On Gardening

If you would, stroll across the lawn with me. I have something I’d like to show you. It’s just around this corner here.

I’d like to give you a tour of my soul.

What’s that you say? “It’s just a garden”? Of course it looks like a garden! What else would you expect a soul to look like? But it’s not “just” anything. It’s one of the most precious things on earth.

I’m not out to compare gardens or even to show off what I’ve done with mine. My garden isn’t all that special, I just mean that every garden is sacred. You gaze upon hallowed ground. For this earth was set apart for a purpose by the Almighty. All dirt matters, but this dirt was especially prepared to bring forth fruit.

Of course, that’s not what you thought when you first saw it. You couldn’t help but notice the weeds. Yes, there are a lot. Weeding has been on my to-do list for a while. Every once in a while I make my way out here with my gloves and a bucket, and if I think of it, a trowel. But the work is tiresome, and perfect weeding weather always seems far too nice to waste bent over soil.

Besides there’s more than just dirt in this ground. It’s well-fertilized. It never ceases to amaze me how putrid animal filth can produce such luscious fruit. The stench when it’s fresh will steal your breath away. But any gardener will tell you it’s a necessary evil, a fact of life.

As if weeding and fertilizing weren’t trouble enough, every season is unpredictable. I only have so much control; I can’t cause the sun to shine or the rain to fall, or even stave off frost. Every season I have to trust again.

But even without the weeds and the dung and assuming the weather holds out, my work is never finished. Each season I sew my field anew with different crops in their proper time and proportion. I’ve been entrusted with various seeds—some for strawberries, others for corn, still others pumpkins or sugar snap peas. They are not all equally valuable, and the markets often boom and bust without warning. I need to choose what to invest my efforts in so that the most valuable fruit is available at the right time.

Of course I could go on and on about pest and pesticides, mice in the storeroom, and my neighbor across the way who sometimes lends me tools. But what am I saying? Your garden is no different. Where are my manners? Tell me, dear friend: how is your garden faring this season?

The Great Commission and Theology

Then Jesus came up and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

I’ve already argued that Christian theology must begin with Christ, and I firmly believe that. So as I continue to explore what it means to be a theologian and what it means to do theology it only seems right to turn to Christ for my marching orders. I’ve chosen to begin with the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20.

There’s a common misconception out there that I should clear up before we move on. First of all, the Great Commission is not the most important thing Jesus ever said. There are four whole books cataloging Christ’s ministry that both explain and demonstrate what the ministry of the church should be. But even more than this, one should not make the mistake of assuming the words Jesus spoke on earth are any more important than the rest of Scripture. If all Scripture is God-breathed and thus inspired by God, if the words of the text are the very words of God, then why should we privilege the Gospels over the rest of the Word? It’s an understandable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. (Yes, this is also jumping ahead; we’ll get to the theology of Scripture someday.)

With that out of the way, I admit I could have picked any number of passages to begin with. Perhaps I will. I once heard N. T. Wright say something to the effect that doing theology is a matter of choosing your favorite verses and reasoning from there. While I don’t have any particular sentimental attachment to these verses, they are a foundational part of Evangelicalism as I understand it.

On occasion I have been attacked with this passage. “Jesus said ‘go make disciples,’ so stop whatever you’re doing and go witness to people.” Or “You want to stay in America? Jesus said GO make disciples! You need to be a missionary!” Over and over I get push-back about aspiring to academia, and rightfully so. Convictions need to be challenged. And my response is, “Jesus said to TEACH THEM. That’s what I want to do, that’s my role in the Commission.”

But recently I’ve come to see that my interpretation was incomplete. Somehow I’ve managed to read “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” as “teach them the truth.” Of course God’s commands are truth, and one needs to understand those commands truly in order to truly obey them. But now I see that knowledge isn’t the end—action is. What’s more, how could I truly claim to know something without putting it into practice?

