Tag Archives: theology

HOW THE REFORMATION NEGLECTED THE HOLY SPIRIT

The following are excerpts from a chapter on pneumatology from Timothy C. Tennent’s excellent book, Theology in the Context of World Christianity:

“The Reformation’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture, ecclesiology, and Christology are clearly reflected in the post-Reformation attempt to systematize the theological deposit of the Reformers. However, this meant that, as was the case during the patristic period, a full development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was delayed and several vital aspects of his person and work were neglected in post-Reformation Protestant theology in the West. Over time, several major theological traditions developed that either denied completely or extremely limited the active role of the Holy Spirit in performing miracles, divine healing, demonic deliverance, prophecy, tongue-speaking, and other elements that later became central features of the Pentecostal doctrine of the Holy Spirit. For example, this tendency is evident in many expressions of Reformed theology as well as in the later nineteenth-century emergence of dispensationalism …” (Tennent 2007, 171).

“Traditional Western theologies were written by scholars who received their education in respected universities that were deeply influenced by Enlightenment assumptions. The Enlightenment worldview creates a high wall separating the experiential world of the senses – governed by reason and subject to scientific inquiry – from the unseen world beyond the wall; such a world either does not exist (naturalism) or, if it does, we can know little about it (deism). The result has been essentially a two-tiered universe that separates the world of science from the world of religion.

Biblical evangelicalism has challenged this worldview by insisting that God has supernaturally broken through this wall in the incarnation and that knowledge of the unseen world has been provided by the certainty of divine revelation. Evangelicals argued that through prayer we can have sustained communication and fellowship with God. The problem with this approach is that the basic two-tiered universe of the Enlightenment worldview remains intact. It has merely been modified so that Christians punch a few holes in the wall to provide a framework whereby God can come into the empirical world through the incarnation and revelation and we, in turn, can have access to the unseen world through prayer. The basic separation is left unchallenged …” (Tennent, 178).

“The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring the “not yet” of the kingdom into the “already” of our fallen world. All the future realities of the kingdom are now fully available to all believers through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Doctrines of cessationism or partial cessationism are, in the final analysis, detrimental concessions to an Enlightenment worldview that has unduly influenced the church with its naturalistic presuppositions…” (Tennent, 179).

POKEMON THEOLOGY

pokemon-red-and-blue

Back in 1998, Pokemon promised to be a unique hybrid of RPG / Virtual Pet gameplay. Tamagotchi? Digimon? Eat your pixelated hearts out.

On the spiritual side of things, the nascent series seemed fairly innocuous. Yes, there were a handful of ‘ghost’ and ‘psychic’ and ‘dragon’ type Pokemon adding some para-psychological / occult elements, but for the most part you were collecting and fighting with anthropomorphic radishes, giant butterflies, and Rip Van Winkle-inspired giant panda bear thingies.

There were rumors that Pokemon originated on the moon. I suppose some proponents of Intelligent Design may have chafed at the evolution mechanic… Still, subsequent versions have muddied the theological waters of the Pokemon franchise. Pokemon Gold and Silver introduced ‘dark’ Pokemon (demonic?) and the newest incarnation has added ‘fairy’ type. However, the lowest point in the series is the introduction of the absurd Pokemon God in Diamond and Pearl.

arceusAccording to the source of all some knowledge, Wikipedia, Arceus “shaped the universe with its thousand arms.” It was born “from an egg in a vortex of pure chaos before the existence of the universe” and went on to form other deity-esque lifeforms. More ridiculous, you can capture this “god” and carry it around in your pocket in a Pokeball, summoning it to battle in glorified cock-fights for your enjoyment!

Actually, the God of Pokemon has very much in common with the gods of most religions and mythologies throughout human history except for the One True God of Judeo-Christian belief. Pantheistic and other belief systems have the same basic starting point of gods arising from primordial chaos or some pre-existent cosmic battle. The Judeo-Christian God alone stands completely and utterly transcendent and independent of all created matter and the universe that contains it. God, as an infinite being, has always existed. He did not emerge from any pre-existing matter, form, force, or intelligence. And, you cannot capture him in a Pokeball.

WHAT IS SPECIAL REVELATION?

moses-on-sinai

The lingering external / physical evidence of a Creator and internal / psychological evidence of a moral law and spiritual yearning within mankind are examples of General Revelation – passive evidence of the divine, available to all. Yet, such clues alone will never lead one to a full knowledge of the Christian God and associated doctrines of soteriology (salvation), especially in light of our fallen nature.

Following the concept of ‘dimensional beyondness,’ that God is not just quantitatively different than mankind but also qualitatively, we do not have the ability to directly observe God with our unaided senses. The Bible describes God as spirit, invisible, dwelling in a spiritual realm, and unable to be directly looked upon without the experience ending our lives.

