A Year in Essays: The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts & Paul, Semester 2

Now here was a module well outside my comfort zone – brought up in a cessationist context, I’ve come to think that’s not right, but I’ve never done any real Bible study on it. So a Pentecostal tutor who’s written a book on Baptism in the Spirit – a challenge to say the least!

The module was a ‘Biblical’ one, in the sense that it was primarily focussed on the texts of Luke-Acts and the Pauline Epistles, specifically in comparison between them. Yet in practice, since the actual verses up for discussion were relatively few, we often ended up having discussions that really said ‘such-and-such an author said this, but this other person disagreed, for these reasons…’ This culture of discussion was quite hard for me to engage in immediately, I found it a bit dry and detached.

My topic for the essay was anything but detached – it was on the connection between the Holy Spirit and suffering:

Compare and contrast the approaches of Luke and Paul to relationships between God’s Spirit and suffering

The bulk of the essay examined some key passages in Luke (2:25-35, 4:14-30, 12), Acts (4, 5, 6-7, 9, 20:17-38), 2 Corinthians and Romans 8. The purpose of the essay was to draw out differences and similarities between the two biblical authors, but I also wanted to briefly look at what it might mean today, as well.

We have seen some differences in the way Luke and Paul link suffering with the Holy Spirit. Luke, with his mission emphasis, has only ever described suffering and the response of Christians to it in terms of persecution because of rejection. The Spirit predicts this suffering, inspires the message that is rejected, supports persecuted witnesses and even specially commissions some to a life of suffering evangelism. In Paul’s epistles, we have found that suffering can be a mark of witnessing and his apostolic commission. But in Romans, Paul expands the idea of suffering to include the bondage of all creation, including Christians, and the yearning for eschatological redemption.

Suffering in both Paul and Luke is not personal or individual. On the one hand it is because of identification with Jesus and the Spirit-inspired but rejected gospel; on the other is is because we identify with the groaning of all creation. The question ‘why is this happening to me?’ is not on their horizons. Either way, our identification with a bigger story in our suffering brings great hope, for the Spirit is with us. The promise of the support of the Spirit when we are persecuted is to keep us from being anxious (Luke 12:11 12). And as we identify with a groaning creation, Paul says that the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning when we cannot express our suffering in words. All the suffering we have explored is underwritten by the remarkable idea of a suffering God. We suffer with Christ and the Spirit suffers with us.

Rather than explaining away suffering, Paul and the apostles recorded in Acts think it is something to be celebrated, an honour. Persecution is a response to the gospel and rejection is what Jesus and the apostles experienced. The authentic response to it is thanksgiving and prayer for boldness. Suffering that is not persecution is an opportunity to join with the Spirit in interceding for the redemption that we hope for to come. The deep groaning that Paul writes about can only come from experience; it is a unique opportunity to join in with the Spirit’s work.

Exploring the idea of the suffering God is something that I have recently picked up again, and will write on soon, as I explore Moltmann’s Crucified God. To me it’s a crucial idea (pun intended).

Holy Spirit Essay – download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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Based on a work at www.jonrogers.co.uk.

A Year in Essays: Bible & Social Transformation, Semester 2

I was hugely looking forward to this module – thinking through in a rigorous academic context how the Bible speaks to contemporary culture and can bring about social and political transformation. I brought in some ideas that I was aware of but not really fully up to speed on, like liberation theology, it was an excuse to read some Christian Marxists and Anarchists and looked in more detail at ideas like Jubilee that I’ve been involved with previously.

Because of the mix of the class, we had a good chance to challenge our own and other’s views from a whole spectrum of political views and hermeneutic approaches. However, with so many huge questions – from ‘church and state’ to slavery, to ‘just war’ – we were bound to end up with fewer answers than we started!

In a similar way to how many of the modules operated, we each were given a week to lead, which inevitably meant that the session we studied in the most depth became the source of our essay title. My session fell on my birthday – God’s new community – the Church and my title:

In what ways might the community life described in Acts be relevant to the church today?

