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Salvation pertains to everyone, but theology to only a few – Erasmus

[This is a guest post from Michael Fletcher, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]

Erasmus (formally Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus), was born October 28th, 1466. Today marks 545 years since his birth! Erasmus was a Catholic priest and theologian during the reformation period. With the rise of clerical abuses in the church, he was very committed to reforming the Church from within. Today, I am sharing an excerpt from his book Enchridion militis Christiani, namely, The Manual of a Chrisian Knight. I believe it’s an interesting thought for today, even though it was written in 1503. What do you think?

How can it be that these great volumes instruct us to live well and after a Christian manner, which a man in all his life cannot have leisure once to look over? In like manner as if a physician should prescribe unto him that lieth sick in peril of death to read Jacobus de partibus, or such other huge volumes, saying that there he should find remedy for his disease: but in the meantime the patient dieth, wanting present remedy wherewith he might be holpen. In such a fugitive life it is necessary to have a ready medicine at hand.

How many volumes have they made of restitution, of confession, of slander, and other things innumerable? And though they boult and search out by piecemeal everything by itself, and so define every thing as if they mistrusted all other men’s wits, yea as though they mistrusted the goodness and mercy of God, whiles they do prescribe how he ought to punish and reward every fact either good or bad: yet they agree not amongst themselves, nor yet sometimes do open the thing plainly, if a man would look near upon it, so much diversity both of wits and circumstances is there. Moreover although it were so that they had determined all things well and truly, yet besides this that they handle and treat of these things after a barbarous and unpleasant fashion, there is not one amongst a thousand that can have any leisure to read over these volumes: The great volumes. Or who is able to bear about with him Secunam secunde, the work of St Thomas? And yet there is no man but he ought to use a good life, to the which Christ would that the way should be plain and open for every man, and that not by inexplicable crooks of disputations, not able to be resolved, but by a true and sincere faith and charity not feigned, whom hope doth follow which is never ashamed. The theology appertaineth to few men, but the salvation appertaineth to all.

And finally let the great doctors, which must needs be but few in comparison to all other men, study and busy themselves in those great volumes. And yet nevertheless the unlearned and rude multitude which Christ died for ought to be provided for: and he hath taught a great portion of Christian virtue which hath inflamed men unto love thereof. The wise king, when he did teach his son true wisdom, took much more pain in exhorting him thereunto than in teaching him Those be noted that of purpose make the faculty which they profess obscure and hard, as who should say that to love wisdom were in a manner to have attained it. It is a great shame and rebuke both for lawyers and physicians that they have of a set purpose, and for the nonce, made their art and science full of difficulty, and hard to be attained or come by, to the intent that both their gains and advantage might be the more plentiful, and their glory and praise among the unlearned people the greater: but it is a much more shameful thing to do the same in the philosophy of Christ: but rather contrariwise we ought to endeavour ourselves with all our strengths to make it so easy as can be, and plain to every man. Nor let this be our study to appear learned ourselves, but to allure very many to a Christian man’s life.

Do scientists (and theologians) suck the beauty from the universe?.

An artist can appreciate the beauty of a flower. Can a scientist? Or, does the scientist get lost in detail and analysis, forgetting to enjoy the sheer beauty of what he or she is studying? That’s the question Richard Feynman leads with in this video, arguing that knowing something better just adds to our appreciation of its beauty. Looking closely at the flower doesn’t mean that we miss its beauty; it means that we get to see aspects of its beauty that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

As he was talking, I was struck by how similar this is to theology. Many worry that theology turns God into an object of analysis. Theologians study God like a beetle under the microscope, forgetting exactly how amazing and beautiful this wondrous God actually is. And, I’m sure that happens. But, that’s not theology. If theology is about reflecting deeply on who God is so that we get to know him better, it should only lead to a deeper appreciation of his beauty. Theology is about looking closer.

This is really just the first two minutes of the video. In the rest, Feynman discusses scientific knowledge and doubt in an uncertain and mysterious universe. And, he comments on why he finds all religious explanations unsatisfying.

