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What’s Your Theological Type?

January 15, 2015

CTRbook

An element of my (ongoing) seminary education that I’m particularly thankful for has been a steady dose of the works of Cuban American theologian and historian Justo González. In Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology, González provides a brief history of Christian theology and outlines three types contained within orthodox Christianity and the perspectives that shape each.

As we continue the journey into a new millennium and into the reality of Post-Christendom, many western Christians are feeling perplexed and anxious about a changing world, faith, and church. The previously dominant theologies and forms of Christianity do not seem up to the task of providing a way forward. Into this reality González writes,

It is my contention that in the early church one finds, besides the distant ancestors of modern-day fundamentalisms and liberalisms, a third type of theology; that this third type leads to a different reading of the Bible and its message; and that this different reading is particularly relevant to our present day perplexities. Therefore this essay is addressed primarily to Christians who, amidst the perplexities of the transition into the third millennium are searching for an understanding of their faith that will lead them, with hope and obedience, into the future. (xiv)

González labels the three theologies “Type A,” “Type B,” and “Type C,” all of which had originated by the 3rd century (C.E.). Types A and B have historically been more dominant and are probably more familiar to the average western Christian today. He lays these two theologies alongside an older form (Type C) for comparison. I’ll give a brief overview of each.

Type A is associated with the Christianity that emerged from Carthage in Northern Africa, and it’s main advocate is Tertullian. The basic theological concern in this perspective is “Law” (6). This type primarily views God as a judge (20), salvation as the satisfaction of a legal debt (33), Jesus as a new lawgiver (34), and interprets scripture as a legal text (49). This kind of hermeneutic leads to more literal and fixed interpretations. It is concerned with law and order, and is interested in being “right” (69). This type of theology helped to prop up the merging of church and empire in Christendom, and became the dominant form of theology in western Christianity.

Type B emerged from Alexandria, an intellectual center containing diverse philosophical and religious thinking, especially Platonism. The main advocate of this form is Origen. The basic theological concern for Type B is immutable and transcendent “Truth” (11). This type emphasized distance between God and the material world, and spirit over matter (material creation was a result of sin). In this perspective, the problem is that human beings need illumination so that they might be able to contemplate the transcendent God and return to a (spiritual) heaven (37). Jesus, the Logos, was sent to provide this illumination. Scripture was often interpreted in allegorically in this type.

Type C emerged from the Northeastern Mediterranean (Asia Minor/Syria; Antioch). González names Irenaeus as the chief exponent of this theology. In contrast to the other two forms the theology from this type is pastoral, which makes sense since, of the three church fathers mentioned in this schematic, “only Irenaeus was actually the shepherd of a congregation” (14). The central theme of this kind of theology is “History” (15). God is the great Shepherd who is moving history toward God’s future. Therefore God (Father, Son, Spirit) relates directly to the world (28). The problem human beings have is that we are subject to Satan and tarnished by sin, and we are in need of liberation. The work of Christ is victory over the evil powers that enslave us. “Jesus recapitulates humanity” (41; see also Ephesians 1). The consummation of history is God’s communion with humanity and creation in an everlasting kingdom. Type C theology generally uses a typological approach to interpreting scripture (56).

Some highlights from the book include:

1. A discussion of the social setting and perspective of each type of theology. As González noted, “We can look at each of these theologies and ask what sort of social agenda they would serve” (61). The Christian faith of Type B sought to show that it was compatible with Hellenistic philosophy, an influential element present in its context. Tertullian “wished to prove that his [faith] was compatible with the best Roman moral achievements” (69), and therefore Type A theology, “a theology of law and order,” (70) created a bridge that made it easier to turn Christianity into a support system for Rome (which is what happened when Constantine came to power). Irenaeus’ Type C recalled connections to a persecuted church in Asia Minor, and had no desire to be compatible with the reigning powers. From this situation and perspective there was interest in promoting obedience to a God who was the “loving parent, shepherd, and teacher” (71). This was not theology for the powerful, and had no interest in compatibility with the empire or of gaining its respect.