Given the feedback from the marking, it seems I spent too much of the essay trying to understand how the community life in Acts came to be and what it was like, and not enough time talking about what it might mean in our contemporary context. I found it fascinating to look at the connections between the life ‘on the road’ that Jesus practised with his disciples (not just the 12, a group that included women too), the Essenes and the early church. It’s also interesting to look at the arguments as to whether this was a temporary, one off thing or a model for the future, since the sharing of goods seems to be found only in the first few chapters of Acts, and almost not at all in the letters.

It’s my suggestion that the radical sharing of property is both a hard thing and a rewarding thing to do. I’m not sure that we have the cultural position to do it on a large scale in the UK church, perhaps as Paul found in the gentile contexts he founded churches. But the attitudes behind are just as important and resonant with contemporary culture. Starting simply, by sharing food and time makes the ‘communion’ service into a real meal of fellowship with one another and with God. It removes barriers of exclusion, in the spirit of Jesus and Paul, building a family atmosphere that would be welcoming to anyone who comes in.

BST Essay – download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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A Year in Essays: Wisdom, Semester 2

Semester 2 was a different beast to the first one. Two new modules, a new direction in the core and beginning to think about the dissertation (more of which later!)

The core Wisdom module moved from the Old Testament to the New, then on to look at how Christian Wisdom is found in later years, taking in philosophy, art, music and science. While it’s hard to pinpoint how the module could best be improved, given that the first essay had to be ‘biblical’ and the second had to connect wisdom with a more contemporary discipline, I feel that the balance of sessions was not quite right – and I know it has been altered. I had not opportunity to write about the connection between the New Testament writings and Wisdom because the fascinating NT sessions (on Jesus and the Beatitudes and on how Paul’s writings draw on the Wisdom books of the Old Testament and Apocrypha) came after the Semester break. I think there’s a lot there that I would have found fascinating to write about, but my eventual choice of essay title came closer to my more usual interest in the postmodern:

In your opinion does biblical wisdom resonate best with a premodern, modern or postmodern worldview? What implications arise for a transformative use of the Bible in the current postmodern worldview?

With just 3000 words to play with again, I think I took the ‘route A’ approach of looking at premodernity, modernity and postmodernity, giving a very broad characterisation of how each connects with wisdom. However, with the last third of the essay I went off in a more unusual direction: drama. It was a thought sparked by reading Grenz and Vanhoozer among others

“In a sense, the theater is perhaps the most appropriate artistic venue for the expression of the postmodern rejection of modernism … Postmoderns view life, like the story being told on the stage, as an assemblage of intersecting narratives.” (Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, p26)

This multiplicity of narratives acts as a check or even a deconstruction of the metanarative(s) derived from scripture, as an acknowledgement of the nuanced approach to life that is needed – it is wisdom.

But I went further than drama, suggesting that there is an inherent danger of just re-running the struggles of those who have played their part in the ‘theodrama’. Improvisation, whether musical or theatrical provides and extended metaphor for how we live the Christian life with wisdom in a postmodern era of ‘suspicion of metanarratives’, where each ‘church’ or community of improvisers works out their response and continuation of the drama of God.

On reflection, this reminds me of the ‘five act play’ metaphor that N.T.Wright often uses (for example, see halfway through this essay on the authority of scripture)

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.  The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.  Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

I can’t believe, thinking about it now, that I (a) forgot about N.T.Wright having said it all before and (b) got away with not including it – how did the markers not call me out on that one! Still, it’s this discussion of drama and improvisation that is the most valuable part of the essay and has shaped my thought a lot on how to live the Christian life, especially how we relate to the Bible. My characterisations of premodernity, modernity and postmodernity are undeniably flat and one-dimensional, partly because of the constraints of words and what I wanted to say about each in the essay.

Wisdom Essay 2 – Download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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Jesus had twelve “bros” – so what?

There seems to be a lot of this “Man’s Church (grrrrrr)” going around at the moment – posturing and faux-butchness, saying Christianity has become weedy and feminised, that it needs a good manly rescue in the guise of complementarians. I don’t buy it.

This time it’s John Piper – I read some edited ‘highlights’ of his address at the Pastors Conference his ministry runs with disappointment and a little bit of shame that there still so many high profile Christians who have views that seem to marginalise women at every turn.

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother,” Piper said at this year’s annual pastors conference hosted by the Desiring God ministry. “Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male.”

He continued, “God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.”

“Now, from all of that I conclude that God has given Christianity a masculine feel. And being God, a God of love, He has done that for our maximum flourishing both male and female.”