Check it out. If nothing else, the pictures in the video are stunning.

(via BoingBoing)

Evangelizing dead people

I’m either posting this cartoon because I think it could be used as a good discussion starter on predestination, total depravity, and evangelism, or because I just want to rile up the Calvinists. I’m not sure. Either way, here you go.

HT Fallen from Grace

It’s Groundhog Day…Again

The alarm clock beeps incessantly. Morning again. Reaching over, he fumbles with it a little before finding the snooze button. A few more minutes won’t hurt. A few more minutes to rest.

But, he can’t sleep. His mind already swirls with thoughts of the day ahead. So much to do. Little details, big projects, meetings. It’s going to be a busy day.

And, when it’s done, what does he have to look forward to? Doing it all over again. Tomorrow morning, it will be the same: hit the snooze button a few times, get out of bed, and face the same job, the same tasks, the same routine. He feels like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, endlessly living the same day over and over again,trying desperately to hide from the pointlessness of it all.

But hey, at least it’s a paycheck. He’s got bills to pay and groceries to buy. After all, if he didn’t have this job, his family wouldn’t be able to enjoy the good things in life either. Living for the weekends, as they say.

So, he rolls out of bed, stumbles into the bathroom, and starts his own personal Groundhog Day all over again.

And along the way, he messes up the Gospel.

It’s pretty easy to understand what the Gospel has to do with Sunday. But what about the rest of the week? If the Gospel doesn’t have anything to say about this part of your life, then it leaves most of your life untouched.

And, that’s often the impression that we give when we talk about the Gospel. If the good news is primarily that I can have my sins forgiven so I can spend eternity with God, then my job has relatively little to do with the Gospel. For most of us, work is just a necessary evil. It lets us earn money and maybe provide the occasional opportunity to share the Gospel. And even those of us who actually enjoy our jobs have a hard time seeing how it relates to the Gospel. So, work becomes a Gospel-free zone. The Gospel is for Sundays. The rest of the week is about something else entirely.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Remember how the story beings. Imagine Adam standing in the garden listening to God explain what he’s supposed to do. He’s standing in stunned silence trying to process what he’s just heard. Finally, after several slow seconds, he stammers, “You want me to take responsibility for the whole thing? Animals, plants, mountains, streams, oceans, everything? I’m supposed to watch over it all so that you can manifest your glory everywhere? Seriously? Do you see what the monkeys are doing over there? What made them think it would be a good idea to pick that stuff up and throw it at each other? Oh great, now the dogs are eating it. And you want me to be in charge of all this? Do I at least get vacations?”

God created us for work. He set us in creation and gave us work to do as one of the ways in which he would manifest his glory through us. And, if we fast-forward to the end of the story, we’ll see the same thing. The eternity that God has in store for us is not one of unending boredom, sitting on fluffy clouds playing our harps all day. Instead, it will be an eternity of work. Not the endless drudgery that work often is now. But, the joyful realization of our purpose: to serve in creation as God’s image bearers in the world.

So, what does all this have to do with today? How does this help us understand how our work relates to the Gospel? Because God has summoned us back into his kingdom so that we can again be what God always intended us to be, living in the world as citizens of the kingdom, image bearers.

The alarm beeps incessantly. It can’t possibly be morning again, can it? She rolls over and hits snooze. She knows he should get up. Busy day ahead. Of course, every day is busy. Pretty much the same. She looks forward to the weekend and getting some time with her family. It’s not that she hates her job, though she definitely doesn’t love it either. But she does enjoy her weekends.

She lays there for a while struggling with the apparently meaninglessness of it all. She doesn’t like working for just a paycheck. She wishes it could be more.

And then she remembers. Every day is an opportunity to live out her purpose in the world, to image God everywhere, helping people see his glory and through her. That doesn’t make all of the frustration go away. She’s still going to keep her eye out for a different job, one that fits her gifts and interests a little better. But, in the meantime, she’d better get up. She has work to do today.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

God Created the World for Himself

[This is a guest post by Ron Kimmel. Ron is a new Th.M. student at Western Seminary and a pastor at Bethany Church in Canby, OR. Ron is participating in this summer’sTh.M. seminar on Jonathan Edwards.]

