Wednesday, November 28, 2007


In a time in which everybody is a post-something-or-other, I think I can affirm that I am a post-Lutheran. I am no longer a Lutheran, but it is same to say there are some vestiges of Lutheranism that will probably be forever with me.

In Wisconsin, most people who grow up going to church were either raised Catholic or Lutheran. Several years ago I noticed that when I was talking to people that had blown off the religion of their youth, the Catholics differed markedly from the Lutherans. A Catholic may not have been to church for 20 years but will be all over you if you rip on Mary or the Pope. A Lutheran that has not been to church will not care at all who you rip on, whether Martin Luther, Augustine (if she even knows who Augustine is), or Jesus Himself.

I noticed the other day that there is something that binds all backslidden Lutherans together, something that has escaped my attention, but I think is quite true. At the popular level Lutherans are not defined by what they are, but by what they are not. If you want to get a Lutheran's goat, start talking about praying to Mary or the infallibility of the Pope. There is one thing a Lutheran is and will always be: NOT CATHOLIC.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Theology is not Knowledge

I so totally don't get theology right now. This is another perennial issue that I revisit every so often. Right now I am working through Vanhoozer's Drama of Doctrine, which is generally a very stimulating book. But I find myself butting up against two internal obstacles that keep me questioning the validity of the entire theological project - not Vanhoozer's specifically, but Christian Theology in general. So I decided to blog about it, not to advance an argument against the discipline of theology, but to try to articulate the reasons that lie behind my involuntary emotional reactions. I hope, perhaps with the help of some commenters, to make some sense of it all. So here, to the best of my ability to discern it, is why I get frustrated with theology:

1. Theology is not knowledge. Knowledge, at least the concept I have in mind, is inherently public. It can be confirmed or denied by others. Theology, on the other hand, depends on certain judgments made by a private community, the church. Now I think there is such a thing as private knowledge, knowledge that is legitimately held by only one individual, but these are typically about personal matters (personal health or sex life, for instance). If the claim to knowledge refers to something in the public domain, then I don't think it can be called knowledge if it is only held by a private individual or community.

By way of contrast, Biblical studies, whether Old or New Testament, deal with knowledge because they are essentially historical disciplines. Regardless of what private views people may have about God, they may all equally discuss Paul's view of God as presented in the New Testament - the data is publicly accessible. Likewise, philosophy of religion counts as knowledge because it is dependent on the laws of logic. Regardless of people's private views, they may all equally discuss whether certain beliefs are logically consistent. Perhaps a shorthand way to express this is to say that if you can't teach it at a public university, it's not knowledge.

2. Closely related is the notion that theology is speculative. Now I know that theoretically theology is not speculative, but theologians define a method and then follow that method to produce results. Yet I still get the feeling that what Karl Barth did was sit around and think up cool ways to think about God, and he made everyone go, "Wow, that's deep." But it's still just thinking; it's still just speculation. The real work, it seems to me, is being done by the biblical scholars, who continually work to help us get a fuller sense of what the biblical texts mean.

On the other hand, the main reason why any of this matters is because Christians believe it and want to order their lives accordingly. Thus I could make a case that the work of theologians is vastly more important than the work of biblical scholars. That is the main reason I sometimes feel a pull to pursue vocational theology. But I am not excited about the thought of devoting my life to a discipline that is speculative and doesn't result in knowledge!

I suppose the way through this is either to redefine theology, or to redefine knowledge and the value of speculation. It seems that my objections to theology are themselves theological , and I suspect they are somehow self-referentially defeating. The point of this exercise, though, was not to advance an argument, but to sort out my life. I welcome your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

An Evangelical Standard: Five Books

A few years ago, before I had decided to go to seminary, I was talking with a friend, Scott Anderson, who had gotten his M.Div. from Trinity (where I'm going now). Of course, we got to talking about books, and I wanted some book recommendations. I asked him to recommend five books to me. I have been thinking about this list the past few days. It seems like a standard sort of evangelical list, though not at all the list I would produce now. It became sort of a point of departure for me in thinking through what I think is important.

Here was his list (produced from memory):

1. Christian Theology, by Millard Erickson. For Scott, this is the standard Evangelical theology, laying a solid foundation while interacting with non-evangelical positions.

2. "A good volume on church history." I was a little irritated by this one, since I wanted a specific recommendation. Perhaps we might fill in Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley.

