Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

There is a well known story in which the eminent theologian Karl Barth was asked to briefly summarise what he believed to be his theological legacy. Arguably one of the greatest theological thinkers in the modern era, Barth thought for a few moments and then answered: "Jesus loves me, this I know - for the Bible tells me so." Only recently has the force of this response truly hit me. Barth's response refers to a song that is often taught to children at Sunday School, yet it is at the same time a great truth that can never be appreciated enough.

Christianity is a strange beast. It is said that Christianity both contains the shallows in which an infant may bathe and the depths in which an elephant may drown. And so, as I prepare for our second Space For God bible study, I really find myself asking the question: "Where should I be swimming?" I mean, does the fact that I can swim in the deep end obligate me to do so? And more to the point, do I think that wading in the shallows is somehow beneath me?

While I freely acknowledge that there are many people who know much more than me in the area of theology, I think it would be accurate to suggest that I have accumulated a fairly significant amount of theological knowledge over the years. Not only have I read deeply, but I have also read broadly. And yet, after all of this theological study I find myself needing to ask the question: "To what end have I done this?" What have I achieved? How has this knowledge helped me to love God more deeply and my neighbour more fully? I must confess that I struggle for an answer.

Continuing his series of devotions on living the Christian life, Thomas à Kempis writes:
"In the Holy Scriptures we must look for truth, not eloquence. All Scripture must be read in the spirit in which it is written, and in the Scriptures we should look for what will help us, and not for subtle points."

I have to say that I find this to be a rather stinging and humbling rebuke. It makes me think about how much time and energy I have wasted posturing over the finer points of theological discourse. Considering that I have been exposed and continue to be exposed to an environment in what theological knowledge is cherished, this preoccupation is not at all surprising. All too often, debating theology has become the main game at the expense of actually living the Christian life with integrity and faithfulness. I feel that there are times when both myself and the people with whom I engage are far more interested in appearing intelligent before others than edifying the other person. This is a cause for great sorrow.

With all of the above in mind, I ask myself as well as my readers whether we need to focus less upon the abstract areas of theology and more upon the simple truths that should be driving our faith. Before we seek an ever increasing understanding of abstract articles of faith, should we not to seek to more fully understand what it means to love God with all of our being and what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves? More importantly, instead of debating the finer points of eschatology, shouldn't we be concentrating on seeking to build each other up in our respective spiritual journies in the here and now?

18 comments:

CraigS said...

More importantly, instead of debating the finer points of eschatology, shouldn't we be concentrating on seeking to build each other up in our respective spiritual journies in the here and now?

Eschatology informs how we treat each other here and now. Why put these points in a dichotomy?

David Castor said...

I must admit that I've never put a lot of effort into developing a robust eschatological understanding, although I'm broadly aware of the different camps. Rightly or wrongly, I've seen the endeavour as being of relatively little practical importance.

I guess the question I'd ask is this: What are the differences between the ways in which amillenialists and premillenialists love their neighbour?

CraigS said...

Well, the key point they share in common is the acknowledgement of the "millenium" - that is, the reign of Christ on earth. For both, this is the reason they love in the here and now. So that shows the link between eschatology and "here and now".

I don't believe Christianity can survive the separation of it's temporal and eternal elements.

David Castor said...

I don't believe Christianity can survive the separation of it's temporal and eternal elements.

I think there's probably a lot of truth in that statement, though I'm still not sure I understand the link that you draw. And surely the fact that people from both a-mill and pre-mill camps are able to love their neighbours as themselves and love God to an equal extent would suggest that there is an element of fruitlessness in the debate?

CraigS said...

Well, there has certainly been plenty of ink spilt in that debate. It's not one that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

However, I don't think it's a fruitless debate. It's actually rather important in many ways, and has a lot of "here and now" consequences. Many pre-mills, for example, believe that the establishment and protection of the state of Israel is virtually a biblical mandate. Clearly this doctrine has enormous practical implications. Would you want this issue to proceed undebated?

Here's the sting for you. Is it possible that writing posts saying "Those silly evangelicals spend their time debating theology instead of loving their neighbour" is *your* way of avoiding loving your neighbour? And if you find the online community of theological debate spiritually unhelpful, aren't you obliged to withdraw from it?

David Castor said...

However, I don't think it's a fruitless debate. It's actually rather important in many ways, and has a lot of "here and now" consequences. Many pre-mills, for example, believe that the establishment and protection of the state of Israel is virtually a biblical mandate. Clearly this doctrine has enormous practical implications. Would you want this issue to proceed undebated?

Yes, I think this is a good point.

Here's the sting for you. Is it possible that writing posts saying "Those silly evangelicals spend their time debating theology instead of loving their neighbour" is *your* way of avoiding loving your neighbour?

Well, I'd suggest that I aiming the criticism in my own direction as much as I am at anyone else.

And if you find the online community of theological debate spiritually unhelpful, aren't you obliged to withdraw from it?

Well, that's one option that has passed my mind from time to time. Another option might be to help redeem it while in the process of being redeemed myself.

CraigS said...

Well, that's one option that has passed my mind from time to time. Another option might be to help redeem it while in the process of being redeemed myself.