2. The mention of liberation theologies (black, feminist, and others) as evidence of the recovery of Type C theology in contemporary times. This kind of theology comes from those who have been excluded by the powerful, deeply values historical truth, has a “keen awareness of the powers of evil,” and characteristically uses typology in its hermeneutic approach (138). “Christianity does not consist in a series of doctrines or rules, but in the action of God incarnate in history” (138). Personally, I want to commit to engaging with more forms of liberation theology in my faith and practice to further explore Type C theology.

3. Thoughts on liturgical renewal and its contemporary significance. “Historians of liturgy, as well as historians of theology, have long been aware that there is a connection between the way the church worships and what the church believes. Worship both expresses and shapes theology. In recent times, the rediscovery of worship as it was practiced in the ancient church has given the new forms of Type C theology a vehicle for expression and a nurturing atmosphere” (138). I have found this renewal to be of particular interest in my ministry contexts, and am thankful for serving in a congregation that embraces experimentation and discovery in this vein.

This book also helped me gain some greater understanding of my own theological journey over the past twenty years-a period which saw me move from Reformed/Evangelicalism to Anabaptism. I had become restless within a sort of generic, suburban, Evangelical expression of church and faith, and was feeling motivated to seek out other theological paths. I think I became most fully aware of this need for exploration upon completing a book study with the youth group I was pastoring at the time. We were studying some of Lee Strobel’s A Case for… books. But by the end of the study I found that I was not really convinced by the arguments presented. The book’s arguments were reasoned well and highly logical (very Type A), yet I was still looking for something more. I wrestled with what that meant for me, and wondered what these younger students were thinking about the material.

I think what I was searching for at that time was what González called “Type C” theology. Making a move to Anabaptism hasn’t totally realized this desire-my experience in the Mennonite context I inhabit seems to be quite Type A in some ways. But I have been encouraged by ongoing theological and liturgical conversations happening within Anabaptist contexts, which has felt theologically life-giving.

I recommend this book to all who wish to explore how we think theologically and who are willing examine and reimagine how we live and express our faith as followers of Jesus today.

As we now stand at the beginning of a new millennium and the end of modernity, this rediscovery of Type C theology may well provide the church at large with unexpected possibilities, and even open the way to new (and the rediscovery of ancient) understandings of catholicity and Christian unity. (123)


Justo González, Christian Thought Revisited: Three Types of Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1999). Print.

 

“Epiphany” by Walter Brueggemann

January 6, 2015

On Epiphany day,

we are still the people walking.

We are still people in the dark,

and the darkness looms large around us,

beset as we are by fear,

anxiety,

brutality,

violence,

loss—

a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

 

We are—we could be—people of your light.

So we pray for the light of your glorious presence

as we wait for your appearing;

we pray for the light of your wondrous grace

as we exhaust our coping capacity;

we pray for your gift of newness that

will override our weariness;

we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust

in your good rule.

 

That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact

your rule through the demands of this day.

We submit our day to you and to your rule,

with deep joy and high hope.


Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008) 164.

 

I Will Light Candles This Christmas

December 17, 2014

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“I Will Light Candles This Christmas”

-Howard Thurman

Candles of joy, despite all sadness,

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.

Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all the year long.

 

In preparation for this Sunday’s worship gathering I’m in the process of creating a responsive prayer practice for our congregation, using this poem from Dr. Thurman. In the midst of the circumstances that compound our lives, may we discover joy, hope, courage, peace, grace, and love in the light of Christ.


Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (Friends United Press, reprint 2011), 19.

