September 21, 2020

Theology Week at IM: Some problems with “theology” itself

published by John Garrett, line engraving, mid 17th century

Theology Week at IM
Part 1: Some problems with “theology” itself

I would like to spend some time following up on yesterday’s “Sundays with Michael Spencer” post on theology. Michael’s original post which I excerpted was called “I Hate Theology,” and he specified what he meant when making that striking remark: “I hate what I see theology doing to me.” In unravelling that, Michael listed a number of problems about the way theology may be practiced so as to have deleterious effects on us:

  • It may be practiced without humility.
  • It may be practiced in a way that bullies real ministry.
  • It may be practiced in a way that makes it the enemy of personal devotion.
  • It may be practiced in such a way that it acts like it is revelation, not fallible human effort.
  • It may be practiced in such a way that it must swat every error in sight.
  • It may be practiced in a way that ignores our humanity.

Michael’s piece, therefore, might better have been titled “I Hate the Way Theology Is Practiced.”

Perhaps there are more fundamental problems, however. Maybe theology itself, as we have come to conceive it, is somewhat off base or imbalanced.

As I write these words, I am waiting to receive my copy of a new book by Luke Timothy Johnson, called The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art. I have thus far only been able to sample the book, but even the small part I’ve read has my theological juices flowing.

You can read the portion I’m working from today at Eerdmans EerdWord blog.

Here, Johnson identifies several problems with our fundamental approach to theology. In particular, he is concerned that we misunderstand the nature, complexity, and background of scripture as a source for our theological thinking. This leads us to do theology in an almost exclusively deductive manner. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, however, is about doing theology also as an inductive art.

He begins his critique by delineating why it is reasonable for us (especially post-Reformation) to make scripture the starting point for our theological reflections:

  • Scripture is more fundamental, rich, and complex than the creeds as a source for theological reflection.
  • Scripture is unparalleled in its vivid testimony to the living God’s work in the world.
  • Scripture is the necessary and indispensable source of knowledge for the Story of God’s work through Israel and Jesus.
  • The way in which scripture interprets the Story of Israel and Jesus provides the enduring symbolic framework for any subsequent theological reflection which is specifically Christian.

However, Luke Timothy Johnson fears that we have misconceptions about the use of scripture in doing theology and that this leads us astray.

First, we don’t respect the complexity of scripture’s witness. Citing Pope John Paul II’s interpretation of the creation stories in Gen. 1-2, he shows how the pope was selective in his reading of scripture, favoring one witness in the Bible over others and never saying why.

The scriptural witness, in short, is complex rather than simple, raises as many questions as it provides answers for. But the pope does not even acknowledge the tensions created by these passages in Paul. Like many other theologians, he does not admit that his ability to find clear answers in the Bible depends a great deal on being carefully selective in what he reads.

That last phrase is a keeper, and one which should give us all pause when we start to declare, “The Bible teaches . . . .”

Second, we use texts of scripture without reading them in their historical and literary contexts. A great deal of the biblical witness is extraordinarily complex and we do not understand it by simply pulling verses out that seem clear to us and basing our theological conclusions upon them. Here’s another succinct and penetrating warning from Johnson:

When passages of Scripture are never actually read but merely cited, Scripture is not fully honored.

Third, we fail to take seriously enough the dialectical character of Scripture and experience. He suggests that there are two levels to this:

First, Scripture is read as a finished product rather than as witness to a dynamic process of interpretation carried out by believers within Israel and the early church. The impetus to write was given by the experience of God in the world, and the writings of the Old and New Testament give testimony, first of all, not to a set of static and systematic truths about reality but to the time-conditioned efforts of humans across the centuries to express the meaning of what God was up to in their lives. Because such interpretations of experience were carried out by diverse persons in diverse circumstances, and in response to different experiences — conquest is not the same as exile, suffering not the same as exaltation — the witness of Scripture is necessarily complex and heterogeneous. When the dynamic process of Scripture’s coming into being is ignored, the true character of Scripture is missed.

But the dialectic with the experience of God in the present is also neglected when the texts of Scripture are arranged into a set of propositions to form a doctrine, and then that doctrine is elaborated into a set of prescriptions for human behavior without giving any attention to the ways in which God is presently at work among God’s people; when that happens, a potentially idolatrous use of Scripture is at work. Scripture is made not merely necessary but also sufficient for theology, and this it cannot be, for the function of the interpretations offered by Scripture is to enable the continuing perception and interpretation of God’s activity here and now. Scripture has been reduced to a storehouse of propositions from which deductions can be made, rather than a collection of witnesses that also enable believers to witness to God’s work and glorify God’s presence among them.