Why did God create? That’s the question Jonathan Edwards wrestles with in The End for which God Created the World. In the process, he makes an important distinction between the proximate means of creation and the Ultimate End of creation. It’s a distinction that drives him toward an interesting conclusion.

Edwards deals quite extensively with the end for God is presumed (based upon human reasoning) to have created, and surprisingly JE does not cast these ends (consequences of creation) in a negative light. Instead, he looks on them as ‘means’ that God would use to communicate his Ultimate End. And, although he appreciates the value of the means, he warns strongly against equating them with the End itself.

It may be reasonable to argue that God created in order that He might show His love to creation, display His power, establish fellowship, or that it was a natural outflow of is character and nature. JE argues that it is quite a bewildered notion that God should have ever created for the purpose of receiving anything from His creation. He also argues that God did not create because it is merely in His nature and character to do so, even though that nature and character does exist within God.

JE argues that God is His own Ultimate End in creation. He delights in His own perfections and His delight can only be found in Himself. God makes His own perfections His end. In other words, God created out of the love for His own perfection, and creation is a witness to His own greatness. He created so that He might see His own virtues on display in what He had made. It begins and ends with Him. All other ‘means’ are merely consequences of creating.

Though God has created for Himself and He is His own Ultimate End, the concept of God being benevolent toward His creation cannot be a completely separate matter. JE argues that God’s goodness toward His creation is a way of gratifying His own desire and ‘general inclination.’ Set in this mode, God’s acts toward His creation (means) are directly related to God bringing Himself glory. Therefore, these are not seen as separate acts, but rather as coinciding and implied one within the other.

JE argues that this is at least partly because God does not see in past, present and future tenses, but rather He views all at once. Thus, JE links John 17:21 & 23 with the idea that’ redeemed’ are being brought home to God and are being swallowed up in Him so that there is no differentiation between the redeemed and God. This is not to suggest that the redeemed become God but that they are so united with Him that they become one. Thus, God’s benevolent acts toward creation are always linked to his acting on behalf of his own glory.

This has significant implications for life and ministry, particularly in JE’s view of communion. The concept of the redeemed being one with God would lead to all sorts of personal internal struggle toward those who participated in communion but could not give a testimony as to the nature of the conversion. If the redeemed really are expressions of God’s most holy perfections then pretending to reflect those perfections without having actualized the light would certainly lead to one’s condemnation and cast a dark shadow over the church.

Nonetheless, I think JE struggled mightily to find an appropriate balance between these two elements in this dissertation. He wrestled between God’s gracious treatment of creation and His eternal purpose of creation. The tension seems to have become a ‘both and’ type of agreement, but he places the horse before the cart in that God created for His own delight and all else is consequence.

One disturbing thing almost from the outset of reading JE’s work was that of the wrath of God. Where is it? Who’s under it? He talks little about this here and he limits the “consequences” largely to good things that God does toward man. Wrath is spoken of sparingly. While leaving the reader somewhat in want, he points to God being glorified in judging the wicked: glorified, in that He judges the wicked for the sake of the redeemed, creating in the redeemed a greater dependence upon Him and trust in His mercies that would lead to strengthening the union between God and His chosen. His point being that your neighbor is damned so you will glorify God. Though one may feel misery over the damned, it is not for misery itself that one is to delight because misery is a consequence of creation that should find its final realization in giving glory to God. Why? Because man is not to be concerned with his own feelings or emotions and recognize that God is just.

While the premise is excellent in that God’s wrath leads to His glorification, the struggle comes in accepting that God’s wrath is a consequence of creation. Wrath has its beginning and ending with God. Meaning, wrath has always existed in God. It was not just done for the sake of the redeemed but has always existed in God’s virtues and characteristic perfections.