 

 

Available Now: A Living Alternative

December 11, 2014

I invite you to check out a new book that was just released, A Living Alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a Post-Christendom World. It was a honor to contribute a chapter to this anthology, joining co-authors A.O. Green, Benjamin L. Corey, Brian Gumm, Chris Lenshyn, Christopher Gorton, Deborah-Ruth Ferber, Donald R. Clymer, Drew Hart, Hannah Heinzekehr, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Joanna Harader, Justin Hiebert, Micael Grenholm, Robert Anthony Martin, Ryan Robinson, Sam Wilcock, Steve Kimes, Tyler M. Tully, and William Loewen.

If you are interested in Anabaptist theology, faith, and practice, then I invite you to check out #ALivingAlternative. To order, click on the links above.

Advent Reflections: Hope

December 1, 2014

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

A word on “hope”:

This is the final risk of my work, the risk of hope. The only history I know is one that drives us into the future, moving like a river toward our best possible evolution. So I am willing to take this history of my people as a sign of all human possibility. I see the way we have come, the chains we have broken, the visions we have maintained as a broad-side invitation to all people. Our history joins with that common hopeful element in all histories of human struggle for community and calls each of us to develop our great hidden capacities to dream, to imagine a new American society, to become full participants in its creation, bursting with our courage and hope the barriers of all the political, economic, and social institutions that now hold us in bondage to our worst selves.

Vincent Harding

Prayer:

Come, Lord Jesus-form and shape us into people of courage, healing, and hope. Amen.


Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. xxv.

Solvitur Ambulando

November 25, 2014
walkingfeet

Members of my congregation prayer-walking during one of our “Walking Church” services.

This fall I have been reading What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, by Thomas G. Long. In the book there is a section titled “Solvitur Ambulando,” a Latin phrase that means “it is solved by walking.” This section has particularly stood out to me as I consider what it means to participate in community contexts like neighborhoods, families, and churches.

Long describes solvitur ambulando as

a completely different way of knowing, a knowing that comes only to those who are actively engaged in the questions they are asking. (115)

This phrase connects thought and action. Which makes it a counter to passivity and distance, which is often a path of lesser resistance. The experience of walking can open us up to discovery and understanding.

I preach and teach often in my suburban Mennonite congregation. This role is part of a larger list of responsibilities that make up my pastoral job description. I enjoy this role and feel the need to take great care in practicing it. Sometimes the weekly process of prayer, meditation, study, and writing quickly leads to a sermon, or at least the general outline of one. But there are also times when “preacher’s block” sets in, and I can’t find the right words or I don’t know where to start and it’s Friday but Sunday’s coming. During times such as these I have found it helpful to take a break and take a walk. Conveniently, the county trail system runs through our neighborhood and provides a fantastic route for exercising and for experiencing nature. The combination of physical exercise and space for silent reflection allows for refocusing and provides refreshment. Though I typically have good results with this practice, I still have to convince myself sometimes that this walking is helpful (even needed), and that it’s not a diversion or a waste of precious time. In this area of my life, walking has led to discovery and to a lessening of anxiety.

My local church conference gathered recently for our annual assembly. The word “conference” itself is a term that feels like a corporate form of solvitur ambulando-actively engaging, working, and walking with one another. We gather to share, to speak, to “confer.” We are reminded of a common mission (the theme of this year’s gathering was “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping”). And we visibly see that we are part of something larger and more diverse than just ourselves.

What might be solved, learned, and experienced as we walk together?

One of the highlights for me of this conference assembly was the opportunity provided for table conversations. The meeting agenda wasn’t too large and the time required for voting was pretty minimal, so there was space created to be with one another in conversation. Building relationships requires that we learn to inhabit the same space well, and intentionally seek to know and value each other. Walking requires some working.

DanisaNdlovu

Danisa Ndlovu, President, Mennonite World Conference.

For me that weekend, Solvitur ambulando meant learning to sing a Haitian worship song in Creole, listening to a message about global Anabaptist relationships from Danisa Ndlovu, and hearing my friend and colleague Pastor Marta Castillo remind us that “Waiting on God is expectant and hopeful.” My view of the world and of faith is continually enriched as I commit to walk with a wide variety of friends. 