In short, the Bible is not an “authoritative” book in the sense that it is a “handbook” that gives us teachings, answers, and directives for living in a simple, straightforward manner. Not a “storehouse of propositions” but a “collection of witnesses.” These witnesses do not always say things in the same way, nor do they always agree in their conclusions (as we talked about recently in our discussion of biblical “wisdom” literature). This “conversation in God’s kitchen” (as Michael Spencer called it) brings various and sundry ingredients together in a way that ultimately presents us with Christ and new creation.

We too are witnesses, and our task is not simply to be able to describe and categorize what God did in the past, so as to come up with a system of “universal truth” based on an unalterable foundation. This is simply not the kind of revelation God gave.

Doing theology involves responding to a living God and the Word he still speaks.


  1. Really looking forward to this week. Unpacking the “stuff” that makes up biblical interpretation, theology, and the like is, to me at least, IM at its best.

  2. Eckhart Trolle says

    The whole idea that the Bible is on some level “true” and worth applying, is itself a theological assumption.

    • Exactly. That’s where we have to start.

      And with theology in general, we need to start with the assumption that there is a god. No god, no theology.

      • Ah. And then we need to unpack that. What kind of god? What is it? Who is it? How has it changed? etc

        I’m at the point where it’s easy to believe there is a god but incredibly hard to say who or what that god is. I know who and what he is not easier than the opposite. But it’s probably closest to Jesus.

        • Exactly. God is who He is, regardless of who I think He is. But everything in scripture points to Jesus being the exact representation of God, so if I want to come close to knowing exactly who God is, I better start with Jesus and let everything else fall away.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        Unless you’re Buddhist.

    • And what’s YOUR suggestion? “Also Sprach Zarathustra”? 😛

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        Any old book would do about equally well, provided we get to interpret it however we want.

        • Well, some books are certainly better at presenting who God is than others, and Christians view the Bible as the one that most closely does that.

    • The Christian faith is rooted in the Church’s experience of the continued presence of Jesus in and for the Church, and in and for the world. It’s this experience of the ongoing presence of the living Jesus that resulted in the composition and formation of the New Testament, and that turned, and turns, the Church to the scriptures (Old and New Testaments) again and again to test its current experience against the witnesses Israel and the early Church. It is the Church’s ongoing experience of the continued, living presence of Jesus that constitutes its truth, not any assumption that the Bible is “true”; wherever in the Church the latter holds sway, your criticism is correct.

    • To be sure, there is an assumption involved. But the reverse position also requires some assumptions. Pick your poison.

      I do not mean this glibly; I mean, simply, that there are multiple ways one can approach questions and imagine the world. It is difficult to fully prove or disprove the validity of these imaginative worlds, as though they were the sole products of intellectual baseball and not on some level intimate, personal, cultural, and communal. The philosopher speaks of propositions; humanity dreams dreams. Therefore, the philosopher is probably at his best when he can speak in terms of propositions and dreams alike. Ideas have lives only when human beings are thinking about them.

      Ultimately, whether or not you acknowledge it, we’re all stuck on some level weighing not only ideas but tasting flavors, and deciding what we will hold in your mind at the end of the day.

      I suspect – I actually do veer skeptical on many things – that you and I probably share some reservations about how theology is often “done.” It can get mighty circular. However, it is one thing to snipe at ideas from a protected hideout, and quite another to venture your own view of the world, which is then subject to sniping. No doubt both you and I are, in the end, somewhat irrational – which is to say human, not strictly analytical philosophers – when we turn from the internet to actually living in the world.

      • Edit – my proofing skills fail once again:

        Ultimately, whether or not you acknowledge it, we’re all stuck on some level weighing not only ideas but tasting flavors, and deciding what we will hold in OUR MINDS at the end of the day.

  3. we use texts of scripture without reading them in their historical and literary contexts… we fail to take seriously enough the dialectical character of Scripture and experience.

    Ironically, the evangelical “high” view of Scripture and revelation (that is, eternal propositional truths conveyed in plain language that any rational person anywhere can understand without context), that arose in parallel to/in “opposition” against the Enlightenment, only serves to reinforce and entrench these two problems. “Who needs context when it’s eternal truth? If it’s eternally true, our experience is irrelevant.”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > “Who needs context when it’s eternal truth? If it’s eternally true, our experience is irrelevant.”