As seems to be the case with JE’s works, this is a humbling and challenging study by a great mind and philosopher of his day. To witness his personal struggles and journey toward putting into words what he believed to the most accurate descriptions of why God would bother with man leaves one questioning the pettiness of his own daily considerations. To have such a great challenge in this day and age of materialism and selfishness is to be found worth its weight in gold if one will pause long enough from his blog post to be mentored by those who have gone before. Thank you JE for pushing your readers on toward glorifying Him.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

The Blandness of Theological Small Talk – reflections on the Borg/Blomberg interaction at NW ETS

I hate small talk. Prattling inanely with someone you barely know about things you find only marginally interesting, just doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good conversation. On the contrary, give me a meaningful conversation, some significant dialog, or even a lively debate anytime. But, stick me in a room thick with the stench of small-talkiness, and I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Unfortunately, there’s a theological equivalent of small talk, and I think I saw it on full display just yesterday.

Let me explain. A really meaningful conversation requires at least four things.

  1. Unique identities. For a meaningful conversation to take place, you and I need to be different enough to create a “space” for the conversation. I don’t really need to dialog with someone who agrees with me. I already know what I think. At the same time, those involved in the conversation need to recognize the uniqueness of everyone else. In a good conversation, I’m not simply try to replicate myself by turning you into a (less adequate) clone of me. Instead, in a good conversation, everyone sees the other as valuable and as contributing something meaningful to the process.
  2. Owned perspectives. At the same time, everyone needs to have a perspective on the issue(s) and to “own” that perspective sufficiently to want to retain it. Have you ever tried to have a good conversation with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re discussing? It doesn’t work.
  3. Respectful pushback. The first two combine to form the third. If I respect you as a unique and valuable individual and if I respect the importance of the issue were discussing, then I need to push back if I think you’re wrong or misdirected on some point. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have to be rude. But, it does mean that I’m not just going to let differences slide. I might do that with someone I have no interest in – the person in line behind me at the coffee shop, for example – but not someone whose unique value I claim to respect.
  4. Teachability. Finally, in a real conversation, all parties are looking to learn something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to jettison our own perspectives – we “own” those, remember – but it does mean that we see everyone else in the conversation as having something beneficial to contribute, to which we should all pay close attention.

If you think about the most dynamic and engaged conversations you’ve ever had, I’m guessing that you’ll see most (hopefully all) of these elements represented. At least, I hope you’ve had conversations like this. They’re fabulous experiences that should be repeated as often as possible.

Unfortunately, when Craig Blomgerg and Marcus Borg met at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was hoping for some real dialog. Instead, I think all we got was small talk.

Borg and Blomberg clearly have their own perspectives. No problem there. Indeed, they went out of their way to affirm the “other” in the conversation, and they were remarkably polite throughout. Unsurprisingly, they each “own” their perspective. They’re professional scholars who have written and debated these issues extensively. So, they clearly know what they think and hold to it with conviction.

The problem came with the lack of respectful pushback. Indeed, the problem is that there really wasn’t any. With two high-powered scholars like this, you’d expect to see a pretty dynamic give-and-take, as each takes a stand on issues that they feel strongly about. Instead, it felt more like the kind of get-to-know-you small talk that typically happens in the lobby before the session starts. They both explained what they think on a wide range of issues, and sought to clarify the positions of the other person. Indeed, Borg even said at one point that “understanding” was their real objective. Neither really stepped out and said what we all know they were both thinking, “You’re wrong.” Apparently we’re not allowed to say that anymore. And, sadly, without it, you can’t have real dialog. Understanding the “other” is fine, but by itself it is insufficient and unsatisfying.

The closest that we got to this was Blomberg making it clear that he thinks a future physical resurrection is fundamental to adequate Christian theology. Amen! For a moment I had a glimmer of hope that we’d see a real dialog take shape. Instead, he let it stand as a clarification of his own perspective. And, we lapsed back into “understanding.”

