Technical bits: On Transformation Theology

This is a technical follow up post. In this post I discuss my understanding of transformation theology, with which I consider myself in dialogue, and why I nevertheless reject it.

Transformation Theology is the new theological project at King’s College London. Although it is close in name, it should not be confused with the American project, more closely associated with the Emerging Church, known as “Transformative Theology”. Transformation theology is an attempt to bring theology to where people are. It is an effort to be an engaged or embodied theology. It begins with an important question to ask, as done by Prof. Oliver Davies of King’s College: Where is Christ? The way this is asked ends up being both promising and, ultimately, why I reject the project.

This is certainly an appropriate question to ask. The standard reformed answer is “Seated at the right hand of the Father.” The standard evangelical baptist answer is “within my heart.” The broader answer, given primarily by those in the Roman Catholic tradition is “within the Church” or even “within the Sacrament.” Oliver Davies notes that in one sense at least some of these are correct, but in another sense these are not the real Christ, but the mediated form of Christ. Where is Christ, asks Davies, in our time and space? Davies also wants to clearly distinguish this from the “who” question of Christ which, as can be seen in both Bonhoeffer and Barth, ends up subsuming the “where” question. While this certainly is important, and greatly impacts how we understand the incarnation, Davies presents some fundamental problems for me with this question. At heart, as Davies notes, this is a question related to the Ascension.

This is where the problems begin, at least if I’m understanding Davies right. He says that the cosmology of the first century Church is not ours. While that may be true, I would argue that it is nevertheless analogous in some very important ways. Leaving that aside, this leads to another problem. Davies argues that because of this different cosmology, when we ask the “where” question we cannot be talking about the resurrected Christ because that Christ belongs to the past. I want to be clear, Davies does not seem to want to deny the resurrection (which an uncritical reading might suggest), but is merely stating that this historical Christ was another mediated form of Christ. However, I don’t like this response. In trying to separate the “where” question from the “who” question, Davies has assumed the answer to the “who” question, and I disagree with his answer.

If we deny that the historical person who was killed and raised as Jesus is real Christ then we have a danger of lapsing into a form of Adoptionism (an early church heresy). I have no doubt that Davies thinks that Jesus is the real Christ, but he nevertheless refers to this as a mediated form. I want to say that this is an unmediated form. God was not hidden in Jesus. As Jesus says “If anyone has seen me, he has seen the father.” The incarnation fundamentally changed who God is. Now there is a human who is a person of the one substance of the Trinity. What is further, Paul’s arguments at the end of 1 Corinthians make it clear that this was a bodily raised Jesus still. We cannot escape the problem by appealing to Platonism. The historical human being Jesus is now the Christ. Granted, after the resurrection, his physicality had certain differences from ours, to the effect that he could pass through walls, but he still ate and could be touched, though he urged some not to do so. This is, I think, part of what it means to talk about the “Scandal of Particularity.” Christ became incarnate as a particular historical individual. He did not become the “everyman” or the “ideal man,” but a specific human person who lived within history. He entered our space time. And this Jesus, who was raised from the dead, is still human. That is why the reformed tradition states, I think correctly, that Christ is “at the right hand of the Father.” This is also why, although I think Davies asks an excellent question, there are some fundamental flaws with the approach and I will be an observer from the outside.

To go back to the initial post, click here.

This is the last of the more technical posts. The next post should be more user friendly.


Technical Bits: What do I mean by “Reformed”?

This is a follow up post. Here I talk about my unique use of the word “reformed”.

Although in today’s terms the use of the word “reformed” almost always indicates someone who is strongly in line with Dortian Calvinism, that’s not what I mean when I say that my orientation is in some measure reformed. Instead, I am using the term in its most basic sense.

By this I mean that my theology is heavily influenced by the theological writings and work that came out as a direct result of the period of time. While this includes those thinkers whom I mentioned in the initial blogpost, it also includes those who responded to the reformation. It is broad enough to include both John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. It runs from John Edwards to John Wesley. It should be noted that the biggest conflict, between Dortian Calvinists and Arminians is an “in-house” debate. It would be a mistake for Protestant to ignore Catholic, for Presbyterian to ignore Methodist or anything in between. To say I am reformed does not mean I necessarily ascribe to any particular set of beliefs, but it is a recognition that these people have something important to say; something that I need to hear.

To go back to the initial post, click here.

The technical bits: What do I mean by Baptist? (and Southern Baptist?)