      The end result is *very* strange [and strained] attitude towards truth; and the necessity to create a myriad of double standards. Truth completely detached from demonstrability requires a, perhaps unacknowledged, second track of thinking. In Evangelicalism [at least middle-class white evangelicalism] I encountered this as a form of moral “reasonableness” which exists in stark contrast with high-ground moral claims and assertions of being “counter-cultural”. The discomfort with the existence of this second track IMO drives much of the doubling down on the importance of the first track. But the two tracks can never interlock, they exist on different planes of existence.

    • Responding to Eeyore, this is precisely the problem we have in the evangelical positions advanced in our northern diocese – naivety over the Biblical text enables endless exposition of Scripture to take place without once asking questions of the textual sources or any of the questions classicists – for example – wrestle with every day of the week.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Who needs context when it’s eternal truth? If it’s eternally true, our experience is irrelevant.”

      And Theology becomes “Ees Party Line, Comrades.”

      Over on spiritual abuse blogs like Wartburg Watch and Spiritual Sounding Board, you see a lot of Hyper-Calvinism taking this route. Six, Seven, Eight-Point Calvinists (More Calvinist than Calvin!) PROVING to themselves that They are The Predestined Elect by their Perfectly-Parsed, Really Truly REFORMED(TM) Theology. Often couple with abusive behavior towards everyone else — especially those under them.

      Then there’s arguing Theology line-by-line, parsing letter-by-letter while pastors’ widows eat out of dumpsters.

      And aberrant Christian Fellowships(TM) with “Cultic” abusive behavior towards their people. Like the one that messed me up in the Seventies. While all the Christian(TM) Cult-Watch groups defined “Cult(TM)” ENTIRELY by Theology (not behavior); while they were parsing Cult(TM) Theology letter-by-letter, these Fellowships(TM) kept abusing their people, using their Theologically Clean bill of health from the Cult Watchers as an additional weapon on their pewpeons.

  4. If what Johnson contends here is correct, then all theology, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox alike, that was done prior to modern analysis and understanding of the historical formation of scripture, and all current theology that ignores this understanding, shares similar serious problems and faults. Johnson’s example of the selective use of scriptural witness by a Pope (CM, shouldn’t that be John Paul II, not Paul II?) illustrates how this wrong approach to scripture is followed by Roman Catholic exegesis, and he could have given examples of this dating all the way back to the first centuries of the Church.

    • What was the interpretation by the Pope ? It seems if you are going to make a sweeping statement you would at least print what he said. This is for Chaplin Mike.

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      For example, the belief that Mary was a virgin seems to be based on a mis-transation from Hebrew to Greek. Hopefully the Bible-only theologians won’t consider themselves bound by all this theological excess. And then there’s the Trinity…

      • The thing that gets me is that Mary wasn’t a virgin forever. I mean, she DID have other children via her husband!

      • is the only reason Mary *must* be a virgin is because of some idea that sin is passed down through a man’s physical seed? Therefore, since Jesus didn’t “come” from Adam, that proves his divinity, because he would not have a “sin nature”?

        Ok. Semen is not magic. There is no sin nature that gets passed down through it. That is ancient, pre-scientific thinking that is at odds with God’s creation. It’s man’s day dreaming and theorizing, it’s been tested and proven wrong, now what is closer to truth?

        We don’t have to hold on to this false theology anymore.

        So was Jesus born of a Virgin? Maybe. That would definitely be a miracle unique to Jesus. But it is not *required* for him to be God.

        • I think there’s some theological payoff for affirming a virgin birth. If Mary and Joseph conceive on their own terms and then God chooses to become incarnate in their offspring, then he is taking over the life of a being that is already present in its own right. Or suppose God becomes incarnate simultaneously with the conception of Mary and Joseph’s own natural progeny, so that there is no pre-existing being whose life has been taken over. One might still object here on the grounds that God illegitimately interferes in the emergence of a distinct life which, without divine interference, would live its own life.

          If there’s a virgin birth, by contrast, the the whole causal process by which the incarnate Jesus comes-to-be is completed by God. There is no question of God’s interfering with a life that would otherwise be a different person (i.e., not the second person of the Trinity). With a virgin birth, we can say that the whole formation of the life is aimed at incarnation (again, rather than being aimed at a natural birth and then taken over by God to get an incarnation).