When a biblical literalist like Piper needs to infer from a short and very selective, biased list of data, something’s not right. Now I can’t claim to have the years of grounding in study, scripture, pastoral leadership and teaching that Piper has, but it seems that argument from inference here is the weakest of all possible reasons to say that male dominance is not only OK but the right thing for the church, that it is God-ordained for the benefit of both men and women.

There are plenty of good posts being written that that show there’s more balance to the both the Old Testament and the New Testament than is being granted by Piper (see Frank Viola on God’s view of a woman, Daniel Kirk on Imaging the Biblical God and Brian LePort on Christianity began in a patrilineal society for example, or look at the comments on Rachel Held Evans’ post John Piper wants a “masculine Christianity.” What do you think?)

LePort makes a very important point about the culture of the Ancient Near East – it was ‘patrilineal’, patriarchal, father-son oriented. Property, titles, businesses, skills, names and family identity: all passed down from father to son. Look at the genealogies in Genesis: Father begat Son, rinse, repeat. If we read the Bible as a document that was actually written in a place, at a certain time, by human people with human lives and influenced by the humans around them (not discounting the inspiration of God, but saying that people had more influence on the final text than just taking down a dictation from above) then we must expect the patriarchal system to have influenced them.

When Israel imagined God, they looked for a strong God, a mighty warrior ‘Lord of Hosts’ who would rescue them when their enemies oppressed them. They used the metaphors of power and influence that were available to them – and in a male dominated society, no wonder that so many of them were masculine.

Going further, there seem to have been two major gods of Canaan that they particularly struggled to stop the worship of: Baal the weather god, (he controlled thunder and rain, among other things) and Ashera, the (female) fertility god. As those who said that Israel should worship YHWH alone pushed back against these idols, their attributes were either shown to be in the control of YHWH (e.g. the drought and then deluge in the time of Elijah when they had the contest to see which god was real) or largely sidelined as not really divine.

So we’d expect women and female attributes to play a vanishingly small role in the Bible – it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t. Yet time and time again, women play key roles in leading Israel and in their important origin stories. Here are two.

The narrative of the Exodus is the key story that Israel used to explain who they were as a people – and Jews today still do, the people who God rescued from Egypt. Yet reading through the book recently, I was struck by how as they are delivered from Pharaoh and the Red Sea, it is Miriam and the women seem to have a key role in worshiping God – and this after her role in saving Moses, the ‘saviour’ of Israel. Then, as they come to build the tabernacle where God would live among his people, it is the jewelry of both women and men that provides the gold for the lavish structure.

A second ‘origin story’ of the people of Israel is that of Samuel and his establishing of the Kingdom of Israel in the first kings, Saul and David. The narrative would seemingly lose nothing if we were told nothing of Samuel’s background, yet the first chapters fo into detail about his godly mother and her prayer and commitment of her son to God. David is pictured as the ultimate king, anointed by the great prophet Samuel, who is able to do these things because of a holy woman who was not afraid to talk to God, make a bargain with Him, make a decision that her husband had to go along with.

Or take the ‘origin story’ of Jesus – the long genealogy in Matthew 1 which famously includes five women, each with a ‘complicated’ story. The “father of… father of…” repetition of patriarchy is interrupted by women whose stories can’t be ignored – and that’s the pattern of the whole bible: despite the male dominated background, women whose stories can’t be ignored.

Women who are leaders, prophets, business owners, teachers, apostles. Women who seem to sow the seeds of greatness in their sons. Women who overcome every obstacle thrown their way to make sure they are treated fairly by God. And God who listens when they say that it’s not fair, they need more, God who makes things fairer.

So Jesus had twelve “bros” – does that mean it’s only bros are important to him? Of course not! The twelve bros mirror the twelve actual brothers who became the twelve tribes. Sisters didn’t count when it came to founding tribes, so Jesus couldn’t have picked six men and six women while still making the picture of a new Israel work.

It’s also not like the only people with Jesus are the bros, either – and the women around him are not just in supporting roles. They travel with him, learn from him. They are the ones who stick by his side during his torturous death when all the “bros” ran away in terror. It’s women who hear of his resurrection first, a woman who sees him alive again first, despite having no legal standing as witnesses. Women are there in the upper room when the Spirit falls, telling people about the good news in different languages.

