Recognizing the Faithful One: Thoughts on the Fourth Week of Pentecost

Note: Paul Ricoeur is one of my favorite philosophers and I had planned a much more full interaction between the text below and his thought, particularly his ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ and ‘hermeneutical arc’. This did not materialize as I had hoped. But because I need to get caught up with these (and some other things) I’m going with a seriously truncated version of what I had originally planned. Despite the lack of a more substantial engagement, hopefully those familiar with his thought can see the Ricoeurian undertones.

The Gospel Text for the Fourth Week of Pentecost, Mark 4:35-41 (CEB)

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

A Note on Hermeneutical Horizons

I received some trenchant feedback via email concerning my previous lectionary reflection about my statement about the parable of Jesus,

they first and foremost tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God and the identity of Jesus before they tell us anything about us. Or we could say that whatever they tell us about us, they tell us about ourselves in relation to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus and the kingdom of God first, us second.”

To make a long email short, my critic seemed to have two main concerns: first that I was saying that the text says nothing about us and second, that I had hindered one’s ability to ‘immediately apply’ (their words) God’s word to our life. To this I simply repeat my contention that the parables say something about Jesus and his kingdom before they say anything about us. Again, its not they say nothing about us, but what they say about us is within the context the kingdom and liberating kingship of Jesus. I would also say here that it is, in actuality, within this kingdom context that we truly see ourselves as we are (for good or bad).

Second, I would question the immediacy of the text most readers of the Bible simply assume and the way so many are driven to ‘life application’ that is so often displayed. There is potential for misunderstanding here so let me try to be clear. I am not saying that we can’t ever understand the text, nor am I saying that Scripture has no bearing on our lives. What I am saying is that typical evangelical readings of the Bible seriously lack any sort of contemplative or hermeneutical patience in which we allow the Spirit to apply the Scriptural text to us and form us.

There are three main horizons, contexts, or ‘worlds’ involved in our reading of the Bible – the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world of the text. Most Christians it seems jump straight to our present context, or the world in front of the text. But without the patience to ponder and spend time in the other two worlds or horizons, our reading will be skewed and we will be severely temped to force ‘life applications’ out of the text ourselves rather than listening to the Spirit in the text. We need to slow down and learn hermeneutical patience.

Got Faith?

These same concerns are at play in the text at hand, where Jesus calms the storm. I can’t count how many sermons I’ve heard that treated this text as mainly saying something about the disciples and us – that we should have ‘faith’, meaning that we should not question and that doubt is bad, bad, bad. However, I am going to stick with my hermeneutical rule of thumb and say that we should read this parable firstly in the context of what it is saying about the identity of Jesus and the nature of his kingdom. I am also going to contend that by not reading the text this way we not only misunderstand faith (and doubt), but in the end we also are far too harsh on the disciples (and others that fail to display what we think of as true ‘faith’).

Even today, boats on the Sea of Galilee have cause to worry about high winds and waves swamping boats. So the disciple’s concern here was not misplaced. But this story is not simply about danger and rescue. Mark’s readers likely would have heard other and older references in the text. They may have thought of Jonah who was disobedient and thrown overboard during a great storm. Or perhaps they thought of the Exodus (a common theme in the gospels) when God made a way through the sea. But also they may have thought back to the creation stories where God brought order to the chaos and God’s world emerged from the waters. There is also the Psalms (65:7, 89:9, 93:3-4, 107:23-30) where the God who is Lord over all calms the raging seas.

The fact here is that Israelites have been a sea fearing people rather than a seafaring people. The sea and the waters represent evil and chaos that is the absence of creation or that threatens to destroy God’s creation. In Daniel 7, the sea is where monsters came from. What Jesus has been teaching in parables and word-pictures prior to this, we now have in more tangible terms. The power that created in the first place is now being displayed in the inaugurated kingdom of Jesus – in the liberating King himself. Its not a kingdom like everyone wanted or expected, but Jesus tends to deconstruct what we think kingdom is or should be. And there are some noticeable differences. Jesus is a not a disobedient Jonah, but is instead obedient. And Jesus does more than vanquish some monsters, he calms the sea itself (which terrifies the disciples). We find here, that in the midst of disobedient and faithless Israel who do not recognize Jesus for who he is; Jesus, himself, is the Faithful One. This is the stuff kingdom and new creation is made of (notice at the end of Revelation there is ‘no more sea’).

