Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Filtering by Tag: theology

Dear Christians, Your Vote Is (Not) A Big Deal

As you may (hopefully) be aware, the American Presidential election is (finally) happening next week. As you may also be aware,  Christians have been tying themselves into knots over the choice placed before them. Particularly the moderate-conservative end of the spectrum (the majority of American Evangelical Christians) cannot seem to stomach a vote for either pro-Abortion Hillary, or pro-himself Trump. Some are resorting to protest, Third-Party votes, or resigning themselves to simply not voting at the top of the ticket. Others are passionate about Hillary taking the office, viscerally driven by an unholy terror of the prospect of Donald Trump obtaining the codes for our nuclear arsenal and hearing "state of the union" addresses from him for the next 4 years.

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Whatever way you cut it, pretty much everyone seems to be having an existential crisis.

My personal hope is that we Christians can come out on the other end of this election cycle with surer footing, because right now it feels like our community is gasping for air and frantically questioning everything we've ever been told about America's religious history, moral center, and future trajectory. And from my perspective, frantic gasping is not conducive to making healthy choices, so let's collectively take a deep breath.

Your Vote Is A Big Deal

No, I do not mean this in the sanctimonious, overly-individualized, idealistic, first-grade-classroom-mock-election sense. Frankly, your vote is one drop in a Pacific ocean of ballots, and for those of you who live in a state that consistently swings to the opposite party, your vote feels particularly worthless.

However, it certainly is a big deal that we live under a representative government that is ostensibly driven by the voice of the people. It is crucially important to remember that the body of Christ, of which we in America are but one member, exists throughout the world. Many of those other members live under totalitarian regimes, dictatorships, and war-ravaged continents, and for them a representative democracy may feel like a far-off dream that will never be experienced in their lifetime. For their sake, we dare not take for granted what we have been given.

I am also convinced that when the church is functioning in a healthy manner, it becomes the much-needed "conscience" and "critic" of the state.* We are not to be simply a tool of said state, a lever to be pulled and manipulated when strategic votes are needed, although I am afraid this is precisely what is happening concerning hot-button issues like Abortion and Supreme Court Justices; rather, we must maintain our prophetic zeal for a world that should look closer and closer to the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. In America, one of many ways that this zeal can be expressed is through the ballot box, not only for presidential bids, but for local propositions and city council members, which, frankly, have a more immediate impact on the life and health of your community anyways.

And do not forget, as we Americans are wont to do, that the rest of the world is watching this election. The de facto "leader of the free world" will be sworn in based on our choices next week, and throngs of people throughout the globe will be affected by an election they do not have a voice in. Use your voice for them.

Vote on November 8th. It's a big deal.

Your Vote Is (Not) A Big Deal

But please, dear Christians, do not helplessly fall victim to the lie that the way you cast your vote on November 8th is the sum total of your entire Christian expression and social ethic in this life. I'm convinced this lie is a major reason so many Evangelicals are developing ulcers this year, for we live in the shadow of a moral majority movement that has conditioned us for decades to believe that the implementation of a Christian government in America was a feat of near-eschatological importance. Furthermore, this implementation was narrowly defined as requiring a pro-small-government (but pro-large-military?) conservative leader who would be our shield and strong tower amidst the growing threat of a increasingly-secularized America. 

It's a good thing we have a model in David, who also turned to the power of the state when he was feeling threatened by enemies. Oh, wait a minute.....

Remember, God's plan for humanity was never dependent on a certain vision of governance for the American experiment. Instead, this globe-spanning plan was successfully launched over 2,000 years ago through the faithfulness of the Son in walking to the cross. Our vote cannot change that.

Remember, Jesus does not need America to be "Christian," however that is defined. He is (and will remain) seated on his throne, regardless of who occupies the White House. Don't defile this truth by placing inordinate emotional weight on the outcome of the American election.

Remember, when you were baptized into the Kingdom of God, your citizenship was transferred into a global Kingdom without end that would ultimately destroy every Kingdom that humans can build. Unnecessary hand-wringing over this election only points to the fact that you aren't convinced of this reality. 