3. One book of the Bible. "You should pick a book of the Bible, and study it until you understand it thoroughly." Again, I was a little annoyed with this recommendation, since it wasn't really a specific book. But I understand the thrust behind it - we should have some depth in our biblical knowledge, not just breadth.

4. A Theology of the New Testament, by G.E. Ladd. We should know how the Bible fits together.

5. The Hermeneutical Spiral, by Grant Osborne. It is not enough to read the Bible, but we must understand the complex issues involved in interpreting it. I have had Osborne for a couple classes now, but I still haven't read this book. He mentioned a few years ago that he was revising it for a second edition, so I decided to wait. The second edition is out now, so I suppose I should get with the program.

What five books would you recommend in a similar situation? The audience is an educated Christian without seminary training.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

What is Christian Music?

Check out Jake's discussion of what constitutes Christian music. I think it is a hard question to answer, at least if you want to be consistent with other areas of your life. The problem, I suppose has to do with how we categorize art. Does it matter what the faith commitment is of the person who wrote the lyrics? Or the singer? Or the other instrumentalists? Well, to some extent it is going to have an influence on the song. On the other hand, if a Christian sings a song about a kitchen chair, is that a 'Christian' song?

I am not ready to throw out the term Christian music just because it is slippery. There are certainly some songs which are explicitly Christian, as well as others which explicitly are not. As for the gray area in between, I will be interested to see what Jake concludes when this is all done. In the meantime, it is worth checking out Patrick's theology of Indie Rock from last January. I don't agree with everything he has to say, but you will be repaid for the the time it takes to read and think it through.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Hendrix-inspired worship

I led worship tonight at our Wednesday night worship service at church. I am sick as a dog. I'm not sure exactly how sick dogs are, but I'm sure I'm at least that sick. No one could sub for me, so I had to go. I was doped up on NyQuil, and we had some kind of funky incense burning. My head was spinning. I turned to the other guys on the worship team and said, Man, it's just like real rock-n-roll, except I can worship God with a clean conscience. At times I felt like people in the congregation were just staring at me, but all in all I felt like it went pretty well, like God was pleased with our offering. Even if reality faded in and out in the midst of it.

I'm going to try to go get better. I have lots of papers coming up, so I have to get well again. Good night.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Tyranny of Christmas

I have been irritated my whole life with the way "the Christmas season" dominates over a month of each year. That is nearly 10% of our lives! The rest of our year is filled with engaging ideas, interesting music and variety. But suddenly the Christmas season hits, and a huge segment of our population shifts into a whole different canon of overplayed music.

Yesterday on my 2-hour-commute to class I accidentally heard several Christmas songs on the radio, on, I think, three different radio stations. I just wanted to scream. Does the Christmas season officially begin after Halloween now? Has Thanksgiving been overrun, like a small town that is overtaken as its nearby metropolis continues to swell? I am wondering if the Jehovah's Witnesses that came to my door were right that Christmas is really a pagan holiday. I can see Pan playing his Christmastime pipes on November 1, and the world bows to worship.

Call me a Scrooge, I guess.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

One Hell of a Sleight-of-Hand

I've got all these thoughts going on now and I've got to get them out. Brian left an insightful comment on my pluralism/inclusivism/exclusivism post from April. I argued for a separation between theological exclusivism (the belief that those who do not believe as we do are wrong) and soteriological exclusivism (the belief that those who do not believe as we do are not saved). He wrote:

(1) Your proposal concerning theological and soteriological exclusivism/pluralism only works if it can be proven that within a theological construct, exclusivism or pluralism is not a central element. If it is, then we cannot separate dogmatism concerning a particular theology from the declaration of that theology concerning who is and is not saved.
Thanks for your comment, Brian. First off, the pronouncement of soteriological exclusivism on the basis of theological exclusivism has such drastic consequences that I cannot help but ask myself, what if a piece of the puzzle is put together wrong? What if we have misunderstood the way the atonement works? What if salvation is an issue about knowing God instead of an issue of eternal destiny? Who are those people standing outside the New Jerusalem (Rev 22.24-27) after all the sinners have been thrown into the lake of fire(in 20.15)? We must resist answering these questions too smugly.

Have you ever done this little sight test. Read the the words in the triangles on the picture. Read them out loud. Go ahead. Do it right now.