In fact, Jesus seems so calm, even while the forces of evil threaten, that he sleeps. His disciples are put off by this and question whether he cares or not. Jesus responds with ‘Be still! Silence! Shalom! Peace!’ and the storm calms. What follows here is Jesus calling their faith into question. Before we are too hard on the disciples we should stop to consider how faith is being used here. We should keep in mind first that up until this point the issue at hand has been the identity of Jesus, about having ‘eyes to see’ and ‘ears to hear’ – not something one figures out by adding up clues, but something that is revealed.

Second, this story points us straight to Mark chapter 8 and the great confession by Peter about who Jesus is. Faith here is not simply mental assent. I would suggest that in the context of Mark itself that ‘faith’ includes recognizing who Jesus is as the Messiah, the liberating King and the Faithful One (remember that Jesus had given the disciples some extra tutoring sessions just prior to this) and that faithfulness is never far away from faith (remember also that many in the crowds would fall away after this). Jesus is asking them in the midst of the gathering forces of evil and de-creation, “Don’t you recognize who I am yet … are you not yet ready for faithfulness to the kingdom?”

Calling Ourselves into Question

These are the questions that are posed to us as well. Here we should, we must, be willing to call ourselves into question – we must greet ourselves with a hermeneutic of suspicion. And we must especially do this when we have not experienced suffering. In fact, to follow Jesus is to follow in the way of a suffering Messiah. We don’t really know the answer to the question Jesus asks us here until we encounter suffering. The experience of suffering becomes our ‘critical moment’ or ‘dark night’, calling us into question whether we like it not – maturing us from a precritical naïveté to a matured second ‘knowing’ on the other side (or what Ricoeur refers to also as a second naïveté).

In this, doubt may actually play a constructive role as a necessary part of the process of deepening our faith. Doubt can actually serve as the condition of faith and not its opposite (this of course assumes that we are not thinking of ‘faith’ here as rational assent in Cartesian terms but Spirit revelation of who Jesus is and faithfulness; nor is our end or telos modern ‘certainty’ but biblical hope and assurance arising from the story of Jesus). The practice of ‘calling into question’ is the only way to be sure that our preconceptions and unquestioned theologies do not become idols.

As Walter Brueggemann says,

“Theology that is ‘pre-pain’ must be greeted with suspicion.” (Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living, 26)

We must point out that there is great hope here however as well. Mostly I have seen Jesus statement about the disciple’s faith, or lack thereof, interpreted as a stern rebuke. I don’t think this is necessary. Jesus here certainly is calling the disciples to take stock of their understanding and fittingness for the kingdom. But notice also, that despite the fact that the rhetorical answer to his question to them is ‘no’, Jesus does not send them away. This to me is BIG! Just like Jesus does not send the disciples away, neither does he send us away. We can have patience and we don’t have to have to understand it all right now. Jesus, the Faithful One, takes us as his followers – doubts and all.

Prayer for the Fourth Week of Pentecost

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 3

This is the third part in a three part series exploring I why call myself the DesperateTheologian. Parts one and two can be found by clicking on the links. I am probably the world’s most sporadic blogger, so this series has been extended over quite some time. A large reason for my blogging unreliability I think has come from not really knowing what I wanted to do with this blog. I do aim to start posting regularly. However, I don’t make any definitive promises and I hesitate to specify what ‘regularly’ means – life does tend to happen you know. In this post I have three main aims. The first is to pick up where I left off with the “Concluding Theological Primer” in part two and to share some more thoughts about how I see theology and my general theological agenda (this makes up the bulk of the post). The second is to give some ideas as to what I want to do with this blog. And the third is to give the reader some idea what they may find here.

[Note: Some of this a repeat from post two. My plan is to edit all three parts together into a single piece and post it in the ‘WhyDesperateTheologian’ page to the right and tab up above.]