This is a technical follow up to a non-technical post to clarify what I mean when I call myself a “baptist”. For that post, click here.

Side note: This is an incredibly long clarification (particularly in comparison with the others).

When someone says they are a Southern Baptist, particularly when they are trying to be apolitical, it may be difficult to find where along the spectrum they lie. I grew up during the period of time known as either the conservative resurgence or the fundamentalist takeover, depending upon which side of the lines you were. However, my early childhood was in Midland, TX where, at First Baptist Midland, Missions was a heavy focus, but we seemed to, at least from my perspective, eschew most of the debates. My later elementary and middle school years were spent at a Metropolitan “mega church” in Texas. This had the advantage of insulating me in the youth group (which almost functioned like a church in itself) away from any significant denominational controversy that may or may not have been going on in the rest of the church. Being in Texas, there also another angle to the politicking as the BGCT (Baptist General Convention of Texas) had a unique perspective in conversation with the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) functioning much more autonomously than many of the state baptist conventions often did. My high school years were spent in a small church led by a pastor who had his seminary education as music minister, thus again I felt mostly spared of the controversy (or more correctly was blissfully oblivious to it despite having two uncles and a cousin who were at the time baptist ministers). I attended an undergraduate institution that, despite being headed by a member of the committee who formed the somewhat controversial Baptist Faith and Message 200 (Mark Brister was president at the time of OBU), was under the shadow (and still arguably is) of the great Oklahoma Baptist worker Herschel Hobbs. Hobbs was in the somewhat unique position of being a theological conservative who, nevertheless, did not agree with some of the tactics being employed in the national convention that were characterized by the period in the late 80s and 90s. I concluded my US education at a interdenominational seminary located on an Alabama Baptist (and essentially a Southern Baptist) University, attending a church there that was clearly deeply on the side of the conservatives/fundamentalists (again depending on which side you are on). So, where does this leave me? Well there are a few things that can be said about me.

1) The Baptist Faith and Message: I unequivocally accept the BFM (Baptist Faith and Message) of 1963. I don’t know of a Southern Baptist around today who would not say that. Where the trouble begins for some is the revised BFM 2000. There are some very significant changes between the two. Unlike some commentators, particularly those who prefer the 1963 version, I do think that some of the changes are necessary and altogether positive. Like any document of this sort, it has its problems, but most are minor enough, especially when talking about the day to day work of the church. However as a result of this, many churches have decided either to affirm both statements, or simply offer both to congregants without a clear demarcation as to which they accept. Considering the emphasis on priesthood of believers and autonomy of the local church that Baptists have always affirmed, (including in both of these statements I think), this seems the right approach, but I’m not sure. After all, shouldn’t a church provide some guidance? At any rate, I haven’t fully decided where I would come down on the issue, and maybe that’s where I should be, at least now: in some tension over it. At any rate, at some point in the near future I may have to make a decision and I will do so honestly at that time. But at this point, I like to keep the conversation open and it seems picking one is closing that conversation. At any rate, if you’re wondering what the potential problems are, here’s a side by side comparison of the two documents by someone in the BGCT. I want to preface that by saying that I don’t think they are being entirely fair at all points, nor do I think they acknowledge the positive changes that are going on, particularly with regard to the 2000’s attempt to acknowledge the SBC’s past failings with regard to race relations and trying to set those right. Nevertheless it does highlight the differences and the commentary gives some of the concerns of those who prefer the 1963 document, not all of which I think are valid.

2) All of the controversy in the SBC has led many in the denomination, particularly those from Texas, to feel a stronger tie to the state convention than the national convention. Let me be clear, I remain committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. Nevertheless, I do feel the stronger ties to the BGCT than to the SBC and when I have encountered other Southern Baptists from Texas outside of the state, I have found that generally they have the same ties. That being said, were the BGCT to actually split from the SBC, a prospect that I doubt would ever actually occur, I don’t know where I would side as I don’t think split offs are generally a good idea. Ever. So even though I feel a stronger affinity for the BGCT, were such a divide to occur, I think I might actually remain with the SBC rather than go with the BGCT. Again, though, I don’t know what I would actually do in that actual situation, something that I doubt I will ever need to grapple with.