Remember, our ability, as the body of Christ, to love both God and neighbor is neither hindered nor enabled by the outcome this election. We are still called to go forth with God's ministry of reconciliation, just as our brothers and sisters in Syria are doing in the midst of relentless persecution

Don't misplace your hope. Lift your eyes. Seek God's face. Go vote next week, and then, regardless of the result, be Christ in the world.

 

*Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Knock At Midnight

Systematic Theology (for Recovering Evangelicals): part 3

The Identity of God

Transient

The Evangelical perception of God is confusing, as if God is a complicated mix of many contradictory identities: Is he an angry, violent God bent on judgment and destroying sinful creatures? Is he a gentle, inclusive God defined primarily by love? Is he as nice as Jesus was? Is he really three different "beings"? Is he a "he"?

This minefield is difficult to navigate, and though it is tempting to ignore the hard work of discovering God's identity and just go with whatever your tradition has always said, a faulty, or less-than-biblical, conception of the Christian God is at the root of many damaging philosophies. The following is a brief outline of some of these schools of thought.

Stoicism/Pantheism, Epicureanism/Deism & the Judeo-Christian Alternative

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9

Two major, ancient schools of philosophy have deeply infected the modern, Evangelical conception of god: Stoicism and Epicureanism.** Though there is much to be said about these philosophies, this discussion here will be limited to the relevant pieces of each.

First, one central doctrine of Stoicism taught that the entirety of creation was composed of material known as "God". This God was in everything one could see, including oneself. This whole idea is obviously closely related to Pantheistic thought, and in some ways laid groundwork for its continued prominence. Interestingly, one Greek word for this Stoic God was "Logos", which is translated into English as "word." In the masterful prologue to John's Gospel, he intentionally and repeatedly uses this word "Logos" to position Jesus as an alternative to the Stoic conception of a universal God.

There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
— Epictetus

Second, and in direct contradiction to Stoicism, is the Epicurean notion of God. Epictetus, considered the founder of this philosophy, seemed to be dismayed over the prevailing superstitious ideas of a God, or many gods, who would randomly interfere with the goings-on of the world, and were believed to punish you in conscious torment after your death. In response, he decisively taught that if any gods did exist, they were profoundly disconnected from and uninterested in our world. The world around us, and the ongoing development of humanity, was entirely the result of natural causes. Incidentally, the rise of Deism (which many of America's founders were subscribed to) is a natural continuation of Epicurean thought.

Evangelical Christianity is not insulated from the impact of these philosophies. New Age movements declaring that God is in each of us, that God simply needs to be discovered in one's own heart, are simply modern manifestations of Stoic thought. Though Christianity rightly teaches that God is imminent, that God is close to us and involved in our lives, we can err dangerously close to a pantheistic philosophy when we forget that for God to be holy, and for there to have been a Fall, the Creator is in some distinct way separated from the created (though the redemptive movement of the Bible profoundly declares this separation was eliminated in Jesus, and will eventually be eliminated throughout the rest of the creation, but I'm getting ahead of myself....) On the flip side of this, the modern sweep of the New Atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens, and the like), and the unending fight between science and religion, is really simply a new manifestation of Epicureanism. If we can observe and explain every natural process surrounding us, then God is clearly not involved in the world in any meaningful way.

So, where is the Evangelical Christian left in all of this? Who is it that we worship? Will the real God please stand up?

In many ways, I believe Christians need to reexamine our connection to ancient Judaism, for it provides a beautiful alternative to this philosophical quandary. Rather than ignoring or fearing our connection to this ancient religion, but instead seeking to humbly understand it, we can glean marvelous wisdom and insight, particularly into the character of the God we worship.

If it were possible to travel back in time, to one of the few centuries before Jesus was born, and ask a devout Jew, "Who is God?" he would not respond with any of the following words: immutable, omnipresent, impassible, or omniscient. He certainly wouldn't say the name of God, since vocalizing the name of the divine being was strictly considered blasphemy in the ancient Jewish world, possibly at the threat of being stoned. Instead, he would likely explain that God is the one who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, the one who made a promise to their father Abraham, and the one who would eventually bring about a Messiah to fully restore his people.  

