Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

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Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): Part 2

The previous post in this series provided a brief introduction to the term "Systematic Theology", as well as an explanation and apologetic for undergoing the process of compiling a "systematic theology for recovering Evangelicals."

 This entry introduces an overview of the various topics to be covered. Included with each topic is a brief summary of the perspective I assumed while growing up in the Evangelical church, and which of these assumptions may or may not need to be revisited. 

Topic #1: The Identity of God

Transient

The most common pronoun used in vernacular English when talking about God is "He/Him," while the Bible presents a much more complex identity. Additionally, it's probably impossible to overstate the extent to which Greek philosophy has infected the average Evangelical conception of God. Ideas like omnipotence, timelessness, and immutability are all essentially Greek conceptions of the divine being, which I believe run directly counter to the One Jewish God, Yahweh, as presented especially in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). 

Our reduction of God to one gendered pronoun, combined with the philosophical foundation laid by Plato and Aristotle, has distanced our conception of God far from what is revealed in our Holy Scriptures. How can we recover a healthier view of God's identity in the Evangelical church?

Topic #2: Theology of Creation

The recent Ken Ham/Bill Nye event (I'm reluctant to apply the term "debate" to what actually happened there - though it certainly wasn't the same level of disaster as that infamous Scopes Trial) is evidence of how modern Evangelicals have gone "all in" on the Fundamentalists' theology of creation, established within the past 150 years. It's crucial to understand that this isn't simply a question of "science vs. religion." Rather, a vibrant theology of creation helps answer questions like, "Why did God create? What does creation reveal about God's plan for history? What does it mean for humans to bear this God's image?"

All the ills from which America suffers can be traced to the teaching of evolution.
— William Jennings Bryan (defendant in Scopes Trial of 1925)

Clamping down on the Young-Earth model in an effort to prove some scientific legitimacy can be found in Biblical text profoundly misses these questions. Instead, a healthier theology of creation can lay the groundwork for redemptive mission as we align with God's purposes for the planet.

Spoiler Alert: I don't think the Earth is 10,000 years old.

Topic #3: The Importance of the Old Covenant

Growing up in a wonderful Evangelical church and family, the first two-thirds of my Bible quickly were established as source material for some fun stories (Noah, Jonah & Samson), some scary stories of God's anger (see Noah, Jonah & Samson) and some confusing prophets (see every prophetic book). Beyond this, the purpose of including all these pages in every copy of the Bible baffled me. It seemed like all we needed was the story of Jesus, especially the cross.

Well, it may not surprise you to know that I think wholly differently now. Understanding the Old Covenant (or more realistically, a series of Covenants made with a lineage of people) as a step in God's plan for creation, which can be understood within the context of God's identity, radically helps one understand the shocking Good News that Jesus ushered in.

Topic #4: Jesus, the Messiah

I grew up feeling as though I understood Jesus well enough. He came to die for my sins (more on this in the Atonement entry) and was raised from the dead to prove that He really was God (more on this in the Resurrection entry). Jesus saves me from God's righteous anger at my sin, and this is Good News which I should share with everyone I know. So much of this conception of Jesus has changed as I've struggled to follow him.

Furthermore, where does the title "Messiah" fit into this? I always simply assumed that "Messiah" was one of those "religious" or "churchy" words that we are just supposed to apply to Jesus when we sing about him. Rather, with a robust view of the Old Covenant established, acknowledging Jesus as "Messiah" suddenly carries bold claims. Submitting to his Messiah-ship over your life becomes a tangible, life-changing act. And it really is Good News.

Topic #5: Atonement

I remember when I learned (somewhat recently) that there is more than one way of understanding how Jesus has atoned for the sins of humanity. It blew my mind, and I'm still in the process of picking up the pieces. 

If you grew up in a context similar to mine, you have always been taught the "Penal Substitutionary model" of atonement: on the cross, Jesus absorbed God's wrath directed towards our sin. If, like me, you grew up with this teaching, you might be dissatisfied with it. You might also be shocked to know that the first 1100 years of the church did not necessarily operate under this assumption (though early patristic writings do allude to it). You might be excited to know there are alternative models of atonement that are rooted in the Old Covenant, in God's Identity, and are scripturally-sound, and that the notable problems with Penal Subsitution can be dealt with and placed in a context which makes sense of a loving God who would accomplish atoning work through a violent death.