3) For those outside the Southern Baptist denomination, my identification as a Baptist carries with it some key distinctives both sacramentally and theologically. First sacramentally, those in the SBC don’t talk about “sacraments” because such a term carries with it a lot of theological baggage, including that they are “dispensations or grace” and/or “mediations of Christ”. Instead we refer to “ordinances”. By that term we mean that these are ritual, or ritual like things, that Christ ordained the church do during his earthly ministry. As a result baptists, like most Protestants, tend to limit these to 2 ordinances: the Lord’s supper (called communion or Eucharist in other denominations) and baptism. For the Lord’s supper, most baptists take what is essentially a Zwinglian interpretation. That is to say we do not accept transubstantiation (Roman Catholics) or consubstantiation (Lutherans), but interpret it as a type of remembrance, embracing the lines of Jesus “Do this in remembrance of me.” While some like to play this off against the Calvinist “Spiritual presence” of Christ, such a distinction is unnecessary. Surely baptists, who believe Christ is always present by the Holy Spirit, do not deny a spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. For most baptists, myself included, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is present in a special way, but instead that we are aware of his continued presence in a special and unique way during the Lord’s Supper that we aren’t aware of otherwise.

In contrast to most church denominations around today, Baptists have a decided preference for baptism of believers by immersion. There are a number of reasons for this. For most baptists, the primary reason is that this is how the early (New Testament era and immediately following) church likely performed baptism. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, there apparently had existed some debate over whether baptism should be exclusively for believers, or could be extended to infants of believers. We know this because Augustine was not baptized as an infant, despite being born to a Christian mother (who considered a childhood baptism for the young Augustine), but Augustine himself later advocated for an infant baptism driven in large part of his discovery of the doctrines of the perseverance of the saints and Original Sin. However, unlike Augustine and the Church a few generations after the earliest church, most Baptists (including myself) do not believe in baptismal regeneration, which is to say that baptism has no effect, one way or the other, on your salvation. It is something done out of obedience. Aside from the argument that “that’s how the early church did it” and argument, there are other reasons for promoting Credo-baptism (baptism of believers) by immersion as the primary method. As far as credo-baptism there are three arguments: First, while the New Testament is pretty clear, as far as most denominations are concerned, that baptismal regeneration is not a valid doctrine, baptism and salvation tend to go hand in hand. Second, baptism exists as a confession, and it is impossible to confess something that one doesn’t personally hold to. Third even most denominations that practice paedo-baptism (baptism of infants and small children) admit it is not effective (i.e. not genuine) until and unless the candidate later places faith in Christ; so why engage in something before it can be effective (and particularly if it might not ever be effective)? As far as baptism by immersion is concerned, there are also a few arguments beyond the “that’s what the early church did” model: First, the word baptism actually means immerse or submerge. In the Greek of the same time period the word we translate as baptism was used in other writings of ships that were wrecked at see and people who fell into bodies of water. Second, the “teachings of the twelve disciples,” while not considered Scripture, is nevertheless an early church document that gives insight into how the church should perform certain practices and it advocates immersion (in running water) wherever this is possible because of the third reason. Third, no other form of baptism presents as clear a visual representation of death and resurrection. One’s old self is “buried” in the water and we are resurrected with Christ as we come up out of the water in a new life.

4) And this is now a little unwieldy, but there are certain key baptist theological distinctives. First there is a stronger emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. The result of this is that baptists by and large advance a liberty of conscience (we shouldn’t impose a particular set of beliefs on anyone) even though most of us nevertheless evangelize and talk about these things. Also we accept a specific type of polity (church politics) which emphasizes the autonomy of the local church (as opposed to a national or global convention) which is run through a democracy: every member gets a vote on all significant decisions. There are other distinctives, but these are the main ones.

5) And this is a big one, but doesn’t require much explanation. Baptists come together as a denomination of sorts primarily for the sake of evangelism and missions.

Ok, well that was kind long, but I think I’ve laid out my position as clearly as I can by what I mean by “baptist.” To go back to the initial post click here. If you want to know more about baptists, or my particular perspective, ask below in the comments.

Technical bits: What do I mean by evangelical?

This is a technical follow-up and clarification to an earlier post. Here I explain what I mean by “evangelical”.

Evangelical has a number of uses. The earliest use in the modern period seems to be to refer to the early protestant church in Germany, what people in the US would call “Lutherans.” That’s clearly not what I meant. It’s use in the UK seems to likewise be technical and refer to those who accept a penal substitutionary theory of atonement. While I don’t have a problem with that, that’s not really what I mean when I say evangelical. Further, it doesn’t really seem that most British church goers mean that exclusively either.

