Whose God: Whose Theology?

“… until recent years, systematic theology has at its best tolerated interpretations of Christology from outside the mainstream academic quarters, that is, mostly Euro-American and predominantly male theologians. Toleration has meant paying lip service to the role of “exotic” interpretations of Christ stemming from the soil of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and non-dominant cultures in the Global North. At the same time, these interpretations have been marginalized, put in separate volumes and essays – apart from the “serious” dogmatic and systematic works.” (p.70)

Books I Have Read: The King In His Beauty

Without doubt, Schreiner’s King in His Beauty, The: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments is a contender for the best book I have read this year.

Essentially, it is a trip through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, showing how the theme of the Kingdom of God links the different books into a coherent whole.

The different chapters are given over to introductions to books or series of books of the Bible. To be honest, it would be worth paying the purchase price for that alone – this is one of the best introductions to the Bible I’ve ever come across. However, it is in reading the book as a whole and seeing the way in which the chapters demonstrate the coherence of the Bible as a single narrative that it really comes into its own.

This isn’t the first book to give an overview of the Biblical narrative, but it is the most thorough.

Even though I think it’s an excellent book, I would be a little reluctant to suggest that you pay the full hardback price for it; it’s not cheap. However, it is available for Kindle at what is a very reasonable price for such a large and thorough book. If you can bear not being able to write in the margins nor underline the good passages, this would be a great ebook purchase (the links I have given are to the Kindle version.)

I will be turning back to King in His Beauty for years to come, it’s that good.

Hyphenated Theology

I believe in a global theological accountability. We are all shaped by our contexts, personal and communal concerns, anxieties, questions and capabilities. This shapes how we read the Bible, how we develop theologies, what tools of interpretation we utilise, which metaphors we use and what topics we cover.

This is not relativism, not a denial of universal and absolute truths, but the humility of knowing that God and his truths are often beyond our man-made creations and perceptions. That is why we need the experiences of the global and historical Church, with all of its shades and colours, to be with us if we are to advance his Kingdom and ignore pitfalls of our own bubbles. Church history is full of episodes where a particular country and the Church in it gets carried away with its own social and political constructs, all along thinking that ‘God wills it’.

Thus, as I try to develop a theology for today’s Middle East, I need Christians from Latin America, East Asia and North America as well as Europe to keep me accountable; to challenge me where I need to be self-critical and to learn from my experiences. Simply put, without such a theological accountability, we are vulnerable to confusing our own constructs, culture and nationalism with the truths of God.This, however, is not happening and, where particularly Western Evangelical Christians are concerned, is truly far from this ideal.

Allow me to give two symptomatic examples of this. The first is the sloppy phrase of ‘contextual theology’ used for the writings of non-Western Christians. Works of African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern theologians are designated as ‘contextual’ whereas works of British or American theologians are marked as ‘theology’, as if they were not also products of their context, as if they do theology outside of parameters of a language, culture and preferred methodologies of interpretation and application. This grants Western theology a supra-contextual status and relegates non-Western theology to an inferior, semi-theology status. Obviously, such a classification is not empirical, but merely a sad reflection of how Western Christians see themselves in relation to the rest of the world…

A Middle-Eastern theologian writing under a pseudonym in the latest edition of Catalyst from BMS World Mission.

Books I Have Read: Inspiration and Incarnation

If truth be told, I wasn’t planning to read this book, but on balance, I’m glad I did. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns looks at three big questions related to the Old Testament.

There is a lot of similarity between some Old Testament stories and contemporary stories; for example the Genesis story of the flood bears a lot of resemblance to the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. Does this mean that the Old Testament is no more inspired or sacred than related texts?

There are times when the Old Testament seems to disagree with itself. Some of the Proverbs are contradictory and at times the details of stories in Chronicles differ from the same stories in Samuel and Kings. What does this mean for our understanding of the nature of the Old Testament?

The New Testament sometimes quotes the Old Testament in ways that the original authors could never have envisaged. What does this have to say about the way in which we interpret Scripture?

