Tag Archives: Theology

Incarnation and the theological task


Medieval_ThinkerAnother in the series of “mini-posts” that wraps up my series from the draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Theology

Renewed attention to the Incarnation can also renew our passion for theology. Focusing devotionally on the world-changing entry of God into his own creation in human form also focuses our minds on how amazing God’s interactions with the world and humanity are. Bringing alive our reason, which is part of the precious image of God in us, we will begin to thirst again for knowledge of this active, present God. Theology, after all, is not the study of God in isolation from the world or humanity in isolation from God – it is the study of the interactions between God and humanity. And the Incarnation is the flabbergasting fact in the middle of that.

What even Protestants can learn from transubstantiation and medieval atonement theory – you may be surprised!


In my previous post, I showed how the essence of heresy is to resolve a biblical paradox in one direction or the other in order to satisfy the human need for a consistent rational explanation of things; and how the early church, on the contrary, used reason not to resolve or dismiss paradox and mystery, but rather to protect it. Examples included the writings of Irenaeus, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa against heresy (protecting the essentially paradoxical nature of the whole Gospel message), and the “four fences” of the Chalcedonian Definition (protecting the paradox that Jesus was both fully God and fully human).

Now we move to the medieval period for two more examples of this use of reason to protect, rather than resolve or dismiss, the paradox and mystery at the heart of Christian theology – that is, the Incarnation.

The first example is the doctrine of transubstantiation, promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This explanation of how the Eucharist “works” extends the Chalcedonian explanation that one person (Christ) can indeed be both 100% God and 100% human, to a nuanced piece of (Aristotelian) scientific reasoning on how the same sort of “this and also that” reality can be true of the Eucharistic elements. In other words, transubstantiation tried to explain, in terms accessible to scientific reason, how Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” can possibly be true.

The second example comes from the teachings of Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard, both of whom we’ve already met, and looks at their reasoned explanations of the bloody scandal that was the Crucifixion. Why on earth would God have to redeem his human creatures in such a bizarre and painful way? If you’re a thoughtful Christian or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith, then you’ve likely wondered this yourself. Again, Anselm and Abelard used forms of reasoned explanation that made good sense in their cultural contexts to explain this paradox: God died.

In other words, the divine Being who “has His own being in Himself” ceased, as all creatures do, to be! Anselm and Abelard, both brilliant dialecticians, both refused to use reason (in the mode of the early heretics) to flatten this paradox in one direction (Jesus was not really human and thus God did not really die–the docetist heresy) or the other (Jesus was not really God, and thus God did not really die–the Arian heresy). Instead, each used cultural materials to protect that central mystery while offering reasonable explanations for why the God the Second Person of the Trinity found it necessary to die on the cross–the ultimate Being submitting, however temporarily, to death, just like a sinful human.

Here’s how I work all of this out in the “theology chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis: Continue reading

How theology became the Queen of the Sciences (and how Aristotle helped us see that “all truth is God’s truth”)


 

Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went

Aristotle, wondering where the rest of his body went

You may know that there was some sort of general shift in the high medieval period (1000 – 1300) from a Platonic to an Aristotelian worldview. What you may not know is how deeply that affected the way Western Christians came to see God and the world. Here’s the skinny, in another clip from the “theology chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis.

Once again, this is a draft, and I’ve scattered through it, here and there, little clues for myself on how I might use and restructure this material as I moved toward a finished book – pardon our dust!

Aristotle’s re-discovery

Why was Aristotle so important to the development of scholasticism?

Basically, until the rediscovery of the body of his works in the 13th c., the prime philosophical influence on Christian thinkers in the West was Plato, via the neo-platonic thought of Augustine.

Plato

Rel/Sci: Plato had essentially been a mystic, and his philosophy had been based on the principle that ideas such as the True, the Beautiful and the Good had real existence, apart from the visible world. In fact, he believed that the passing forms of this visible world, which we know through our senses, are not a real source of knowledge. Only our reason, which leads us to know these changeless, universal patterns called ‘ideas,’ would give true knowledge. This position is also known as ‘realism,’ and is held by such early scholastics as Anselm—again, as he and others of his time had inherited it through Augustine.

Aristotle

SCI/REL:  Aristotle, on the other hand, was far less mystical than Plato. To him, the visible world is real. Ideas are not presupposed structures which exist somewhere “out there.” They exist as an integral part of the phenomena of the visible world. Therefore, the world is the prime object of knowledge for Aristotle. He is, in other words, a scientist. Continue reading

Thinking God’s thoughts after him: the rise of the medieval scholastics


Scholasticism

Scholasticism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been posting bits of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis as they get written. Today I launch into a three-part section of the chapter on the medieval passion for theology. This whole section deals with the peak movement in medieval theology: scholasticism.