Captured by the Triune God – Theology as Spirituality

In part two of ‘Why DesperateTheogian’ I shared about the deep struggle with doubt and grief in the wake and midst of Christie and I losing three of our babies to miscarriage (there were also a couple of devastating failed adoptions during this time – long stories I won’t go into here). It was in the midst of this journey through doubt and grief that I sensed within me a growing desperation. To be honest this sense of desperation is hard to pin down and describe. The best way I can describe it is that I was desperate in the same way that a suffocating or drowning person is desperate for air or in the same way that a starving person is desperate for food. The only thing was, at the time, in the midst and depth of the grief and doubt, I had a very hard time specifying what I was desperate for (I gave a list in part two but it’s important to note that this list is the product of subsequent reflection over time). What I did know was that my formerly propositionalist theology was not really much of a help. I see it as an act of divine providence then that I came across Stanley Grenz, who remains my favorite theologian.

Grenz presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section in a systematic theology but instead permeates all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis, or (all too briefly defined here) our participation in the divine trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the triune life) spoke directly to my grief and doubt. I found trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God (as triune) I had not known previously. In fact, it was if my desperation was being transformed – from that of the loss of hope to that of the finding of the ultimate ground of hope and the longing for deeper participation in the divine life. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology that would give me some answers and alleviate my desperation, only to have my desperation transformed in the (re)discovered of the triune God.

In this sense trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into what is a trinitarian spirituality that is bound up within and can not be separated from trinitarian theology. I make no claim to have captured all of who God is; instead quite the opposite. I have been captured by the triune God. Some may feel that captured is too strong of a word here, perhaps to Calvinistic even. However, in my experience it fits perfectly. You see, in the depth of my grief, doubt, and despair I was quite helpless and powerless. I had no strength left to hold on to God on my own. I had to give up any pretense I ever may have had about ‘holding on to God’ in my own strength, capturing God, or making sense of things through a theological system alone. No, as I look back the only thing that held me (us really, myself and Christie) together and in place, as it were, was the grace and triune love (perichoresis) of God. I found that despite my lack of strength, this was a love that would not let me go.

The Nature of Theology

Theology and spirituality must be interwoven into the same fabric. Theology happens not through the mere systemization of propositions but when one ceases trying to capture God and is instead, having been drawn in by inexhaustible love and grace, captured by God. Apart from its divine source theology is really a rather weak thing. The would be theologian should be aware that theology is not something to be used to control God. Much of modern theology has been concerned with formulating doctrines through rationalistic methods, boiled down into the form of propositional statements, which are then formally systematized. Theology done (up)rightly should recognize that doctrines are not and can never become an end unto themselves without significant theological distortion and reduction. While, negatively, we can certainly avoid saying false things about God, as well as positively saying many true things, what we say will always have a sense of inadequacy. The triune reality of God is more grand and mysterious than any proposition can communicate. This is not a Sherlock Holmes type mystery that we solve by the use of our rational powers alone. God is not a puzzle that we find the answer too. In reference to the triune mystery the key words are not ‘problem solving’ or ‘sytematics’ but drawing, relational participation, and indwelling. We speak of God, not in the pretense of having God figured out, but because we can not remain silent about the triune God revealed to us ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit. What must be understood is that what we call doctrines only function properly if the would be theologian is willing to hear from God. One should never confuse doctrinal formulation for either theological or spiritual depth. The intertwining of theology and spirituality ought to lead us to the intertwining of deepening knowledge of God with deepening communion of God which is expressed in a holistically embodied theological existence.

In contrast to the rationalistic, propositional, and systematic expression of theology found throughout much of modern theology I find it helpful to speak of the nature of theology in other terms as well. It is important to note here that rationality (or the use of reason), systematics, nor propositions are bad in and of themselves. They only become problematic when theology is reduced to these things as theology’s sum and substance instead of viewing them in a more holistic manner. Thus, contra the reductionism of rationalistic, propositional, and systematic modern theology I prefer to see theology as:

Not merely rational but…

  • relational – flowing from and embodied in communion with God and others, conversational in nature.
  • reverential – theology done under God’s sovereignty for God’s glory alone.
  • reserved – recognizing our own limits and the irreducible nature of God’s truth, epistemic and theological humility.