We evangelicals have grown too fond of talking about God in terms of "attribute ontology," primarily describing God in terms of characteristics. Interestingly, many of these attributes which are frequently connected to God in modern vernacular (omnipresent, omniscient, et al.) can be more readily linked to the vocabulary of ancient Greek philosophy than the vocabulary of ancient Jewish worship. The point here is not to suggest that all these terms are incorrect, or inaccurate (though I do think some are much more helpful than others) but is rather to suggest a move away from "attribute ontology" and instead towards "event ontology."

When Moses spoke to the burning bush in the desert, he said, "When I go back to the leaders of my tribe, who am I supposed to say sent me?" And God replied, in those famous words, "I AM WHO I AM." (Exodus 3.14) I like to think this was God saying, "I'm the one who is here, right now. I have shown up to take care of this mess, and I'm always going to show up to take care of every mess, because I promised to do that, and I always keep my promises. My identity speaks for itself. I AM WHO I AM."

God shows up. When we speak about God, how much more powerful, and helpful, it is to speak about the events in which God has been revealed in the world, and even in our own lives, rather than trying to describe convoluted philosophical attributes of a supreme being. Among many other things, the Bible is a narrative of events that show how God has "showed up" throughout human history. As Christians, we stand on the tradition of our Jewish forefathers, and we can declare that God has faithfully showed up to God's own people through the ages, and ultimately showed up in a meek, Jewish Rabbi in the first century. God shows up, and will continue to show up, out of faithfulness, grace, and love in order to restore our lives, our communities, and ultimately our world. This is the God we worship.

God and Gendered Language

Transient

Before closing, I find it important to make a note on "gendered language" in reference to God. The Evangelical tradition has resolutely decided that the only pronoun which should be used to refer to God is the male "he." A quick survey of our books, sermons, and worship music shows this to be true. Jesus was male and referred to God as his "father", so the thinking goes, and this therefore reflects that God is in some way more masculine than feminine in identity. Well-known evangelical pastors have subscribed to this, and I find it extremely important to wave a cautionary flag before we limit the biblical revelation of God to one gender and support the idea that women somehow bear less of the image of God than their male counterparts. An honest look at the ways biblical writers describe God simply does not allow us to limit God to being male.

First, both "male and female" were created in God's image, equally (Genesis 1.27). God is then repeatedly described, in God's own first-person language, as a mother (Hosea 11.3, Isaiah 49.15, Isaiah 66.13). Twice, God is described as a mother animal caring for her young (Deuteronomy 32.11, Hosea 13.8). Isaiah described God as a woman in labor, and Jeremiah even speaks of God as the Queen of Heaven! (Isaiah 42.14, Jeremiah 44.25)

Furthermore, Jesus describes himself as a mother hen, wishing to gather her young (Matthew 23.37, Luke 13.34). And lastly, immediately before the famous story of the Prodigal Son, which is in large part the source of our God-as-Father imagery, Jesus portrays God as a woman looking for a lost coin in her home (Luke 15.8).

In summation, I am not advocating that we simply switch all our pronouns to "she" when speaking of God, for that would be to continue to limit God to one gender. I'm also not advocating that we refer to God as an impersonal "it!" Rather, we need to recover a more complex conception of the God we worship, and we need to examine ourselves: why are we so comfortable with always referring to God as "He," and so uncomfortable with the idea of ever referring to God as "She," especially when the writers of the Bible didn't seem to have an issue with it?

As Evangelicals, we limit our own capacity to worship when we speak only of philosophical attributes and the male gender in reference to our God. God is bigger than this, the ultimate and loving father, mother, queen, and king. God is the one who has faithfully shown up, and will continue to faithfully show up, until the world is put back to rights, declaring "I AM WHO I AM."

This is our God.

**For more on this subject, both Greg Boyd and N.T. Wright have written extensively on the impact of Greek philosophies on American Christianity.

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....