The other two uses of evangelical seem to refer to a particular political orientation, and to something else entirely. While evangelical may mean politically someone who votes “conservative” in most elections, I have some real problems with this usage unrelated to what “conservative” means. Not least of all it is taking a theological position and attitude and putting it together with secular politics. This is despite Jesus’ declaration that “my Kingdom is not of this world.” While there are certainly some political issues that Christians should be engaged with, and while Christians should certainly strive to be good and informed citizens, there is a danger in confusing Christian mission with a political organization. Still, whether “evangelical” may end up meaning I vote a certain way is not the point. Instead evangelical refers to specific theological orientation made up of a few distinctives, and this blog will attempt, at least most of the time, to avoid the political use of that term.

Let’s look at those. Granted, this is my understanding of the term, and it’s usage is so broad that others may add or subtract other criteria, but by evangelical this is what I mean.

1) The Bible: the Bible is true, completely, unapologetically. The Bible is the primary or only source of authority for the Christian on earth. It is divinely inspired and is one of the primary means by which God, through the Holy Spirit, continues to speak to the Church because it is a living document. No human authority can or should ever stand over it. It is the record of God’s holy activity within the course of real human history. It is the result of a partnership between God and man and thus it has authority and can lay claim to an absolute truth, but is nevertheless this because God has redeemed the work of otherwise flawed and fallible people. The doctrine of Scripture affirms the goodness of God and the potential for human effort, so long as that effort relies entirely upon God.

2) God and Salvation are personal. God is a personal God which means he relates to us on an individual level. This is what we mean also by salvation. Salvation is characterized by this personal relationship of trust and commitment and our closest human model we have to view that is a lasting covenant marriage. God also relates to us as a parent does to a child. While this relationship means that there is, in a sense, a corporate relationship, just a parents relate to corporate children, this also means God relates to us each in our own way. God is active in the lives of believers.

3) Salvation is only through Jesus. As a result evangelicals feel it is their duty to give the message of good news that though we have separated ourselves from God, through our own individual actions, God has reconciled us to him through Jesus Christ who was born a person, lived, died a terrible death that we deserved, and was raised from the dead in the same way that believers who die will one day be raised.

These are the distinctives that I think make an evangelical. This is not meant to enumerate all of my beliefs, but merely show the place upon which all evangelicals may have common ground, even while disagreeing about other issues. To go back to the original post click here.

Background and Focus of this blog: the non-technical part

This post comes to you in two parts. I’ve given a more general part first, and then, I’ve put up a series of longer technical clarifications to the distinctives I lay out here. That way, if you don’t want to mess with the technical stuff, just don’t read the follow up. If you are interested, though, click the hyperlinks (highlighted in red) throughout the post, or just read through and then click to see each of the other more technical posts.

The Non-Technical Post

In my first post I had mentioned that this project had its primary focus and audience in the Church. By that, I meant the worshiping community of believers in Christ who come together in order to glorify God, which means, for the most part, those who are not academic theologians, the “laity.” This post will address the other two aspects I want to give as part of an introductory orientation: the Background, and the rest of the focus.

First the background. Like any project of this sort, no one comes to it with a genuinely “blank slate.” Even though we can’t avoid being influenced by our experience, we can identify where the potential for influence is and so hope to be a little more honest in our approach. For me, I can identify about three distinct influences that are particularly relevant to this project, which I can identify with three stages of my life.

Perhaps the most unsurprising influence, and most lasting, is my upbringing. I was brought up in a fairly traditional Southern Baptist and evangelical background. In large part I’ve stayed mostly true to this. I am still an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and I’ve grown to embrace my baptist heritage more than I thought I would, helped in large part by my attendance at baptist liberal arts college. My identity as an evangelical has also been reaffirmed throughout my life, and I have consistently placed myself within the company of other evangelicals; for more on what I mean by evangelical and baptist see the “Technical section” by clicking the links.

The second major factor in my theological heritage is a “reformed” and interdenominational perspective. Now, let me be clear: I do NOT mean a Calvinist perspective. Unfortunately the term has been co-opted to a very specific form of the Reformation. Let me also be clear, “reformed” in the broad sense I am using it is not exclusive to Protestants. Instead, by “reformed” I mean that perspective that is informed by the historical figures related to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. While this includes figures like John Calvin and Thomas Cramner, it also includes, perhaps more fundamentally, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and even Counter-Reformation figures like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, but more on how exactly I nuance this is also given in the “technical” section. My interdenominationalism has, to some extent, long been part of my history. While I certainly hold to certain Baptist preferences, some of these, in particular the idea of freedom of conscience, have led me to embrace a strong sense of the Church beyond my particular denomination. Much, but by no means all, of this has been informed by my time earning an MDiv degree at Beeson Divinity School. For a good example of doing interdenominational work in the Baptist tradition check out my friend Steve Harmon, whom I met in our joint time at Beeson, over at his blog, Ecclesial Theology.