My point is this: the truths of Scripture must be lived in order to be fully understood. This stems naturally from the concept of faith seeking understanding, of believing in order to understand. “Unless I believe, I shall not understand” describes a situation in which I do something before I know why. The doing alone will not teach me, and the search for understanding alone will come up short. Only when I am living the Christian life in order to understand the Christian life will I come to understand the Christian life.

This has huge implications for my role as a disciple and a disciple-maker.

The Art of Distinction

Theology has long been held by its admirers as the queen of the sciences. This may seem strange to the modern or postmodern ear, but think about it from the perspective of faith seeking understanding: “unless I believe, I shall not understand.” The corollary to faith seeking rational explanation is that faith is itself supremely rational. Until you understand theology you cannot hope to truly understand anything else. And thus theology is the most distinguished of all arts, the greatest pursuit of the mind of man. [Editor’s note: for those of you wondering who’s the king, let it go. Queens can also be #1.]

My experience of theology leads me to believe that it is not merely the most distinguished art but also the art of distinction. As one learns about God, the Christian faith and life, the purpose of the world, he finds himself drawing lines in the sandbox. What was once “save yourselves from this wicked generation” becomes a vast network of this-not-that, of orthodoxy, heterodoxy, heresy regarding salvation or soteriology.

But is that right? Doesn’t this inevitably lead to hair-splitting? Should those who would follow Christ spend so much energy debating its finer points at the expense of all the Bible commands? While there is no doubt a point at which theology goes overboard, I think that looks different to different people. Perhaps what looks like hairsplitting to one person is really of central importance to the faith. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if every undistinguished matter seemed frivolous to most people.

Yet I think that learning to distinguish is the nature of learning in general. To borrow an analogy from Dr. Freed (who undoubtedly borrowed it from someone else) an infant might be prone to call a dog a cat—which is forgivable to a certain extent since the two have so much in common. But only once the child has learned what distinguishes dog from cat can she see reality for what it really is.

Anselm said he wanted to see a glimpse of the truth of God that he already loves. Is that asking too much? I think it is at the heart of worship; God humbled Himself, even humiliated Himself to reconcile humanity to Himself. God sent His Son that we might have fellowship with Him. Perhaps we evangelicals have overextended the concept of having a personal relationship with God, but it is indeed the Gospel truth. And it is in the context of this relationship that we cannot help but want to know Him better.

Of course, we must guard against missing the forest for the trees, being so caught up in minutia that we lose the purpose, the big picture, the One we pursue. I love the insight Jaroslav Pelikan brings to this in Fools for Christ: we do not seek God merely to gain knowledge of what is true, as though God were just a means to an end. And we do not seek the truth in order to gain access to God as though knowledge itself could save us. Instead we seek God for who He is and we get truth as an added benefit because it flows from God’s nature.

So there it is. We’re coming up to that turn in the road where you can finally see the whole landscape from your window. Are you ready to take it all in? This art of distinction is learning to truly appreciate the view, and the things we will see are the most breathtaking you could behold.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles…

Everyone always starts with definitions. I used to think it’s what lazy people did to get their brains going: no matter what the topic or venue, you start by saying “the dictionary defines x as thus-and-such.” Only after I began to study philosophy did it really sink in that definitions matter. I mean, of course they matter, but beyond simply making sure that speaker and listener have roughly the same picture in mind when the word comes up, there is a matter of precision necessary simply to keep the speaker on-track. It’s too easy to equivocate without even realizing it (i.e. assigning different meanings to the same word). So we define things not just for communicating clearly but for thinking consistently and with precision.

Of course, I don’t want to mislead you either. This is a blog. I’m a student. My efforts here at this point are not at the level of technical scholarship, so I will doubtless find myself guilty of these very mistakes… if not today, then next time. But the conversation has to start somewhere.