I think that if we are to make an inference, it’s that the exceptions show what God really thinks of the ‘rule’: God values women, no matter what culture or tradition says.

Ben Gosden says

 I want to thank, Rachel Held Evans… for issuing the challenge to men to respond to John Piper’s remarks. Too often we men who agree with wonderful voices like Rachel sit back and depend on her and others like her to raise these issues so that we can rubberstamp them with our quiet, “Amen”

Worse yet, we see the (appropriate and justified) responses from gifted female leaders like Rachel Held Evans and keep the ‘quiet “Amen”‘ inaudible, not even spilling pixels of approvement in comments or tweets. That won’t do: we need men and women to stand together on this issue and show that there is a different way of imagining the church.

I am not so naive as to think that my little voice will change the mind of a titan like Piper, or even that I could argue the least of his followers into submission, for arguments very rarely change minds. Rather, I hope that by putting myself on what I see as the right side of this conversation, I might show to some other young woman or man that there is more to be imagined than the 1950’s style roles that are prescribed in some churches.


Review: Evangelism in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt

Evangelism has become a dirty word to some people and cultural changes are happening across the world, ones that I would normally label as ‘postmodern’, which raise new problems with how we share the Christian message. It’s these issues that Doug Pagitt tackles in his new book Evangelism in the Inventive Age.

‘Inventive Age’ is what Pagitt uses to describe the cultural shift we are experiencing – a new era that follows the ‘Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age and the Information Age’. For all the talk of ‘missional church’ and ‘evangelicalism’, how can we possibly tell people about Jesus without sounding like we’re bible-bashing, forcing people into a mold they don’t want to be in? Pagitt’s suggestion is that it is resonance that best describes what we aim for when we are evangelizing – not conversion. The key to this kind of resonance is framing the good news of Jesus in a way that connects with people, and Pagitt looks at this from two perspectives. Firstly, a very contemporary idea, the enneagram is used to show the primary passions and fears of the nine types of people it describes. Each of these is embraced by the good news, each of them has ‘points of connection’, resonances with the biblical story. Secondly, Pagitt looks at eight ‘vignettes ‘ (or stories) in Acts that show the values in evangelism that he suggests are appropriate for the Inventive Age.

This is the fourth book in Pagitt’s series on the ‘Inventive Age’, which I found out is actually aimed at church leaders. At about 110 pages it’s not a long or difficult read – Pagitt doesn’t presuppose that you’ve read all his other books or studied theology for decades to understand his references. This means that it’s very accessible to a wider audience than just church leaders – anyone with an interest in sharing the good news of Jesus who finds that it’s not as easy in 2012 as just pulling up a soapbox in speakers’ corner.

Read the rest of the review at Provoketive.com

A Year in Essays: Mark, Semester 1

I have to be honest and say that Exegesis of Mark’s Gospel was one of my favourite modules of the year. While this was at least partly down to the content – Mark’s gospel is probably my favourite book of the bible – it’s also partly to do with the teaching method of Conrad Gempf. He extensively used Socratic questioning, put lots of responsibility to lead on us as learners and was actually funny! (I know, a funny theologian, they do exist!) You might think that I agreed with almost all he said, but no! He has a much lower view than I of a certain bishop theologian that dominated at least one of our seminars, but I learned a lot from our discussions.

The module worked by each of the class selecting a week; doing all the preparation, preparing handout notes and questions, recommending specific reading and preparing to lead the seminar. The topic of that week was the natural choice of topic to select for the essay, and Conrad asked us to write our own title and run it past him. This eliminates the horrible bit before writing an essay of ‘I really want to write on that topic but the question sucks’ and replaces it with ‘I want to write about this, but what to I actually want to say’.

My week was a particularly challenging one: the part of Mark where Jesus first curses a fig tree, then clears out the temple, then returns to the withered tree. I titled my essay

Cleansing or Destruction? Jesus’ Temple Action in Mark 11

The first thing to notice is the ‘sandwich’ – the two halves of the fig tree story on either side of the ‘meaty’ cleansing story. The sandwich (as part of a larger ‘chiasm’, a multi-layer sandwich) indicates that the Temple action is the point of what Mark is saying, but helps us to understand its meaning. I examined a lot of different commentators’ readings of the stories, eventually coming to the conclusion that, rather than a massive riot, Jesus’ action was largely symbolic and is to be interpreted in the context of the fig tree.