How then can we possibly draw close enough to God to perceive his true nature? We can’t. “Humans cannot reach up to investigate God and would not understand even if they could.” (Erickson 1998). He has to reveal himself to us. Thankfully, God values relationships with his creation and has condescended to both interact with us and provide us with information, without which we would arguably be an ignorant species on the brink of extinction.

As stated before, revelation is better thought of as an unveiling or uncovering. Whereas General Revelation is passive, Special or Particular Revelation describes a unique moment in time and space where God reveals a part of himself: perhaps his power, or character, or wisdom, or moral requirements. The God who is above, other than, and pre-existent to our cosmos in some way enters into our finite world.

A simple example is found in Exodus 31, when Yahweh speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai. “When he had finished speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, he gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Not only did God verbally speak to Moses, he also left behind a personal writing sample! Later, through the process of inscripturation, this event became recorded for posterity in the Law / Books of Moses / Pentateuch.

Both the specific historical events (God personally writing the Decalogue / Ten Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai) and the written records (what we now call the book of Exodus describing God’s actions as well as what he wrote down) are instances of an unveiling that allows us to experience the divine presence or some divine truth – Special Revelation. The compiled and accurately transmitted written records, or ‘sacred writings,’ are what we call Scripture.

Thus, Christians do not worship Pascal’s “God of the philosophers,” a “generic God or the mere concept of God in some vague, philosophical mist … [we] worship God as he has been revealed in his particulars.” (Tennent 2007).

CALVINISM / ARMINIANISM

The debate between Calvinism and Arminianism is nothing new. However, after decades of seeming obscurity in the religious marketplace, Calvinism has had a resurgence. The rebirth of Calvinism in America may be a reaction to “superficial, seeker-sensitive theology … the God of Calvinism is far from a cosmic bellhop. He is not obliged to do anything for you except send you to hell, and if he chooses to do so, he is glorified by your damnation” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 17).

There are many differences as well as similarities (e.g., the doctrine of Total Depravity) between the two theological perspectives, but regarding the issue of salvation the heart of the argument is found here: The Bible tells us that God desires the salvation of all. God is all powerful. Why are not all saved?

The simplistic Arminian answer is “free will.” The simplistic Calvinist answer is “God chose in advance some to be saved and others not to be saved.”

I recently read ‘Why I Am Not A Calvinist’ by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, and the counterpart book ‘Why I Am Not An Arminian’ by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams. Both are thoughtful and irenic treatments of the subject matter and what the authors view to be at stake in the debate. I will give brief impressions on both:

WHY I AM NOT A CALVINIST

notacalvinist

Walls and Dongell absolutely nail the underlying philosophical arguments. They helpfully define concepts such as libertarian free will, determinism, compatibilism, and point out our axiomatic beliefs and philosophical judgments that play into the development of theology. Beyond this excellent analysis, however, the “fundamental dispute is [over] God’s character.” Is the Calvinist gospel truly good news?

Distancing themselves from modern Arminianism-lite, the authors instead advocate for Classical Arminianism, which they believe is more faithful to scripture. God enables the possibility of salvation like a surgeon operating on an unconscious crash victim, seeking consent for further operations once the patient is partially stabilized, but not out of the woods. Regarding the crucial point of God’s foreknowledge, they survey three main perspectives – Actual Foreknowledge, Molinism, and Openness.

The authors poke holes in the logic of prominent Calvinists such as John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and even show inconsistencies in Calvin and the Westminster Confession. In general, “too many biblical passages must undergo heavy modification according to Calvinist precepts before they can be understood in Calvinist ways.”

One complaint I would have is that the Arminian concept of God giving every human at least one opportunity for salvation is brought up (although not specifically advocated). Experientially this does not feel true. I have met many people who do not seem to have ever had the slightest glimmer of a spiritual awakening. If such people exist, such as the proverbial unreached native in the jungle, we are somewhat back to square one – why did God not give them that opportunity to respond to the light? I wish the authors would have specifically addressed that.

WHY I AM NOT AN ARMINIAN

notanarminian

“Human beings are utterly dependent upon the saving grace of God. And apparently, God has not acted on behalf of all … Calvinism is predicated upon a divine discrimination regarding the recipients of saving grace.” Peterson and Williams argue heartily for the untarnished sovereignty of God, at least as the word sovereignty is defined by Calvinists (that God always gets exactly what he wants), and show many scriptures that indicate a favored group of individuals identified from “before creation.”

The authors helpfully delve into the historical issues of the Arminian / Calvinist debate, including Augustine, Calvin, the Synod of Orange, Arminius, the Synod of Dort, and the later development of so-called Calvinist positions that perhaps went beyond the intent of Augustine and the early Reformers (e.g., TULIP). This overview spans more than half of the book. The authors also refute the claim that Arminians are Semi-Pelagian, rather identifying them as Semi-Augustinian.