      • No; not the belief that Mary was a virgin, but the belief in an OT prophecy that the messiah would be born of a virgin may come from a certain translation of the Hebrew (Isaiah 7:14, a young woman/virgin shall conceive).

        But read the account in Luke 1 for the context. All Greek, for what it’s worth, but it’s the context that’s clear. Mary insists to the angel that this cannot be, but the angel explains that the Holy Spirit will cause her to conceive.

        You’re allowed not to believe it, but there it is.

    • If what Johnson contends here is correct, then all theology, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox alike, that was done prior to modern analysis and understanding of the historical formation of scripture, and all current theology that ignores this understanding, shares similar serious problems and faults.

      …And? This seems to be the case. Speaking broadly and tongue in cheek, we can disregard any and all theology that arose out of false understandings of Scripture, false understandings of reality, very time specific views (feudal, etc), pre-ANE researched context, etc.

      The whole enterprise is a house built on sand.

      I was thinking this past weekend about transubstantiation somewhat. This is a very time period specific theology. I think Jesus would be surprised by it. “What, you think this bread and this wine that I was responsible for creating originally…all of a sudden becomes physically my body? That’s not what I meant at all!” This theology is rooted in a pre-scientific understanding of matter, and probably some weird Gnostic flavored theology too.

      Yet it’s one of those things that many believers have to accept, while still accepting the world and science mostly as is. It’s cognitive dissonance. And it’s worth fighting over for many. All for…what?

      • I agree with Johnson. I’m just pointing out that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants are all susceptible to criticism of their various interpretations of Scripture based on Johnson’s observations. The tendency to attend to only to the Biblical witnesses that support whatever one’s tradition happens to say has been around since the beginning.

      • We right-thinking Protestants have thrown transubstantiation so far out the window that we’ve abandoned any consideration of Real Presence, or even Symbolism. Are the bread and wine Jesus in any way, even symbolically? No, that would be Romish; it’s “Remembrance” only.

        A Post-It note, first Sunday of each month. No mystery whatsoever.

      • StuartB,

        Gnosticism would never suggest that God could become crude matter; although I don’t believe in transubstantiation, I think it is the opposite of Gnostic. It’s incarnational.

    • “If what Johnson contends here is correct, then all theology, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox alike, that was done prior to modern analysis and understanding of the historical formation of scripture, and all current theology that ignores this understanding, shares similar serious problems and faults.”

      Exactly. The Reformation was a result of numerous factors, once of which was centuries of theology built upon incorrect premises, faulty interpretations, ignorance of historical context, etc. and, as such, was a necessary corrective. If what Johnson, and many, many others are saying, is correct are we living in the midst of another Reformation? A reformation that potentially has the power to reshape the faith and the world as radically as the one 500 years ago?

      • Oh for sure, but we farewelled it away, and now we make war against the spirit, all together for the gospel itself!

  5. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “””Not a “storehouse of propositions” but a “collection of witnesses.” “””

    This! Or almost. The day-to-day Theology I encounter is rooted in this error, but makes a more fundamental one.

    Theology is broken in that it is not Logic. Scripture is full of metaphor and statements laden with historical and cultural baggage, Scripture is very often poetic. Yet verses [or the interpretation of verses] are used as if they are postulates which can be assembled to derive theorems. And then those theorems can be combined to reach further theorems.

    And one arrives at Theological positions defended on the premise “My Logic is Irrefutable!”.

    …. only … it is not Logic at all. Respond “No, it is not Logic” to these Theologians and you are dismissed with a disgusted shrug and a roll of the eyes.

    But a statement from a parable is *not* functionally equivalent to the speed of light or the Stefan–Boltzmann constant. I lay the blame of this type of woolly headed thinking at the feet of Plato. But he has been dead a long time. We should know better by now.

    • Thank you! Yes. I have to try and explain this to my church friends all the time. When we disagree on theology, it is not because one of us is having a failure of logic or brainpower! It is because each of us has lived a different life, and our experience and understanding of the world has led us to a different understanding of G-d; if all right-minded individuals came to the same theological conclusions, then the world would be a much less interesting place.

      I think worldview theology did the evangelical world a disservice in this regard. If you believe that everyone has an unquestioned worldview that informs their thought-processes, it puts the blame for disagreements into the realm of the subconscious! Its such an oddly Freudian kind of assertion. “If you disagree with me about theology, its just because deep down inside you think that G-d is not Just enough! Your father was probably too lax with household discipline. You should re-evaluate your worldview.”