Let me be clear. I think good conversations need to be polite, but they also need to be respectful. And, those are not the same thing. Politeness says that I will not be rude and offensive in our conversation. (Yes, I realize that many historical theologians broke this rule regularly. I think they were wrong. See, I said it.) And, Brian LePort is right that everyone at the meeting was remarkably polite.

Respect is different. Respect says that I value you and this issue enough to take a stand and wrestle toward greater truth and clarity. Respect demands more than just understanding. Respect requires us to take a stand and say “no” when necessary, while still seeking to grow and learn through the interaction. If I truly see you as “other,” I respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong.

I’d have liked to see more respect yesterday.

Indeed, I’d like to see more respect in theological dialog as a whole. What I think we often see today is politeness without respect, which is the perfect recipe for theological small talk.

At which point, I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Flotsam and jetsam (2/2)

  • This fun video explains the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England. Living in Scotland for a while, I quickly realized that these are important distinctions to get straight lest you accidentally tell a Scot that he/she is “English”.

What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

All this talk about civility is beginning to make me uncomfortable. Civility refers to courteous and polite behavior. But courteous and polite behavior is not, in and of itself, a religious value. At times, it is to be subordinated to other, more important values.

Orthodox Christians believe they have managed to preserve and pass down the traditions of the church from those days through the rest of the Ecumenical Councils, through the ‘great schism’ with Rome, despite pressure and persecution from Muslims, Crusaders, Communists and Protestants (!) without deviation; they see themselves as having faithfully managed Christ’s blueprint and agenda for his people to the present day.

11 Steps to Writing a Good Theology Paper

The perennial problem of the seminary student: what does it mean to write a good theology paper and how do you go about doing it?

Although there really is no definitive answer to such questions, here’s an older article that John Frame wrote describing How to Write a Theology Paper. He explains the 11 steps that he goes through in writing the paper and offers some good thoughts for any seminary student looking for tips on how to write a good paper.

At one point, he explains the importance of offering your own argument and not just re-stating the opinions and ideas of other people:

Furthermore, every paper should contain something of the theologian himself. It is rarely sufficient simply to tell the reader what someone else says (an “expository paper,” as I call it). Nor, in seminary level papers, is it adequate to write down a series of “standard” arguments on an issue—arguments that have been used time and time again. I describe papers of that sort as “party lines.” Party lines are often useful; it is good to have at your fingertips the standard arguments for infant baptism, for example. I myself use this kind of argument frequently in talking with inquirers. But generally, party-line arguments do not belong in theological papers. Expositions, summaries, surveys, party lines—all of these are essentially regurgitations of ideas obtained from other sources. They involve little analytical or critical thinking. But such thinking is precisely what is needed, if the paper is to represent an advance in the church’s knowledge.

You’ll need to read his paper to see his whole process, but here are the 11 steps that he suggests.

  1. Choose a topic with care.
  2. Understand your sources.
  3. Write down what you find interesting.
  4. Ask questions about your sources.
  5. Formulate a critical perspective on your sources.
  6. Organize your notes according to topics of interest.
  7. Ask, then, What do I want to tell my audience on the basis of my research?
  8. Be self-critical.
  9. Decide on an audience.
  10. Decide on a format and style.
  11. Produce your formulation.

HT Justin Taylor

A Theological Critique of Philosophy

Many thanks to Ben Myers for pointing out that John Milbank’s 2011 Stanton Lectures, “Philosophy: A Theological Critique,” will be made available on the ABC Religion & Ethics site.

This should be a fascinating lecture series worth following. As, Milbank explains:

This series of lectures will not be concerned with either the philosophy of religion or philosophical theology. Instead, they will be about the relationship between philosophy and theology.

Here’s the outline (I’ll try to remember to update this as each lecture becomes available):

19 January: The Return of Metaphysics in the 21st century

26 January: Immanence and Life

2 February: Immanence and Number

9 February: Transcendence without Participation

16 February: Participated Transcendence Reconceived

23 February: The Habit of Reason

2 March: The Realism of Feeling

9 March: The Surprise of the Imagined