Not merely propositional but…

  • phronetic – practical wisdom expressed in ‘fitting’ theological virtues enabling us to make ‘fitting’ theological judgements about the true, the good, and beautiful.
  • prosaic – practical wisdom that is incarnated in everyday life, theology that can move from the prose of Scripture to the prose of contemporary culture.
  • perichoretic – theology that above all else finds it ground, grammar, and goal in the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Not merely systematic but…

  • situational – the recognition that all theology arises within and must be ‘situated’ in particular forms of life and cultural contexts.
  • systemic – each aspect of theology is interrelated, intertwined, and interwoven with all the others and can not be neatly separated but must be considered in relation to each other.
  • story centered – realizing the importance of narrative context and situatedness for the theological task, the central narrative being the narrative of Christ.

The Shape of the Theological Task

Here I repeat something that I’ve said often in other contexts: we are all theologians. In one sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! The question is what kind of theologians we are going to be. This brings us back, I believe, to the interdependent and interwoven character of theology and spirituality. Theology is about making us into a particular kind of people…or if you will; a particular kind of theologian – the kind that love (up)rightly, as well as know (up)rightly and do (up)rightly. The task of theology itself is a kind of spiritual discipline that is just as much an art (if not more) as it is Wissenschaft. The task of theology is a kind of spiritual discipline involving just as much prayer and contemplation (again, if not more) as academic study, a discipline that weaves these things together into the tapestry of life. The kind of spiritual formation resulting from such discipline is, then, our continued response to the reality of being captured in and by God’s triune love and grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world and God’s mission in the world. Such formation involves the transformation of the whole person for the purpose of embracing one’s role in the grand theo-dramatic narrative of redemption and has its source in the divine life of God. As such it can be nothing other than wholly theo-logical!

To this end of forming and shaping us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ are the development of theological virtues such as humility, trust, receptivity, and patience (and we could name others), but the one that stands out to me the most (perhaps because it seems to be in such short supply these days) is the virtue of wisdom. These theological virtues not only work to shape us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ but in turn also shape the way we carry out the theological task. Theology is not just about producing really smart people. Rather it is a discipline of wise discernment which leads to wise living as well as the development of what I like to call fitting ‘theological instincts’ which contribute to what I referred to above as a ‘holistically embodied theological existence’ lived to the glory of the triune God.

Such a theological vision will necessarily emphasize the interdependency of theology and praxis. The dominate model it seems in modern theology has been to split or divide theology per se (which is viewed as a kind of theory that is usually propositional) and praxis (as represented by ministerial or ecclesial practice). In this, the theory and praxis are treated as rather distant cousins that one must choose between. However, I do not believe this should be the case. Theory and praxis should never be divorced, dichotomized, or bifurcated from each other, for while they are both distinct expressions, theory and praxis are both endemic to the theological task and intertwined with each other. Ultimately, the interplay of (up)right loving (orthokardia, being), (up)right knowing (orthodoxy, thinking), and (up)right practice (orthopraxis, doing) contribute a holistic theological hermeneutic for life itself. In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see theology as my/our participation in the divine, trinitarian life of God that is trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature.

The shape this theological praxis takes is first of all trinitarian. Though it may seem a rather obvious thing, the triune God must be the center of theological discourse. However, God as Trinity went conspicuously absent in much of modern theology. One of the most important theological tasks I believe is the re-discovery, re-embracing, and re-living of a robustly trinitarian faith. In particular, a theology of participation is a trinitarian undertaking flowing from the triune identity of God as the ground, grammar, and goal of all theology. It is connected to the divine life (the perichoresis of which Father, Son, and Spirit are all communal participants) having been drawn into this participation in the divine, triune life ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is nothing other than participation in the trinitarian praxis of God.