      Or maybe I’m just bent about wasted schooling 🙂

      • It is because each of us has lived a different life, and our experience and understanding of the world has led us to a different understanding of G-d

        uh oh, that sounds dangerously close to universalism! remember Jesus said only HE is the way! you can’t find God anywhere else, it’s all demonic lies!

        blah blah, or so they would say, lol

        Good quote.

        • Stuart, have you read anything by Robin Parry? I thinkyou would like his book Evangelical Universalism, published under the pen name Gregory McDonald. CM has a link to his blog, and not to worry – he’s English, and not at all swayed by culture wars thinking and the like.

          And yes, he’s a universalist. So am i, now, but an xtian universalist. (As opposed to Unitarian Universalist and similar.)

          • Nope, but definitely another book to add to the lists.

            And I’m working on silencing the voices from my past that argue in my mind. “But you just want to sin freely and have everyone saved!” No, I just know that your views are 100% unbiblical, it remains to be seen if universalism is “biblical”.

          • Stuart, for me it has nothing to do with the tagline you quoted; everything to do with

            – I can no longer believe that there is such a thing as eternal consvious torment – howcould a good God (also just) allow such a thing?

            – what about the major portion of human beings, throughout the history of humanity, who have never heard or been baptized? (Esp. per the typical US evangelical standards on this).

            – what about those deeply flawed and troubled people that we all know (perhaps vety well indeed) who die without ever having “made a devision” – especially those who have been harmed by religion/religious institutions?

            And so on.

            Not to mention all the NT passages where Jesus, Paul and others seem to assert something very different than the typical line manymof us are accustomed to? That in itself gives me pause, and I’ve gotta admit that i used to see those passages and wonder if i had it wrong… that what I’d bern taught was erroneous.

            But then, i no longer accept the xyian view on Original Sin, nor do i think the talking reptile in Genesis had anything to do with Satan. I do believe that we are flawed and tend to din/do evil to ourselves and others, but i think I’m more in line with Judaism on that one (speaking very generally); ditto the views of “satan” thst are found in Conservative and Reform Judaism. Jeffrey Burton Russell wrote a series of books on the history and development of the *idea* of Satan, and even a cursory look at his books shows that there were a lot of ideas that just snowballed, over many centuries, in xtianity. (His work is scholarly and dense and i have only scratched the surface… kinda long out of the habit of trying to read academic books, though i can if i try.)

            Anyway, it does seem that there were other views, during the early centuries of the church, thst fall within the definition of “orthodoxy” but which have been largely ignored – in the West, anyway – for a long, long time. I’m much more inclined in some of those direvtions these days – includes no longer believing in penal subdtitutionary atonement and whatnot. (Substitutionary, yes – but i don’t think God’s wrath has snything muvh to do with it.)

            Don’t know if you’ve ever read The Great Divorce, but i duspect that it’s closer to the truth in many ways than we might guess, for sll thst it’s a novel.

          • I have a reply to you that’s in moderstion, Stuart. Please check back.

  6. “Here, Johnson identifies several problems with our fundamental approach to theology. In particular, he is concerned that we misunderstand the nature, complexity, and background of scripture as a source for our theological thinking. This leads us to do theology in an almost exclusively deductive manner. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book, however, is about doing theology also as an inductive art.”

    This is the fundamental difference between the academic ‘arts’ of biblical scholarship and theology (particularly systematic theology). Not surprisingly, Johnson is a biblical scholar. I have often said that theologians are, by training, and usually nature, philosophers; biblical scholars are, by training, and usually nature, ancient historians (though there is obviously some crossover in the fields). Both are ‘doing theology’ at some point or level but they approach the Scriptures from very different directions. Biblical theology (which is where biblical scholars ‘do theology’) lets the authors have their own voice and perspectives (inductive approach), while systematic theology seeks to find a common voice (often ignoring or even rejecting the idea that the biblical authors would not speak with one voice [since God is the ultimate ‘author’ of Scripture] – a deductive approach). IMHO, the approach of biblical scholars tends to be more objective (though no-one is really objective), open to new ideas and accepting (and using) the findings of archaeology, linguistics, sociology, etc., and more open to let the Scriptures (and their authors) speak, recognizing that they don’t always say exactly the same thing, even about the same issues (but then my training was in biblical scholarship as well, so I am biased in that direction 🙂 ). I’ll have to order Johnson’s book (I have several others and he is a first-rate biblical scholar).