The third major factor is fairly recent, and is largely informed by my present time here in London and at King’s College London. Being in  the most urban setting I have ever lived, and in perhaps one of the more secularized, can certainly impact one’s vision of the church: reinforcing some aspects, like interdenominational and evangelical sensibilities, while reminding one of the importance of more everyday and non-“churchy” language (this post excepting). At King’s College London, the current theological project is something called Transformation Theology. While I am certainly sympathetic to the project, and even think that it asks and tries to answer a lot of the right questions in what I think is mostly the right way, I have certain misgivings about the project. I do not entirely agree with some of the underlying assumptions behind it, again more specifics below, but do view it as a generally positive movement in theology. Therefore it might be best to say that I am doing theology in dialogue with Transformation Theology, but ultimately as one slightly outside of it. (Again for more detail see the technical post).

Now that my background has been addressed, I can begin to very briefly address the focus of this project. Of course the focus is primarily upon God and, as was discussed last time, upon His Church which exists as the Bride of Christ. Within that I want to bring a way of doing a theology blog that is maybe a little different. While certain aspects will approach the theology blog in a style that is fairly typical, such as addressing specific doctrines or ideas as well as current events, I wanted to bring some more interaction into it. This is where I need the help of those of you reading. I want the direction of this blog to be largely shaped by where the readers are. I don’t want this to be a theology to the Church, but a theology for and with the Church. Thus, I will try to keep my language mostly non-technical in the posts, but I also want to know where you are at. What questions do you want to see addressed? What topics interest you? Do you agree or disagree with things I say? Leave comments and hopefully, after some time, the posts will be heavily driven by the comments thus creating a type of partnership in this theological project between me and the readers. With that in mind, before I get to the technical part, let me ask you this question:

What do you think is the most important issue facing the Church right now Please leave a comment below. Hopefully I’ll be able to address some of that in my next post. If you can’t think of what that might be, then let’s make it more personal. What is the biggest issue or question you face, as a Christian RIGHT NOW? Be as specific and personal as you like.

What is ‘Why Theology’

‘Why Theology’ is a theological engagement that I’m beginning. It’s not necessarily a new way of doing theology, but it does have a unique focus, background, and specific audience. Let’s look at each one of these features to try to get a better feel for what ‘why theology’ will hopefully mean over the next few posts. Today, I’m going to look at the audience, which for this blog will hopefully be the primary focus.

Even though ‘why theology’ will be informed from an academic study of theology, it does not have other academic theologians as its audience. This is not theology for the sake of theology. Instead, as all theology should strive to be, it is a theological and philosophical project aimed primarily at those in the church. In other words, it hopes to be a “layman’s theology.” Successful predecessors in the past have been those like C. S. Lewis who sought not merely to give an apologetic of the Christian faith, but to help understand the unique what the Christian faith actually means.

In my own personal experience, I have been somewhat frustrated by the level of theological literature and education readily available to those not academically trained. With the exception of Lewis and a few others, much of it is either extremely basic, meant only as an apologetic (defense of the faith), or incredibly dense and technical. Certainly there are a lot of pastor’s who try to bring theological discourse into the pulpit on Sunday morning, but that is often too little, or too difficult to follow. While there are various “laymen’s academies” out there, these are often inaccessible for the majority of Christians who would like to deepen their faith. I’m hoping that with this blog, and some other projects that will take a little longer to get off the ground, I’ll be able to bridge that gap, maybe even offer something between the C. S. Lewis-esque type of thinking and the more technical systematic theology of someone like Karl Barth (yes I know he disliked the term “systematic theology” but that’s what it is). With that in mind I have two questions for you, the reader.

What to expect from the blog: The first question has to do with expectations. If this project proves to be successful it will probably take a few weeks to get really going with a more or less set schedule. I would like to blog at least once a week, if not multiple times a week, but what do you expect? If you have no real expectation, what would like to see? Any particular topics or formats? What type of frequency? Etc.

Quick Question: Are there any resources you have found particularly useful in deepening your faith or knowledge as a Christian that aren’t particularly technical? For me, one resource has been How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. What about you?