Topic #6: Resurrection & New Creation

Simply put, the resurrection was not Jesus "proving" that he really had magical, divine powers. It is not an afterthought to the cross, though a brief survey of Evangelical culture might show that we devote an inordinate amount of time focusing on Jesus' death (please note that I am NOT asserting that the cross is somehow unimportant - we have simply cranked the volume on that speaker way too loud, and the result is a distorted, crackly sound. The wide commercial success of Mel Gibson's Passion provides a relevant illustration - the viewer endures agonizingly-long scenes of bloody torture, and is treated to a mere, fleeting glimpse of the resurrected Jesus as the film ends). The resurrection of Jesus absolutely cannot be of more theological importance. Easter is bigger than Christmas.

Topic #7: The Importance of the New Covenant

Just as understanding the Old Covenant is crucial to any systematic theology, the New Covenant is equally fundamental. The act of God "cutting" a New Covenant sheds light on everything Jesus accomplished, as well as why we celebrate communion in the modern church. A refreshing look at the New Covenant has very practical implications for how we "do church" in our modern context.

Topic #8: Evangelism & Conversion

When discussing the notion of "Conversion" in the Evangelical world, one must take into account a veritable "perfect storm" of factors which have converged to birth the culture we find ourselves in: American pragmatism & efficiency, the success of Revival culture and Westward Expansion, and the afore-mentioned Fundamentalist renewal in the early 1900s. All this has produced an overly simplistic model of what it means to produce converts, and to Evangelize the masses. Christians have an undeniable opportunity to herald the Gospel of our King, but it has been boiled down to responding to an altar call, repeating a certain prayer, or even "recommiting" your life. Rooted in holistic theology, conversion moves away from "flipping a switch" and becomes a nuanced, joyful process of experiencing change and sanctification.

Topic #9: Worship

As a "worship leader" in Evangelical church settings for over 15 years, I have spent quite some time thinking about our modern notion of worship. Along with our fractured understanding of God's identity, avoidance of the Old Covenant, and undue focus on the violence of the cross, we also have the shadowy specter of a massive, seemingly corrupt, money-printing industry that feeds on producing "worship music" for our communities. Worship has been reduced to singing some songs once per week, and possibly clapping or raising your hands if you're "really into it". I pray we can reverse course, and by allowing ourselves to be drawn into God's own presence, with a fuller understanding of what that means, we can acknowledge God's worth and Lordship. Lord, have mercy on us.

Topic #10: Eschatology

Finally, we come to that big word which just means "study of how things end." This is timely, as Nic Cage is poised to wreck audiences in that Left Behind remake. Proper eschatology cannot be divorced from everything discussed above, particularly God's Identity and the Theology of Creation. Where we believe we are going has direct implications for how we act today, and as a culture, we drastically need to undo the havoc caused by Rapture-Driven, Pre-Millenial Dispensational rhetoric (if those words are largely foreign to you, they will be unpacked more in this entry). We need to recover a vibrant understanding of a multi-ethnic new heavens AND new earth, in which humanity is finally fully reconciled to Yahweh through Yahweh's own faithfulness to every covenant established with unfaithful, fickle humans, all accomplished through the sacrificial humility of the lamb. This is a God truly driven by love for God's own creation, and one that is certainly worth eternal worship.

Amen.

Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): Part 1

Introduction

Like many Evangelical Americans, I have progressed through a tumultuous relationship with the church and my own faith. Throughout the phases of my life thus far I have moved in and out of the following wildly varied assumptions: being a card-carrying Christian also implies being a card-carrying Republican; women probably shouldn't be pastors; there was DEFINITELY one historical man named Adam in a place called Eden; there was definitely NEVER a historical man named Adam in a place called Eden; dinosaurs were absolutely among the passengers on Noah's ark; the story of Noah is a grand myth; Jesus' death was God's act of justly punishing humanity's debt to him because of sin (and there is no other way of understanding the cross); the earth is less than 10,000 years old; God knows all future events; God's foreknowledge is open and undefined; God is fundamentally a "He"; to be "saved" means repeating the "sinner's prayer"; scripture is 100% inerrant; there are parts of the Bible that are more historically reliable than others; Revelation obviously teaches the Rapture and Dispensationalism; Hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment; God is somehow working through all world religions; dropping the label "Christian" and instead calling oneself a "Christ-follower" is more spiritually sound; the Old Testament is less important than the New One;  Mary might not have actually been a virgin when Jesus was born; Catholics aren't actually Christians; and that I could no longer identify as an "Evangelical".