Scholasticism is a much-misunderstood movement still covered with the mud of Enlightenment disdain (“All they did was sit around debating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin”). But its actual goals, development, and achievements lead us to some surprisingly modern applications. These take-aways for today have to do with the ways scholastic thinkers managed to hold together (not without tension and controversy) faith & reason, love & logic, religion & science, and Word and world, which will be the subject of the section following these three. As usual, all of this is still in draft stage, so you’ll see the sawdust and rough edges of the workshop.

So, on to part I of what my friend Bruce Hindmarsh likes to call the “potted history” of this fascinating movement in medieval Christian thought:

Definition, significance, and brief potted history of scholasticism

Although many areas and movements in medieval thought are worthy of study, this chapter will focus on scholasticism.

Definition

“Scholasticism” just means “theology done in the schools.” The schools in question were “the monastic and cathedral schools of the eleventh and twelfth centuries—Bec, Laon, Chartres, Saint Victor, Notre Dame de Paris—and the universities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—Paris and Oxford and the long line of their younger sisters.”[1] Essentially, medieval scholasticism was the birthplace of systematic theology: the attempt to apply logical categories and modes of argumentation – especially Aristotelian dialectics – to the materials of Scripture and Christian tradition.

Significance

One of the remarkable things about scholasticism was the way it wove reason and tradition together. Though the 12th-century renaissance did amount to an awakening on “the positive value of human logic and the autonomy of the human mind,” it was based as well on the value of authority. We would do well to imitate the scholastics in this, for among those later Western thinkers who Fairweather says used the forms of thought, asked the questions, and raised the solutions of the scholastics are Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant.  He concludes, “The great teachers of medieval scholasticism are among the most significant intellectual ancestors of the modern West, and their theological and philosophical ideas have played a large part in the doctrinal formation of every Christian communion which stems from Western Europe.”[2] Continue reading

The evangelical abdication of Truth; or, Two out of three is really, really bad


truth on handsWork continues on my book-in-progress, Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. The chapter with the working title “Passion for theology” has been kicking my butt up and down the street for a few days, but I got up at 4 this morning and the introduction finally came together. Here it is:

In the charismatic church where I came to Christ as a young man, we couldn’t wait for Sunday. Week after week we experienced such rich, life-changing ministry in worship and prayer. Night after night, the altar was jammed with eager worshippers seeking a “touch from the Lord.” And it seemed like He was always there to meet us and put his loving arms around us. After the service, we would leave the building with our hearts bursting with gratitude and joy. We even joked that it might not be safe to drive in that condition! And it didn’t take much prodding for us to evangelize, either: who wouldn’t want to share such riches?

I will always be grateful for those days, and for the divine condescension that worked among us with such power. Some folks accuse charismatics of not giving God or Christ his due. “There’s so much ‘me’ language in their songs,” they grump. And sure, our worship could become self-indulgent. But the critics just don’t “get” why charismatics use the first person so much in church. It’s because they live in constant awe that the God of Creation condescends to save and to love even them. What a God, who meets us in our brokenness and wraps his arms around us like the father with the prodigal son! The charismatic experience of God is like every love song on the radio. Try writing one of those without using the first person!

More than all of this, we loved church because we knew that we came away from it changed. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of imperfection in our lives. But along with the love-fest came real personal transformation: Sins confessed. Grace experienced. Old wounds healed. Broken relationships restored. Release from addictions. God not only loved us—he made us better people. We experienced not only the Beauty of his presence among us, but also the Goodness that came from the operation of his Spirit in our hearts.

But here’s the thing. As the Greek philosophers knew, humans cannot live on Beauty and Goodness alone. There is a third realm necessary for human flourishing: the realm of Truth. And in that area, I sensed that the charismatic church of my twenties was standing on thin ice. Many of our key teachings came from self-taught celebrity preachers who skewed heavily to the topical—and away from the exegetical—end of the preaching spectrum. Their messages were rousing, to be sure. They got the people standing on their feet and coming up to the altar. But by dint of stringing together out-of-context Bible verses with some homespun wisdom, these teachers took us down some garden paths: The prosperity gospel. Blame-the-victim faith healing. Demon-in-every-doorknob spiritual warfare. We fell over ourselves to get to all that wonderful Beauty and Goodness, and we left Truth in the ditch. Continue reading

We must not abdicate the theological task – a word from C S Lewis and the medievals


Henry became a Cistercian under the influence ...

