soon.

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A much further developed species than I.

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From the desk of: other people

One of the things I really enjoy about blogs is being able to draw on the collective wisdom of people trailblazing a path that we plan to head down in the not too distant future. At the moment I’m enjoying a bunch of blogs from students currently studying at theological college.

I’ve subscribed to Bathgates.net for quite a while because Dan (who doesn’t blog enough) kept sharing really interestng posts from it via google reader. I like it’s style – that is to say I really like Ben’s style. He’s got a great post at the moment full of tip for people embarking on theological study. It’s well worth a read. One of the sad things about using a RSS reader to get all your content is that you lose the really nice design work people have done on their blogs.

Another absolutely superb design (it really is stunning and functional) – matched by great content and the longest,  most philosophically deep “about me” page I’ve ever read – can be found at Dan Anderson’s papermind – I know Dan in real life (or IRL for you internet people). He’s a top bloke and is currently considering the purpose of studying  philosophy while studying theology. The discussion is written in a style somewhat representative of Sophie’s Word – although the protagonists are a pair of slightly distracted philosophers. Worth a look thus far. Dan was also kind enough to add my blog to his blog roll so I’m responding in kind with this little plug. Did I mention that I really like his design? I do. WordPress is aesthetically quite pleasing.