I appreciated this background, as well as the distinction between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism and how those relate to Calvinism, which I had not thought about since my seminary days. Ultimately, the authors settle on a sort of moderated Calvinism, saying that few actually live at the logical extremes of their beliefs (does that mean that the authors embrace an illogical version of Calvinism?) Preferring Infralapsarianism, they argue that God is not responsible for the original sin of Adam, but essentially for everything else. Sinful mankind get exactly what they deserve; the elect are mercifully spared from their justified damnation.

I have two main complaints with this book. One is that Peterson and Williams often proclaim that such-and-such a point is the “clear” meaning of a verse, whereas the correct interpretation has been debated for hundreds of years by God-fearing Christians. A second is that they on occasion retreat into mystery – God’s criteria for choosing the elect from eternity past is totally unknowable. Of course, it can’t possibly be because of any foreseen positive quality in the elect! But, if the criteria for divine discrimination is truly a mystery, why couldn’t that be one of many possible actualities?

SALVATION AND SOVEREIGNTY

Next up I am reading ‘Salvation and Sovereignty’ by Kenneth Keathley. Keathley argues for a Molinist understanding of salvation and election, claiming that Molinism is the only system that logically holds human responsibility and God’s sovereignty in balance without contradiction or paradox. Ironically, Molinism is decried by Arminians as “too Calvinist” and by Calvinists as “too Arminian.”

FULL DISCLOSURE

elephantperception“None of us can ever approach a theological question or a biblical text from a sanitized, neutral position. We all have personal histories and locations within our traditions that we cannot simply wish away. Whoever she is and wherever she stands, the interpreter necessarily brings her whole self (both good and bad) into the equation” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 40).

“… the less aware we are of our philosophical assumptions, the more they control our thinking” (Ibid., 19).

If I want to approach my task as objectively as possible I need to recognize my own context, history, inclinations, and biases that may color my perceptions.

I am a white male who was raised in a politically conservative middle-class family in Los Angeles, California, USA. I am the youngest by five years of a number of biological and adopted children. My father was a non-denominational preacher, writer, counselor, and church-planter. My mother was a labor and delivery nurse. The churches that I attended growing up were usually part of a loose association of modest non-denominational churches, sometimes house churches.

In hindsight I would say that the churches were charismatic (although far more reserved than the stereotypical ‘flag waving’ Pentecostal church) with a focus on discipleship and spiritual warfare, and Arminian-leaning in theology. Missionary work and counseling for various international faith groups and individuals was regularly supported. Concepts such as choirs, hymnals, liturgy, creeds, incense, robes, and Episcopal or Presbyterian polity (church government structures) were quite foreign to me. Even though I was not saved until age 19, I viewed with zealous cynicism certain other churches that appeared to be spiritually dead, going through the motions of human traditions and compromising with the culture without any outward evidence of a vital, living faith.

Although I once proudly boasted of my non-denominational credentials, I now prefer to simply label myself as a Christian without any other adjectives or qualifiers. I increasingly appreciate Christian diversity and believe in the ideal of true Christian unity, although I do not think it will be achieved before the return of Christ. However, I certainly do believe there are certain non-negotiables of the faith – the things that make Christianity Christianity.

Similarly, I used to be a hardcore, politically active Republican. Now I more or less abstain from all politics as a personal choice. I am not registered as a member of any political party. I did not vote in the last election. I felt increasingly convicted about wanting to have as few barriers between myself and others as possible, for the sake of the Gospel. Like the Apostle Paul, I seek to “become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). I in no way try to discourage others from voting, but I am choosing to focus more on the Kingdom of God than on the kingdoms of men. I understand that this may open me up to the charge of being “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good,” but so be it.

I currently reside in the Southeastern United States with my wife and young child. I have a B.A. in Psychology and a M.A. in Pastoral Counseling. I am considering pursuing a PhD in Theology at some undetermined point in the future, perhaps many years from now. I have worked in the mental health field since 2006 and have counseled over 1,000 people in that relatively short time.

THREE REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT THEOLOGY

Three Fingers

1. Theology is COOL

Theology can be a way in which we worship God with our minds. Proverbs 25:2 tells us that, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” [NASB]. Christian Theology is the one and only discipline that peers behind the veil of the weightiest metaphysical realities.

2. Theology is HARD

“Even though most evangelicals agree that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant … Word of God, sometimes groups among them arrive at contradictory doctrinal conclusions” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 22). And many of these points of disagreement are not trivial, but rather are deemed crucial by those who have debated them for thousands of years.

3. Theology is IMPORTANT

Bad theology has been used to justify evil acts, such as antisemitism. Individuals with good theology have been burned at the stake and drowned as heretics by those with opposing views. Theology is important because, ultimately, what you believe should determine what you do.