    • This is a helpful distinction, but Johnson goes further. As Robert says in his comment above, theology must take into account that we are dealing with the living God, not just a book, and that the book itself is given to us in order that we might be able to speak about God’s work in the world and in our lives today.

      • Quite true. As a former evangelical (and still recovering former fundamentalist – many years ago) I still tend to go back to Scripture as ‘the final word’ (which, ultimately I think it is, properly appreciated and understood). Having recently become an Anglican, I have begun to appreciate (and sometimes struggle with – that slippery slope thing) the truth that God’s work didn’t end with the wrapping up of the New Testament, nor did he deliver it as a sealed package, nor is the first-century church the ‘ideal church’ (though none of these things were new to me – just something one usually doesn’t bring up in an evangelical church 🙂 ). The process of canonization itself reveals that the living God continued his ‘revelation’ (in some sense – perhaps not a technical theological sense) beyond the end of the first century. Evangelicals, and fundamentalists in particular, tend to think that process too messy (and some are even scandalized by it). Certainty is what is needed, and this ‘living God’ thing is, well, far too subjective and doesn’t fit in a nice little box (which we see in the Wisdom literature).

        • I still tend to go back to Scripture as ‘the final word’

          Yeah, me too to all the above. But I wonder what people did before they had this final word in it’s final form.

          God used to be so much more exciting. If the ancient stories are to be believed (literally), he once appeared to a guy and told him he’s going to be super wealthy and have countless children, and God delivered. If the ancient stories are to be believed (realistically), what makes our tribe and nation so great is that God once went to our distant ancestor and promised him wealth and offspring, and here we are, super populous, but those bad guys took our rightful money, and watch out they will get their’s when God comes back.

          I like the idea of a God who can appear to each of us and promise us wonderful and mighty things because it’s his delight entirely to do so. Hopefully without too many strings attached or broken promises (both of which seem strewn through scripture as well).

          I don’t know anymore if I’m describing a “good” god.

  7. I like to get back to the basic meaning of words before starting a discussion, which usually doesn’t accomplish much more than making me a nuisance to others. It seems to me that “theology” has two alternate and congruent basic meanings: God talk and God thought. NOT God logic.

    Using those pre-academic meanings, I do not know any other place on the planet where it happens better than here, overall and over the long run. Not just the contributions of the participants themselves but the wide range of links, reviews, mentions, recommendations, and opinions. Case in point, thanks to whoever recently got me to read American Nation. Only about “theology” in a peripheral way, but I’m finding it essential to better understanding the basic investigation of this place, the “wilderness” experience.

    Happy to see John Wycliffe at the table above, and arguably we might not be here arguing without him cracking open the door, may his bones rest in peace. Bill Tyndale deserves a prominent place at that table too, tho possibly that unnamed guy on the right in the Big Apple hat is him. Theology isn’t just about the Bible, but it doesn’t get very far without it. Maybe by the time Luther 500 rolls around we can get this sorted out a little better and move on. Do you have to have a long, pointy nose to be a theologian?

    • American Nations. Plural. The whole point.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > American Nations

      Probably me, I’ve been ‘promoting’ that book for a long time as it clarifies so many divisions we see plainly but without history seem inscrutable.

      > Only about “theology” in a peripheral way

      I have found the best approach to Theology is to approach it on the periphery; but itself it often seems to be free of substance. Disentangling Theology from History, Politics, and Philosophy leaves it hollow [of course the same can be said of Philosophy, IMO].

    • Using those pre-academic meanings

      Dude…making me think

      All theology is pre-academic. All theology is academic. We need the logic to set the boundaries, establish the rules, write them on the stone tablets and force the people to follow them else they go astray from the tablets. I’m sorry, I must punish you now, you’ve broken the rules I just created but haven’t shared with you yet. Ignorance is no excuse. Grace won’t be here for thousands of years.

      Did something horribly, horribly go wrong with Moses and Israel? Did Moses walk away from God when he brought down “God’s” tablets? Or are these just all stories of our ancient ancestors while we sit by this river of babylon, don’t take them too literally but learn from them.


      Theology is pre-academic. Everyone has their own experience of God. How can we learn from each other? Oh, God did this for you/you attribute this thing to God? Let me tell you what I attribute to God/God did for me. Be encouraged.