Second, this theological praxis takes on a narrative shape. Such a participation in God can only be expressed in narrative form by participating with God in the grand, triune theo-dramatic narrative in the world. An important theological task here is to re-member, re-connect, and re-flect on the narrative dimension of theology. Here theology is not so much about the systematization of propositions but instead involves the interplay of the biblical narrative as the norming norm of theology, church tradition as the hermeneutical trajectory of theology, and culture as the embedding context of theology. A theology of dramatic, participative narrative theological praxis works to connect us with God’s very life as well as draw us, within our own particular narrative and cultural contexts, into the wider triune theo-dramatic narrative revealed to us within the biblical narrative ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, this theological praxis takes on a missional shape. Trinitarian praxis and narrative praxis find further expression in missional praxis. As God is active in the world, He is shown to be the missional God who calls His people into not only dramatic participation in His narrative but into missional participation and praxis, which must be grounded in the divine life (perichoresis) of the missional God. Theology as a way of life then is participation in the triune life and praxis of God that brings us into participation in God’s triune narrative and sends us outward in missional praxis to the world ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. It is here, in the area of missional praxis (connected to and flowing from trinitarian and narrative praxis), that the church is faced with the need for wise contextualization. An important theological task here is for the church to re-think, re-form, and re-imagine its ecclesial, missional, and (flowing from this) incarnational presence. As a result we can not divorce the theological task from the ecclesial context. As such theology should never be done in the ‘ivory tower,’ but must always be ‘ecclesial’ in nature, contributing to the trinitarian, narrative and missional praxis of the church. The church, in my view, should be a missional community of missional theologians who worship the one, true missional God.

To summarize then, I have come to see theology as both personal and corporate (ecclesial) participation in the divine triune life of God that is characterized by trinitarian praxis (our participation in the triune, communal life of God), narrative praxis (our participation in the grand triune, theo-dramatic narrative revealed within the biblical narrative and person of Christ), and missional praxis (our participation in the triune mission of God). In this I envision a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional theology that gives rise to a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional spirituality and way of living. This is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.

My purpose and Agenda

So…why a blog? This is a question that I have been thinking about for awhile and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with this blog. With the question of why I refer to myself as the DesperateTheologain explained, the next question is why do I want a blog? Here are a few of the reasons that should give you an idea as to what to expect here at DesperateTheologian.

  • To share about the intersections between my story and theology. I realize that there is a widespread aversion to ‘theology’ among many and that the mere thought causes the eyes of many to roll back into their heads. At the root level I think that many who have this reaction simply don’t see in theology any relevance or import for living in the ‘real world.’ I will admit; this conception may have been well deserved in a host of theological expressions. But in my opinion, theology should never be divorced from the rest of life. I have found theology to be not only immensely practical but crucial. I want to explore the interwoven nature of story and theology (what we might call a storied theology).
  • To help me organize my thoughts. Some will be more organized while some will be me “thinking out loud” and perhaps even incomplete at the time. As a part of this, I do a lot of reading, mainly theological in nature. I am hoping this blog can provide a creative outlet for me, theologically speaking, that will help me process the thoughts from my reading.
  • To develop my ideas and hopefully maybe even get some constructive feedback from others – but only if you promise to be nice.
  • To keep myself in practice as far as writing is concerned. I don’t envision this being strictly academic in nature (I don’t plan on footnoting everything, who has the time) but I don’t want it to be non-academic either – if that makes sense.

Research Interests: Finally, these are some of my interests in my theological research that just may find their way into a blog post at some point.

  • Developing a theology of community that can find application within the church in the postmodern context.
  • Postmodern theology.
  • Post-foundationalist theology.
  • Gender issues, sexuality, and marriage from a trinitarian perspective.
  • The relationship between Trinity and scripture.
  • Philosophical/theological hermeneutics and hermeneutical philosophy/theology.
  • Theological ethics.
  • The ‘self’, theological anthropology, and the imago dei.
  • The contemporary emerging and missional conversations.
  • The intersections of trinitarian theology (my main area of interest), narrative theology, and missional theology.
  • And I’m sure Stanley Grenz will warrant a few posts as well. 🙂

Why DesperateTheologian – Part 2

Why call yourself desperate theologian? (continued)