A tall order perhaps - if you are going to find yourself continually "dragged down", it may be that abstinence is the only option.

David Castor said...

I've always been a stubborn person, so setbacks and roadblocks certainly don't perturb me from continue to plow forward. Besides, to abstain would be a rather defeatist measure, would it not?

CraigS said...

A parrallel might be a man who struggles with lust deciding to minister to the girls in a stripper club. He would be better off leaving that ministry to someone else!

CraigS said...

Let me try this another way - what *practical* changes are you going to make to your life as a result of this meditation?

David Castor said...

A parrallel might be a man who struggles with lust deciding to minister to the girls in a stripper club. He would be better off leaving that ministry to someone else!

Well, someone has to do it, and notwithstanding my weaknesses (which I am very well aware of), I don't think that I'm a bad candidate for the job.

Let me try this another way - what *practical* changes are you going to make to your life as a result of this meditation?

Well, remember that I've only covered five studies so far, so I've only scratched the surface. I find it hard to articulate an answer to your answer because these things tend to be life projects. For instance, I could suggest that I could wish to be more patient, but how does one do that? Well, by being more patient! And is this the first time I've recognised the need for patience? Well no, but you could say that the teaching has been reinforced.

CraigS said...

Well, I don't want to cause you to stumble by arguing the theology of this any further!

David Castor said...

Were we discussing theology?! Perhaps working through a theology of theology?

jgoosdh said...

David, While i agree with your implied point that arguing theology can lead to pride or simply pointless dispute and hence negatively affect the way we love our Christian brothers and sisters, i would like to point out that God included everything in the bible for a reason.

I dont think its up to us to decide that theology is a pointless pursuit when God would obviously disagree!

Anyway, thats just my poorly thought out knee-jerk reaction to reading your post.

David Castor said...

Hey Jgoosdh,

Thanks for visiting my blog and thanks for posting - I hope you can make yourself comfortable and stick around.

I guess the issue of what God wishes for us to do with the Bible is a point of dispute, isn't it? Just to give you some kind of context, I started this conversation in our bible study last week, in which we addressed the issue of what we hoped to achieve. In short, what is our end?

Just to raise a question we might like to think about:

What is intrinsically superior about the faith of a eminent theologian to that of the Chinese farmer working in the rice fields with a simple yet devoted commitment to his Christian faith?

Dr. Chaotica said...

Theology can be very dangerous....

The last christian book I was reading was this book on systematic theology.

jgoosdh said...

Obviously neither is superior in the sense that nothing we can ever achieve is of any worth next to the glory of God, and no matter how deep our understanding of God (as he presents himself to us in his word) our finite minds will never be able to even begin to grasp the greatness of our God.

Of course the farmer is saved (assuming his faith is in Christ alone, Grace alone, faith alone), that has nothing to do with us. However, should some kind of subtle heresay come along, who would be the better equipped to resist it? Should an uninformed non-christian come along asking what Christianity is, who would find it easier to explain their faith in a clear, logical way?

God has filled the bible with wisdom which we are told is "God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"(2 Tim 3:16). I dont see why there should be any dispute as to what we are to do with God's word, we are given a reason in that verse.

In everything we do in the life, there is potential for us to sin, thats our nature. But that doesn't mean that we should lock ourselves in a white room in order to avoid temptation (which wouldn't work anyway). What I'm saying is that while studying theology can bring temptation to be proud, thats not a reason to avoid theology. Rather, being aware of this means we need to pray that we would resist such temptation and do all things only for god's glory.

Well they're my thoughts on the subject, right or wrong.

David Castor said...

Thanks again for your comments, Jgoosdh, although I wish I knew your name! Let me suggest that the greatest sin we can commit is to take our faith for granted, so continue to make comments and ask questions - it's the only way in which we can continue to grow.

When I talk about the superiority of one's faith, I'm not talking about their intrinsic merit before God, but rather their spiritual maturity. So, with that in mind, is the theologian intrinsically more spiritually mature than the Chinese farmer because he has a greater intellectual understanding of abstract points of theology?

I find it a very strange notion that evangelicalism seems to have that before we are accepted into heaven God will give us a theology test which we must pass if we are to pass through the pearly gates. With that in mind, who is more blessed - the person who has a deep understanding of salvation by faith alone, or the person, who may not know or even hold the doctrine, but nonetheless lives his life by faith?

Should an uninformed non-christian come along asking what Christianity is, who would find it easier to explain their faith in a clear, logical way?

Actually, I'd suggest that some of the people most adept at sharing their faith are those without any kind of real theological education. Indeed, I believe that theological education can often serve to obfuscate the testimony of those who wish to share their faith.

God has filled the bible with wisdom which we are told is "God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness"(2 Tim 3:16). I dont see why there should be any dispute as to what we are to do with God's word, we are given a reason in that verse.

Yes, but how are we to achieve those ends? Do we take a narrative approach to Scripture, or a propositional approach? Do we look at sentence structure and grammar in a passage, or do we look at the general tenor of the text. Are the books of the Bible written to the lay person, or are they only comprehensible to the theologian?