I’ve seen treatments of these questions before, but to be honest, most of them just tend to explain the questions away which might feel comforting, but it is far from satisfactory.

Enns takes the questions very seriously and certainly doesn’t try to explain them away. He sees challenges like these as helping us to really understand the nature of the Bible as a book with both divine and human origins. It is the human side of the equation that means leads to the issues that Enns is dealing with. It is not that Scripture is flawed, but that it reflects the cultural contexts out of which it arises. A longish chapter is devoted to each of the questions and Enns demonstrates how the issues that we find difficult about the Bible actually arrive naturally out of the cultural milieu out of which it arises. It is good stuff.

If you have questions about the Old Testament or are interested in the nature and inspiration of Scripture, you could do far worse. This isn’t the easiest book to read; it takes a bit of concentration, but it is well worth the work involved.

For those who are interested there is a Kindle Edition.

Genesis and the Human Condition

Genesis tells the story of the creation from two angles, each one emphasising different aspects of the relationship between God, mankind and creation.

The first story (Genesis 1:26) highlights something about the nature and purpose of human beings. This story says that human beings, all of them, are made in the image of God. On one level, this means that we have the same capacity for freedom of thought, creativity and morals as God himself. Like God we can think for ourselves, we can imagine things that don’t exist and then bring them into existence, and we can make moral and intellectual choices. Being made in God’s image is a real privilege, but that isn’t all there is to it.

Why do people put photographs on Facebook? For most of us the idea isn’t to show off the photograph itself; the point of the photograph is to show off a place or an event. This is what our family reunion looked like; this is me on the beach in Spain and so on. Photographs are images and they exist to demonstrate the reality that lies behind them. God made us in his image, for just that purpose. Our role is to bear God’s image in the world and to demonstrate to the whole of creation how good, wonderful and caring God is. God doesn’t need a Facebook page – his image is all over the earth, every human being shows something about God.

The second creation story, in Genesis chapter 2 adds to our understanding of human beings. In this account, God first creates the man, Adam. He then looks at the man and says ‘it is not good for man to be alone’ before going on to create Eve. In this little story, we see how, at the most basic level, human beings reflect the nature of God. Like God, we are relational beings; we weren’t created to be on our own and God creates a partner for Adam. Like Adam, Eve is human and shares much of his character and form, but there are subtle differences too.

By the way, in writing about Genesis this way, I’m not staking out a position in the endless creation v evolution debate. If that’s something you want to argue about or comment about, there are plenty of blogs to keep you happy!

Credo on the Trinity

Thanks to Antony Billington for pointing me to the latest edition of Credo Magazine, which is devoted to articles about the Trinity.

‘One of the dangers every church faces is slipping, slowly and quietly and perhaps unknowingly, into a routine where sermons are preached, songs are sung, and the Lord’s Supper is consumed, but all is done without a deep sense and awareness of the Trinity. In other words, if we are not careful our churches, in practice, can look remarkably Unitarian. And such a danger is not limited to the pews of the church. As we leave on Sunday morning and go back into the world, does the gospel we share with our coworker look decisively and explicitly trinitarian in nature? Or when we pray in the privacy of our own home, do the three persons of the Trinity make any difference in how we petition God?’

You can find the magazine here (where you can also download it is a pdf). There is some excellent material here, including articles by the authors of the two best books I read on the Trinity last year: Mike Reeves (The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit) and Stephen Holmes (The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life).

However, while I don’t want to complain about an excellent magazine, there is a glaring lack of any serious discussion of the issue of mission. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, but it’s a shame.

I suspect that this is partly due to the general apathy to the area of mission which typifies much of the Western Church at the moment. In all probability it didn’t even cross the mind of the editorial team to include anything about the issue. I also believe that it reflects something of the confusion about the interaction between our understanding of the Trinity and mission practice. This was discussed in post on Kouyanet last week.