In part one I shared how my previously propositionalist faith did little to help in the wake of the grief Christie and I experienced after the loss of our first child (Jordan Taylor) to miscarriage when we were at SWBTS. We moved back to Plainview during the summer of 2000, after only two years at SWBTS. Having already lost our first baby in 1998 we had already tasted the grief that comes as a result and had some time to work through the grief. We had also been blessed with the birth our daughter, Damaris, in October of 1999 and while we still grieved the loss of JT we moved back to Plainview (believing it was God’s will) with a great deal of optimism and hope for the future. However, even though we still believe it was God’s will for us to move back, our time in Plainview turned out to be way harder than we had ever thought. In 2001 and 2004 we lost two more babies (Micah Jayden and Noah Avery) to miscarriage. This time served as an extended “dark night of the soul” for us both (and making things even more difficult, we also had a couple of adoption attempts fall through, struggled to plant a church, all the while I was finishing up my first Masters degree at WBU). The grief from the loss of our babies will always be with us (it can be no other way for a parent that has lost a child) but it was during this time that it was the deepest and most profound. It was also in the depths of this dark night that my desperation grew stronger than before and the propositions made even less sense. In a very real sense, in the deconstruction (to put it in postmodern terms) of my propositional/systematic form of theology I had to do theology out of the context of my experience with the dark night and desperation: in essence “desperation theology.”

  • I was desperate for a theology that could hold my doubt, depression, questions, and unbelief. [As a note here, our struggle with desperation and doubt made a lot of people noticeably uncomfortable. I think a part of this is that we have to relieve ourselves of the pressure of always having the right thing to say…especially when there is no right thing to say. I believe that in pursuit of a propositionalist theology many evangelicals have neglected developing a theology of presence – a theology that can equip us to sit in silence, if need be, with those that suffer and/or doubt. While most seemed ill equipped to do this with us we were blessed with friends whom we are indebted to like the Efrain and Jennifer Gonzales who did offer us their presence without pat clichés. Also, while this probably deserves its own blog post, here I’ll just say that I think that most Christians have a hard time with doubt because they too readily assume that it is the opposite of faith, or what we might call “unfaith.” But doubt, questioning, and unbelief are not the same thing as unfaith nor do they necessarily lead to unfaith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith but rather a part of the faith journey. In the midst of doubt faith is all one has to hold on too.]
  • I was desperate for a theology that has as much to do with spirituality as academics.
  • I was desperate for a theology that was connected to real life, one that could bridge the gap between the academy and the church.
  • I was desperate for a theology that could enable the body of Christ to be a genuine incarnational community.
  • I was desperate for a theology that went beyond the propositional; however, at least in the beginning, I did not know what such a theology would look like.

(re)Discovering the Triune God

My theological journey took me right through the middle of desperation and doubt theologically. There was no going around, up, over, or under it…only through it! I know it seems counter intuitive but instead of driving me away from theological study, my doubt and desperation drove me into more theological study. Really, the study of theology was how I coped; it was in essence a form of “therapy” for me. And it was in this journey that I came to totally redefine my approach to theology in response to my points of desperation (listed just above). During this time I read, read, and I read some more. Along the way I rediscovered the richness of the church fathers (whom I just glanced over as an undergrad) as well as more contemporary theologians. Those who know me know that my favorite theologian is Stanley Grenz. It is through Grenz that I discovered a theology, and a theological method, that is grounded in and centered around the triune God as the Divine Community. For too long God as Trinity had been diminished in systematic theology to the point of being reduced to the equivalent of a propositional doctrinal safeguard (much like even what happened with Christology and Pneumatology). For some theologians the Trinity only appears as little more than a footnote while still other modern systematics have a section on the Trinity but which seemingly has no interaction or impact on the other doctrinal sections. In other words, while these theologians believe in the Trinity we can not properly call their theologies “Trinitarian.”