Perhaps the most common definition of theology is the study of God, owing to the word’s etymology. While it’s not off the mark, I don’t know how helpful it is either. Do I study God in the same way I might study a book? Or a tree? Or a historical figure? Or a mathematical problem? No, I think theology is distinct from other kinds of study for reasons which I hope will be clear shortly.

I’ve also heard theology called worshiping the Lord with your mind. I don’t know if that’s a common way of putting it or if it’s simply confusing definition with motivation; theology is one of many ways in which the mind worships God. While I think this is getting warmer, it seems too broad. For example, I believe that a scientist may worship God with her mind in doing her work to the glory of God without trying to explicitly connect it with religion, deity, or the like.

My current favorite definition is “faith seeking understanding.” I cannot tell you how much I love this concept. (But I will try in posts to come!) The classic articulation on this subject was given by Anselm in the 11th century:

I am not trying to scale your heights, Lord; my understanding is in no way equal to that. But I do long to understand your truth in some way, your truth which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand. For I also believe that ‘Unless I believe, I shall not understand.’

Christian theology seeks to understand the Christian faith and everything associated with it. But it does not merely seek understanding in the context of some dry attempt at objectivity; it is rooted in a personal faith commitment to Jesus Christ. It is my contention that Christian theology cannot be properly studied or understood except from the perspective of faith. In fact, both Anselm and I have much stronger claims to make along these lines, but we’ll save them for a future post.

Can this definition be abused? Sure. It’s not perfect. But I find it helps me set the scope of the project better than anything else I’ve heard. Theology is the attempt to better understand the faith you possess. This is as important to the child as the elder; as important to the farmer as the professor; as important to the soccer mom as the corporate executive. Any attempt someone makes to understand what they believe is a foray into the world of theology. The kindergartner learning about the depth of God’s love is just as engaged in theology as the scholastic exploring the finest of philosophical distinctions in soteriology.

At this point I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, so that means it’s the perfect time to sign off. More answers—and questions—to come.

The Aroma from the Kitchen

So you say to yourself, “I’m hungry. I think I’m going to whip up a fresh batch of theology.” Good idea! But where do you start? There are a lot of variations on the recipe. (Whatever number you’re thinking, double it. Then add some more.) How do you bake the good stuff?

I’m not really sure, to be honest. I mean, I have the old family recipe, and I’ve taken some liberties here and there. But there’s always something missing… and I wouldn’t dare serve it at parties. (I’ve learned that lesson.) I once heard tell of a recipe that came down from on high, with pure gold lettering and a pithy fortune on the back. They say it’s buried somewhere near the Caspian Sea.

But who needs all that? We’re real cooks, aren’t we? And a real cook never follows directions. (Much like a real kook, perhaps?)

If I had to suggest a starting place—and this one is by no means original with me—I’d say Christian theology needs to have Christ as its center. I mean, if you want to bake apple crisp from scratch the apples are kind of a given, no? And everything else is there to complement and heighten the flavor and texture and aroma and presentation. So I say a recipe for Christian theology can safely assume Christ.

And why not? Christ is the expressed image of God the Father, the model human being, the redeemer of the nations, the promised Messiah, the head of the church, the one to whom all glory belongs. What traditional branch of theology can escape the impact of the God-man? I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here; in fact, if my conclusions tend toward novelty, I will have considered this concoction a failure.

The deity of Christ is one of the things that makes Christianity distinct from other religions. Furthermore, there is a good case to be made for the historicity of Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection. So this figure is central to our doctrine in a secular sense as much as a confessional one. I propose a well-structured systematic theology at very least can (we’ll save “should” for retrospect) begin with Christ and flow out from Him in all directions.

This will no doubt have its own strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps even if we start here with success in the task of discovery we’ll find the finished product is better presented in a different order. The systematic theologies I’m familiar with often begin with philosophy—metaphysics and epistemology—or perhaps with the Trinity. Maybe that will turn out to be better in the long run. But I want to give this a try. What would theology look like if its starting point was the person and work of Christ?

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