      Yet for some of us, we didn’t grow up that way. It was rigid lines. In or out. Follow the rules. There is no sense of God as a separate person who loves and cares for us and who may do something different and special just for us.

      Because God is the same yesterday, today and forever, he never changes.

      Except…he did once.

  8. Thanks for the heads up – have found Johnson to be a good read and thought provoking. While not possible to consider with just the excerpt, I noticed no mention of the concept of inspiration when suggesting “the time-conditioned efforts of humans across the centuries to express the meaning of what God was up to in their lives.” As a confessional Lutheran I hold a high, though not exclusive, view of Scripture as revelation, and always have a sense of discomfort when terms such as “time-conditioned” are offered up standing alone. Johnson’s general thoughts seem spot on so looking forward to comments.

  9. Burro [Mule] says

    When the majesty of a mountain sunset is adequately explained by the interplay of wavelengths and the excitation of certain neural pathways

    When the breasts of a young woman are adequately explained by the equation
    kappa(t)=-(ab[2+3sint+sin(3t)])/(2{a^2cos^2t+b^2[cos(2t)-sint]^2}^(3/2)) and the force vectors operating on them.

    When what a Mozart concerto invokes is adequately explained by the mathematics of frequencies and intervals

    Then theology will be an adequate substitute for the Bible, although my suspicion is that theology is not primarily a substitute for the Bible, but a substitute for prayer.

    • >Then theology will be an adequate substitute for the Bible, although my suspicion is that theology is not primarily a substitute for the Bible, but a substitute for prayer.

      That rang uncomfortably true for me. I’ve never known how to pray well, and I always find talking to an unseen, unresponsive party a bit uncomfortable. But I think that if I could find comfort in prayer, philosophizing about G-d would quickly become secondary to simply talking with Him.

      • Easier to say ‘The Father’ than ‘Father’ for some folks ?
        I have thought that might be the case for them what seem to have so many more ‘answers’ than the rest of us.

    • Eckhart Trolle says

      So religion is to be appreciated aesthetically, not taken seriously as a set of truth-claims…?

      • Burro [Mule] says

        That question is hard to answer.

        A lot depends on what you would accept as a support for a ‘truth-claim’. Your language indicates that you consider aesthetics neither to be a component of “truth” nor to be serious.

        • Eckhart Trolle says

          Oh sure, it’s a great work of literature, but we have lots of great literature. I figured you’d want people to read the Bible in a different way than they do Twilight, for instance. (That’s considered great literature, right?) Is “Jesus was born of a virgin” the same category of statement as “Edward is a vampire”?

      • Come on, you are more clever than this: the point is that none of these things are reducible to a set of facts or claims.

        Rather than heat your port to release the flavor, you could just boil it until all that is left is some purple sludge that burns to the hot pan. But … why, just why?

        • Adam Tauno Williams says


        • +more than 1

        • Burro [Mule] says

          Ah, Walt Whitman

          When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
          When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
          When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
          When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
          How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
          Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
          In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
          Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            I’m sorry that Whitman didn’t appreciate astronomy. And if this is another metaphor for religion, you’re making it sound very anti-intellectual. That’s sad too.

          • Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes…

      • Scientists also use aesthetics in their work. Have you never heard of an elegant hypothesis?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > my suspicion is that theology is not primarily a substitute for the Bible, but a substitute for prayer.

      Yep. Or a substitute for action; merely deliberate until the problem resolves itself – one way or another – and then say “Ah, that must have been God’s will”. I’m cynical, yes. Especially during my stint in college ministry the purpose of Theology seemed primarily to provide cover to avoid thorny issues and situations.

    • Mule, I never knew that about women’s breasts, I was never very good at math. But I think you just caused many mathematicians to stumble!

    • Difference between art and science.

      And all those things are most certainly art. Even if science can be used to describe them.

      Amen, I’m definitely sharing this comment around.

    • I never thought of trigonometry as erotic. 🙂

      I only got a C+.

  10. David Cornwell says

    Thanks for discussing a book by Luke Timothy Johnson. I discovered Johnson about 9 years ago when he came to our church for a series of lectures and a small gathering of invited guests. He stretched my thinking in ways that I never expected to happen in such a short period of time. The more one studies him, the more one wants.