I still hold onto some of these assumptions. Some make me uncomfortable, and some I take great pains to radically distance myself from. Some of them will change. But underneath all of them is that divisive word: "theology", the study of God.

Theology is an interesting subject in modern culture. There are people who absolutely love studying it, and many of them may or may not call themselves "Christian". Then there are many people who do call themselves "Christian" who seem to despise it. To them, it is only a topic for cold, skeptical academics, and spending time and energy on answering difficult theological questions will only dampen one's passion for Jesus. Better to be content praying spontaneous, heartfelt prayers and raising your hands to a rockin' worship song. Don't think too hard, for that only leads to questions, which inevitably lead to being apostate.

I am sympathetic to this, to a degree. The feeling is captured succinctly by the political cartoon "The Descent of the Modernists"

"The Descent of the Modernists" by E.J. Pace, which first appeared in 1924.

I can understand, and have sometimes even interacted with, the fear of this "slippery slope". The reality is that this fear was created and cultivated within a specific historical phase in the development of Evangelical culture. In responding to this descent, the Protestant church, especially in America, has largely dug in her heels and clamped down on some "fundamental" issues that cannot be questioned (a more detailed discussion of this will appear in the Church History entry of this blog series). This all brings me to the conclusion of this introductory post.

Why Theology?

I firmly believe that more robust theology is desperately needed in the Evangelical church. Theology is something Evangelical Christians should love, not fear. An unspoken assumption in Evangelicalism seems to be, "Studying God, and relentlessly seeking answers to questions, is simply a way to 'control' God, explain away uncomfortable mysteries, and shrink God down to your human-sized intellect." This is an unfair assumption, which is keeping "lay people" from deep, rigorous study, watering down the teaching ministry of the Evangelical church, and needlessly exiling scholars and academics from the family of God. Ultimately, we are to love and worship God, and to know more about God, to study God's self-revelation through Jesus and the written Scriptures, should primarily lead to increased awe, reverence, and gratitude. This is why we need to reclaim theology.  

Why "Systematic"?

To break down the terms here, "Systematic Theology" simply means: the study of God done carefully and according to a system. Entire seminary courses are devoted to developing a cohesive, systematic way to understand God, and I am not arrogant enough to think a series of blog posts will provide a new alternative. Rather, I am intentionally choosing to label this series "systematic" because my goal is to propose an accessible way to understand how every area of theology can be understood interdependently, not independently. The cross, the Psalms, the story of Jonah, Paul's epistles, Jesus' parables, and the Mosaic law are intrinsically linked, and when weaved together, paint a beautiful picture of a loving Creator God who has decisively broken into human history. Again, this broad view is something that the Evangelical church has woefully overlooked, particularly in its ministry to youth (this is broadly speaking, of course, and I'm sure there are wonderful exceptions).

Why for "Recovering Evangelicals"?

Finally, why the label "recovering Evangelicals?" Well, to put it simply, this is the label I would currently apply to myself. At times, my ties to the Evangelical church have been threadbare, at best. However, as goes that famous quote applied to both Augustine and Dorothy Day, "The church may be a whore, but she is my mother." 

I find myself consistently returning to the Evangelical fold, and though I have periods of maddening frustration with it, I love the centrality of Jesus to the Evangelical message. He is truly the linchpin, the cornerstone, and the one to whom saving faith belongs. I add the term "recovering" simply because I am intentionally choosing to continue a relationship that has been both rocky and painful. Like any relationship that has been through hell, time must be taken to rebuild trust, to extend peace, and to heal. On the other side, though, I have deep hope that a once-strained marriage will be vital, thriving, and joyful. Entering recovery is humbling, and I pray that a humble spirit will fundamentally drive this process.

In part 2: An overview of the topics to be discussed, such as: God's identity, Doctrine of Scripture, Science, Worship, Atonement, The Gospel, Conversion, and more....