This seeming absence of the Trinity certainly was evident in my experience growing up in church. I can not remember hearing even one sermon, nor any reflection at all on the Trinitarian nature of God, or any discussion of the importance of Trinity for ecclesiology or people made in the image of God. It seems that the modern church suffered as much from the absence of the Trinity as did modern systematic theology! There are many reasons for this I think. One is that while God doesn’t really fit into anyone’s propositional box in general, the very idea of God as Trinity totally obliterates our propositions as ever being adequate to hold who God is. I found this to be ever so true. While in the beginning my propositional faith could not stand up in the presence of my experience with grief and doubt, when I (re)discovered God as Trinity I found that propositions in general were way too small in the face of the triune God. Second, I think that in the rush to propositionalize everything many Christians fail to accept the mystery of the triune God. I mean, there’s not much mystery to a powerpoint or a “5 steps to ????” sermon series. I can not overstate how much we need to learn from our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, who never lost their Trinitarian grounding, and speak often in their music, worship, and liturgy of the mysterium tremendum involved when we tiny, puny humans approach the triune God of the universe.

Grenz though presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which Trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section but instead permeate all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis (which I also glanced over as an undergrad), or our participation in the divine Trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that Trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the Triune life) spoke directly to my desperation and doubt. I found Trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of Trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God I had not known previously. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology, and ultimately (re)discovered the triune God. In this sense Trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into a Trinitarian spirituality that can not be separated from and is bound up in Trinitarian theology. I had not (and still have not) captured all of who God is, but instead the situation was reversed: I became captured by the triune God. I think that may be a pretty good definition of what we might call “desperation theology” (and theology in general perhaps), not trying to somehow propositionally capture God but being captured by God. Maybe we should all be desperate theologians!

Concluding Theological Primer

When I have discussed this with certain people in the past they have not only been concerned about my experience with doubt but also about my views on propositionalist theology (believing that propositional truth is somehow the highest form of truth). So, it occurs to me that some may come across this and wonder, “Why is this guy saying all these terrible things about propositions?” or, “How can this guy claim to have faith when he clearly dismisses propositions?” or even, “How can he claim that he holds to biblical truth saying some of the things he says?” If you are reading this and you find yourself with questions like these, its ok, I have been asked questions like these more than once in person. And hopefully, I can put you at ease. My plan is to of course unpack this more over time but here some brief statements concerning my approach to theology.

First, I embrace what might be called a post-propositionalist theology. This does not mean that I have summarily done away with propositions but simply placed them in their proper context. The move from propositional to post-propositional is a move from propositions as the sum and substance of theology and faith to a narrative theology and a narrative faith. The issue is that all of the propositions we believe about God and theology in general are embedded within and share an organic relationship with a larger narrative or story. We do a great disservice when we treat theology as “whatever the Bible says about ???” and then proceed to draw (or rip!) out propositions from there. I am not saying that there is no propositional or cognitive element to theology or faith, that propositions do not exist or are not important (I have plenty of propositions I believe). What I am saying is that these propositions come to us through narrative, specifically the biblical narrative and narrative of the incarnation of Christ who can never be reduced to any proposition, and must be lived (not simply formulated) out in the context of our personal narratives. In short, without their narrative contexts propositions are at the least in danger of distortion and at worst dead.

Second, in my move to a post-propositional, narrative theology I came to treat the Bible differently…as well, narrative. In this I no longer see myself as looking at the Bible in order to glean somehow timeless propositions (and thus, in a sense, standing over the Bible in authority), but see myself as looking along the Bible as narrative, seeking to conform my personal narrative with the narrative of biblical triune discourse (thus seeking to be under the Bible in posture and shaped by the biblical narrative in practice). This narrative of living along the biblical narrative naturally leads to missional living as we participate in the missio dei (or mission of God) and the narrative of the kingdom of God. [As a historical note: I am indebted to Logsdon Seminary and Crosspoint Fellowship in Abilene for their embodiment of missional living and giving me a place to develop and embody my theological reflections.]

Third, as a result of this I could no longer view the theological task as simply gleaning propositions from scripture as is often the case in traditional systematics. In a sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as a involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see the theology as my/our participation in the divine Trinitarian life of God that is Trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature. I don’t have the time to unpack this presently, but this is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in Trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.