    Biblical interpretation can never be a individual experience. Nor can it normally come from an individual PLUS the Holy Spirit. Scripture is not propositional or prescriptive in the static and stale ways we have often used it. This is one of the problems with Reformation. Both magisterial and radical reformers saw the church fathers as being in the same category as popes, councils, and canon law. In general all were rejected in favor of sola scriptura. And so the proliferation of interpretation continues to this day.

    • David,
      At its best, the Reformation was an attempt to hear the witnesses in Scripture that the medieval Church had suppressed in its preference for those Scriptural witnesses that supported its own vast tradition; at its worst, the various churches of the Reformation each substituted their own preferred witnesses for the ones they had thrown over when they rejected Rome’s.

      I have to disagree with you on something: the Anglican reformers had high regard for the Church Fathers, and invoked them against the theological developments, one might call them embellishments, of the medieval Church.

      • David Cornwell says

        Robert, actually I agree with you on this. This is an exception and a good one. Sometimes I have a tendency to leave Anglicans out when I think of the Reformation. Which is an error on my part.

        Also one of the good things going on now is the renewed interest in the Fathers.

  11. Third, we fail to take seriously enough the dialectical character of Scripture and experience.

    This is why I love John Wesley’s perspective of “experimental religion.” Will any talk of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral come up this week?

    • David Cornwell says

      Sean, thanks for bringing this up. Very few of Wesley’s teachings lend themselves to the sort of ironclad exclusiveness found in some others. He had generous acceptance toward Christians of other persuasions. In fact he had a sermon called “A Catholic Spirit” in which he discussed our acceptance of one another based on mutual love.

  12. A humorous footnote to Michael’s observations – just now I ran across the following passage on an FBI report about a Nazi sympathizer under investigation in the 1940s. Perhaps theologians or would-be theologians shackled to their armchairs should take care to remember what privilege looks like:

    “In December, 1941, the Sheriff at [place name], advised that [name withheld] is harmless and that he just has a lot of money with nothing to do but travel around and spend it being a nuisance to himself and everybody else. He said that [name withheld]’s family are respectable citizens and that they are quite annoyed at their son’s peculiarities.”

  13. The thing that bothers me about theology, or maybe more appropriately “denominations”, is that they’re so “set.” I mean, after 30 years as a Christian my own view of God has changed so much that it’s ridiculous. I have my own theology now, based upon the Word (Jesus), the word (the Bible), the Holy Spirit, what I’ve heard and read from others, my own experiences, OTHER people’s experiences, prayer, etc. etc. I find it extremely difficult to “sign up” for ANY theology or denomination, because I believe a person’s walk is constantly changing, and to see others so firmly planted in their own view of God, usually based upon SOMEONE ELSE’S interpretation eons ago, just doesn’t make sense to me. Where’s the growth and mystery of God?

    Thanks for posting yesterday’s post (Michael’s brilliant classic article), and today’s post! Looking forward to the series.

    • Right there with ya Rick. All of those and more are required to work out your faith if it is to have any strength.

  14. So who are those personages in front of the table? I’m guessing third from left is the Pope, not our Francis. Guy on the left looks like Buffalo Bill and maybe the bull he rode in on. Or maybe that’s a Papal Bull, it has claws. Ball headed guy on the right with the sparkler, Attila the Hun? Someone here must know.

  15. I’m learning to live with the living God, the God who can’t be contained by books and traditions, or constrained by death and nothingness; the God who is always present, yet always on the move; the God who can be trusted, yet is unpredictable; the God who is as tender as a loving mother with her newborn, but as severe and unyielding as the sheer cliffs of Mount Everest; the God who makes himself available, but cannot be caught; the God who is beyond my thoughts, yet speaks to my heart. I’m learning to live with this God, this Jesus, and I’m learning to die into him.

  16. Johnson states:
    “Scripture is more fundamental, rich, and complex than the creeds as a source for theological reflection.”

    That may be true and ties in with “prima scriptura”. However, Jesus commissioned His Apostles with the Holy Spirit in John 20, He also said that the Spirit would lead the church in “all truth”. I believe this began to unfold in the first few “Christian” centuries and resulted in the creeds and liturgy etc. The process of the church “institutionalising” belief rather than practising / living it, caused all the garbage to erupt. To simply go back to Scripture without acknowledging the work of the Spirit in the creeds and councils and allowing that to impact us today, is a grave mistake leading to continual disunity and arrogance.

  17. I like Ulrich Zuingle’s hat. That’s BA.