Bernard of Clairvaux united love of God and attention to theology: he was NOT the opponent of philosophical theology that many portray him as.

Another draft clip from the “passion for theology” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis:

So, Lewis sought wisdom through philosophy, and that wisdom led him on a path to Christianity. But he never stopped being a philosopher—even in writing his famous children’s books. One remembers Professor Digory’s exclamation in The Last Battle: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

For us, on the other hand, the temptation is perhaps the opposite—having found Christianity, we see no use for a reasoned exploration of Truth. What Lewis and the medievals can help us know is that we evangelicals cannot content ourselves with seeking after the charismatic experience of the “beauty of God’s holiness,” or even with the practical pursuit of that holiness in our own hearts and actions. As the classical philosophers taught all subsequent generations, Beauty and Goodness are but two of our proper ends. The third is Truth. For ultimately a beautiful and good life can only remain so if we live it in the light of Truth. And since Christians would agree with all theists that God is the source of Truth, we must turn to God as the first and most proper subject for reasoned inquiry. Which is to say, none of us—even the simplest and most untutored—can abdicate our responsibility (and privilege) as theologians.

For most of us, this will never mean grasping the intricacies of philosophical theology; that is the job of academic theologians, as it is of the pastors they train to grasp at least the bones and sinews of theology (seminaries certainly have as their primary task the training of theologically intelligent pastors). But all Christians are theologians in other ways. First and most simply, as the Orthodox tradition has always insisted, to pray is to do theology.[1] Second, to do theology is also to listen carefully to our pastors and teachers and to read Scripture in the light of the Tradition they pass on to us—for most of us, this is the most important way we do theology.

If we don’t seek and have Truth in our “inmost parts,” then we have confusion, self-contradiction. We have a weak basis for life. And again, in the Western tradition in which most of my readers have been formed, philosophy has always been a way of life. So my argument to modern Christians in this chapter is: blow the dust off the theological tomes. Steal theological pursuits back from the academics, because those pursuits are about life. They are not about making a career or speaking only to others in a technical discipline. As Anselm of Canterbury was, we too must be about “faith seeking understanding.” And we could find much worse guides in that pursuit than such medieval theologians as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas . . . and pointing back to these, C.S. Lewis as the self-styled “dinosaur”—the “native speaker” who  translates their medieval ideas for us.[2]


[1] The early “desert theologian” Evagrius Pontus is said to have put it like this: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”

[2] By the way, by distinguishing Truth from Beauty and Goodness, I do not mean to divide what neither medieval thinkers nor Lewis divided. For instance, Lewis begins his famous essay on natural law and virtue ethics, The Abolition of Man, with a challenge against two textbook authors who claim that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder. He insists that on the contrary, beauty is actually present in objects, independent of our perception of them. There is thus, for example, a truth-telling quality of Beauty, so to speak, in a waterfall. And from that truth-telling quality, we can derive (and Lewis does derive, in that essay) the broader principle that there is also moral truth embedded in the nature of things. So here we have Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, all together. To paraphrase Robert Louis Wilken (from his wonderful The Spirit of Early Christian Thought), the great engine driving the search for theological truth, and even perhaps to a degree scientific truth, the early and medieval church history, is not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity, but rather is the desire to know how to live in the light of our Creator God’s love for his creation—the pursuit not only of the true, but also of the good, and indeed the beautiful.

Theology for workers in the pews


Other 100,000 Hours image from InTrust article

This is the second half of a two-part article that appeared in the Winter and Spring 2013 issues of InTrust magazine. Both parts, with full graphic treatment, appear here. This half focuses on what seminaries and churches can do to help heal the divide between faith and work in many Christians’ lives today.

Theology for Workers in the Pews

In the last issue of InTrust, Chris R. Armstrong wrote that churches are good at helping people find meaning on Sunday morning, but during the “other 100,000 hours”—the lifetime that people spend earning their daily bread — pastors often have little to contribute. This is unfortunate, because when people labor, it’s possible for them to be co-laborers with Christ who both build up the world, helping it flourish, and also grow in grace, learning new disciplines.

Read the full article at www.intrust.org/work.

In this companion article, Armstrong describes how schools and organizations are making connections between faith and work. In some cases, organizations are helping business leaders to think ethically and theologically. In other cases, they’re helping clergy to engage more intelligently with business leaders in congregations.

Let’s take as given that work matters—it matters to God, and it is most people’s primary arena of discipleship. And let’s agree that the primary role of seminaries and theological schools is to form pastors and scholars who teach and lead people in discipleship. Therefore, it makes sense that theological education should serve a vital role in making the connection between faith and work.

Yet most theological schools are not doing this well. Continue reading