Thomas Long particularly connects the idea of solvitur ambulando with how we engage theological questions.

The most important theological questions are often “solved by walking” – that is to say, they are questions that yield the deepest insights when they are explored with the eyes of faith… exploring issues and questions as a person of faith can be a bit like looking through night-vision binoculars: faith enables us to see more of what is genuinely there, things we would have missed otherwise. To love God and to walk in faith with God is to be joyfully drawn into a deeper and deeper understanding of the ways of God. (116-117)

When we find ourselves struggling to hope, or wrestling with the anxieties of living in a complex world, perhaps we might recall “solvitur ambulando,” and keep walking together in faith. May we be drawn in to the hopeful expectation that, as we participate with one another, the Spirit will do transforming work in us and through us.


Thomas G. Long. What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

 

Spiritual Direction with Howard Thurman-Session 2

October 15, 2014
Photo by Chris Nickels

Photo by Chris Nickels

I am using the book 40-Day Journey with Howard Thurman for regular reflection and meditation. Periodically I plan to share some thoughts and reflections that emerge from this time of engaging with selections of Thurman’s writings and various scripture passages.


Happy are those who trust in the Lord,
    who rely on the Lord.
They will be like trees planted by the streams,
    whose roots reach down to the water.
They won’t fear drought when it comes;
    their leaves will remain green.
They won’t be stressed in the time of drought
    or fail to bear fruit.      (Jeremiah 17:7-8 CEB)

“The prophet pictures the man who depends on God, who has God for his confidence, as a tree planted beside a stream sending his roots down to the water. He has no fear of scorching heat, his leaves are always green. He goes on bearing fruit when all around him is barren and lives serene. In other words such a man looks out on life with quiet eyes!”     -Howard Thurman

Thurman’s phrase about having “quiet eyes” has really stuck with me lately. When I find myself feeling stressed out or over tired (or sometimes both), one of the first indicators for me is that my eyes begin to twitch involuntarily. My eyes provide awareness and help me assess what’s going on in life, both through seeing (the intended function) and through this kind of annoying side effect (the response to stressful circumstances). So this mediation led me to reflect in a particular direction: What does it mean to be a person who “looks out on life with quiet eyes”? This eye image from Thurman helps provide a meaningful way to approach daily life.

Before saying more about “quiet eyes,” I want to briefly explore the opposite-let’s call them “anxious eyes.” I imagine anxious eyes as those which are constantly darting around all over the place, trying to focus on everything that moves in the periphery and probably missing important details right in front of them. These “eyes” have difficulty being still and therefore easily become exhausted or even fearful.

Quiet eyes, on the other hand, reflect a posture of tranquil, non-anxious presence. Thurman seems to connect “quiet” with a kind of deep composure and trust, a confidence in God that can be found even in the midst of struggle, pain, or suffering. Having “quiet eyes” is another way of thinking about and embodying the tree image from the prophet Jeremiah. I often need help with keeping my eyes “quiet,” so Thurman’s instruction is a helpful one.

There are spiritual disciplines I can practice to develop “quiet eyes.” Practices such as breath prayer or centering prayer are often helpful, as is one of my favorite disciplines, prayerwalking. Each of these practices can help to center one’s focus on God and root deeper into God’s presence.

I also wonder if having “quiet eyes” could refer to a posture of learning and listening to others? Rather than having anxious eyes which are constantly in motion, always looking to do more and more and more, these quiet eyes slow down, observe, listen, and focus. This posture could create space for learning, awareness, reflection, and changes in action where needed. Quiet eyes might help us see details or perspectives that we’ve never noticed before or maybe even chose to ignore.

Deeper connection with God and with others are valuable forms of “fruit” that can be produced in our lives. But I will continue to wonder: What other kinds of fruit might be produced by those who “look out on life with quiet eyes”?

 

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