If you thought it said, "Paris in the spring," "Bird in the hand," and "Once in a lifetime," you are wrong. Read them again. This time put your finger on each word as you say it. The words the and a are repeated in each triangle. In our quickness to make judgments, it can be easy to miss important details. My point is simply that it is so easy to be wrong.

But my real issue is that I think we miss the point when seekers ask about soteriological exclusivism. The typical response seems to go: (1)The fact that hell awaits those who reject Jesus is inherent in our theology, (2)Our theology is plausible based on other factors (things like manuscript evidence or arguments for the resurrection), therefore (3)The fact that hell awaits those who reject Jesus is plausible. But internal consistency was not the issue behind the seeker's question. I think most seekers have no problem with (2) unless it leads to (3). The plausibility of Christian theology is undermined by soteriological exclusivism.

The conclusion of my argument in the original post bears repeating:

The problem many of my friends have with Evangelical Christianity, I would suggest, is not its claim to theological exclusivism. It is rather in the fact that traditional evangelical theology includes a harsh pronouncement of soteriological exclusivism. I am not convinced that our faith has a strong enough epistemic foundation to make such bold exclusivist claims. I think what people find offensive is not when we claim “Jesus is Lord,” but when we claim “if you don’t believe the gospel you will go to hell.” To conflate the two forms of exlusivism and then defend theological exclusivism seems to me a rhetorical sleight-of-hand which does not really address the issues my non-Christian friends typically have.

Wishful Dreaming About Life After Death

I remember losing an important business receipt years ago. I spent an entire night tossing and turning about where I would find the receipt. Several times throughout the night I actually dreamed I found it, only to wake up and realize it was just a wishful dream -- in reality I was no closer to finding the receipt than I was before the dream. Thankfully I did find the receipt the next day in my office wastebasket and was thrilled that I could have a good night sleep again.

Sometimes it seems people exercise a similar kind of wishful dreaming about our personal salvation. In particular, I want to respond to a comment made by John Botscharow after Brian's post on who will go to heaven. John wrote, "There is a... solution to this conundrum: each religion has its own heaven and its own hell. You go to the heaven or hell, as appropriate, for your particular religion, and that includes atheists."

How is this line of reasoning any different than my wishful dream? We do not have the liberty to decide what happens after we die, but we do have a responsibility to ourselves to make sure that what we believe lines up with the evidence we have been given. As far as I am aware, the evidence only points in a few possible directions:

1. Materialism - there is no god, and there is nothing beyond this life.
2. Revelation - God has revealed Himself through one of the world religions, and He will one day judge the world according to that revelation.
3. Reincarnation - We will come back as another human, or perhaps as an animal.

The evidence to commend option 3 seems to be that some eastern thinkers arrived at this position after having an enlightenment experience. Option 1 has many intelligent defenders who would point to scientific data (or perhaps the lack of credible data for anything else). On the whole, I find option 2 most compelling because there are good reasons for believing that God has given us Revelation (or I would not be a Christian). But I can at least understand all three positions; I can dialog with them since we are on the common ground that we must base our views on some kind of the evidence.

John's 'solution', by contrast, appears to be nothing more than pop-speculation. My question to John is, what evidence can you possibly provide for this strange belief? No major world religion teaches anything like this; no one claims the scientific data points in this direction. So far as I can tell, the only thing you have to support your position is the fact that you like it, which is nothing more than wishful dreaming.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Golden Commandment

"Just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way" - Jesus (Luke6.31)

I had always thought of this as a verse about ethics - you ought to live this way because it is the right thing to do. But a few weeks ago I was going through the story of Jacob with the kids for homeschool. We talked about how Jacob schemed and lied to get his birthright and blessing, and how later on Laban tricked him with his wives. There is an implicit argument here that you WILL be treated as you have treated others. Of course the argument is not explicit, and perhaps not everything we do in this life will have direct repercussions in this life - but often they will. So I think Jesus' statement is not so much about ethics as about wisdom, learning how to live your life in accordance with God's spiritual laws of the universe.

The golden commandment, then, is quite similar to Paul's assertion in Galatians 6.7: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap." I wonder how many times the things that happen to people are the spiritual result of things they have done earlier in life. And the people who cry most loudly, "Unfair, unfair!" are actually reaping what they sowed.

Of course, the book of Job reminds us that not everything that happens to us is the result of our actions. But let us not conclude from it that nothing is.