If the editors of Credo want to return to the subject of the Trinity, I’d gladly offer to write something on mission for them!

Meanwhile, don’t let my gripe stop you from reading an excellent magazine.

What do We Mean by The Mission of God?

A while ago, I wrote a post entitled Missiology is Meaningless which suggested that missiology was too broad a term to be used without qualification. Terms like missiological reflection and missiologically informed are tossed around, but they can mean very different things to different people, depending on their starting point. Lately, I’ve noticed the same thing with the term mission of God and its Latin version missio Dei. People talk about doing things in the light of the mission of God without ever really defining what they mean by the term, despite the fact that mission of God or missio Dei is open to a wide range of interpretations and definitions.

A nearly ubiquitous concept in mission theology today is the phrase missio Dei. The idea of a single mission rooted in God’s nature at the very least stands in heuristic tension with the manifold and often competing ventures launched by churches and other organizations dedicated to missionary outreach. It is customary now to talk about the wide variety of ends to which the term missio Die has been ut since it came into general circulation shortly after the 1952 Willingen conference of the International Missionary Council. As we will see, these different applications of the term draw on more than one set of scripture passages, as successive attempts have been made using this or related terms to establish a biblical foundation for the theology of Christian mission. John Flett has closely examined the origins of the term missio Dei. He concludes that the undoubted attractiveness of this formulation in the postcolonial era has obscured its basic incoherence, due to the illusory or nonsubstantial way mission theologians have related this concept to the doctrine of the Trinity.

From Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology (American Society of Missiology) by S. H. Skreslet pp. 31,32. Emphasis mine.

I’m not sure I agree entirely with this statement, but I have to admit that the more I see the phrase missio Dei being used without being unpacked, the more I feel that the phrase is losing any useful meaning.

Trinity and Mission: A Reading List

I’ve just come across an excellent paper via Academia.edu written by my friend Mark Oxbrow of Faith To Share. It is a short review of the literature on the subject of Trinity and Mission and   it looks as though my Amazon wishlist is about to get an awful lot longer. Here is the first paragraph:

By far the most significant advance in missiological discussion during the second half of  the twentieth century was the acceptance within a wide range of theological traditions of  the Missio Dei theology first advanced by Karl Barth and Karl Hartenstein in the 1930s. Reviewing that development at the end of the century Andrew Kirk writes, in his What is Mission? Theological Explorations (1999) “To speak about the Missio Dei is to indicate, without any qualifications, the Missio Trinitatis”. Missio Dei theology, which has its origins in Barth’s essay Die theologie und die Mission in der Gegenwart (1932), (although the terminology was only introduced by Hartenstein two years later) gained wide acceptance after the 1952 International Missionary Council, meeting at Willingen, Germany. That gathering saw the Missio Dei as expressing its desire for a new, postWorld War II and post-colonial, understanding of mission. They saw that that mission is not a programme of the church, but rather an attribute and activity of God, bringing God’s redemption to all creation. From Willingen onwards the study of Trinity and the study of Mission have been almost welded together.

The Trinity and…

This  excellent series of short videos from Mike Reeves introduces the way in which the concept of God as Trinity needs to effect the whole of our lives. None of the videos are longer than two minutes, so there is no real excuse not to watch them.

If you enjoy these videos, you should probably read Mike’s introductory book on the Trinity: The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit.

Thanks to Dave Bish for posting these videos.

Mission: The Trinity 2

In my last post in this series, I suggested (not for the first time) that the mission of the Church has its roots in the character of the Triune God. In this post I’d just like to take that concept a little bit further.

One God in Three Persons. God is one and yet he exists in three distinct persons. In other words, God is a God of unity and diversity. The diversity bit is more or less straightforward. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, and the Son is not the Spirit; the Godhead demonstrates diversity. The unity that we see in the Godhead is not the simple uniformity which comes when there is no variation, but a true unity in which Father, Son and Spirit, three persons are united as one God. This is difficult to get your head round – but it is important. We’ll come back to it in the next post.