The essay argues that the fig tree is an illustration of the temple – ‘the appearance of abundant life but no prospect of fruit’ and that Jesus aim was to direct people to worship, while enacting a prophecy of destruction in a very ‘Old Testament’ way. The shift in people’s attitude to Jesus indicates that they understood his message – before the fig tree, they are welcoming him with singing and palm branches; after, the temple leadership challenge Jesus credentials to teach. However, the title ‘cleansing’ is still somewhat appropriate, since Jesus’ action points people to worship and pray, exactly what they need to do to repent and avoid the judgement prophesied.

Mark Essay – download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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A Year in Essays: Apologetics, Semester 1

Transforming Contemporary Apologetics, though not a core module to the MA was taken by every student in my entry year. It had by far the heaviest reading load of any of the modules and it covered a lot of ground – taking in a range of apologetic techniques from across the centuries (but mainly Western), looking at contemporary approaches, especially relating to postmodernity. As you might guess, postmodernity was the bit that appealed to me the most and was what I focused my essay on.

Explore the transformative function of apologetics in postmodern society. Your essay should include key ways in which today’s context is different from other historical periods, the contemporary challenges and suggestions for transformative action.

I relied on a schema from Leithart to describe how postmodernity is different to other historical ages: its actions are ‘intensifications, inversions and unmaskings’ of modernity. I drew on Brian McLaren to describe the values of postmodernity, values that many Christians see as a threat, but that I see as not antithetical to faith. The four are:

  1. Postmodernism is sceptical of certainty.
  2. Postmodernism is sensitive to context.
  3. Postmodernism highly values subjective experience.
  4. For postmoderns, togetherness is a rare, precious, and elusive experience.

Finally, I spend the remaining bulk of the essay detailing four ways that postmodern apologetics might function, with four short maxims giving practical ideas.

  1. Uncertainty: Embrace uncertainty to profoundly encounter God.
  2. Conversation: Engage in two-way conversation where both parties grow.
  3. Stories: Tell and be part of stories that connect, engage and encourage further development.
  4. Celebration: Celebrate God’s presence with anyone who will join you.

I don’t believe that postmodernity is something to be feared or fought. It just is. It’s not a perfect context to think as a Christian, but that perfect context does not exist. Rather, we engage with the context we are in and seek to redeem it, to transform it.

On reflection, however, I’m not sure I really answered the question – despite the good feedback from my tutor who marked it! How do we transform the way we defend the rationality of faith in a context where rationality is not only no longer the only criteria, but downright mistrusted? I think my suggestions go towards how evangelism or mission might work in a postmodern context, but apologetics is a different beast.

A few brief ideas now, a year on: acknowledge irrationality, avoid argument and power plays. Postmoderns will not be battered into the kingdom by the most powerful arguments or logical trickery (I think it slightly suspect to assume that anyone really was. There’s always something else going on beyond rational convincement – the Holy Spirit, even if nothing else!) Accepting that there is more to life (and new life) than deduction or 1-2-3 arguments is essential if we are to make an impact on this generation. Arguments often look like the power plays that we’re so sick of in politics – who really care about ‘town hall style’ debates between candidates? The papers and those who see the world as a fight between us and them (whether ‘they’ are pinkos or tories!) Postmoderns don’t want to watch a husting or a far-off panel debate, they want to be drawn into conversation – and that needs to be genuine dialogue, not a contrived method of forcing ‘capital T Truth’ down an unwilling neck.

So I was wrong – apologetics isn’t mission or evangelism; it’s more specific and focused and still important. Treat postmoderns with respect and some will listen. Apologetics alone will not save them, I suppose that’s part of what I tried to say in the essay, but then it never did save anyone on its own. But in it’s job as removing the intellectual barriers that keep people from faith, it must continue, though different from the apologetics of my parent’s generation if it is to succeed.

Apologetics Essay – download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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A Year in Essays: Wisdom, Semester 1

Christian Wisdom and Transformation is the long title for the core module, which we all called Wisdom. The task over two terms was to explore Christian Wisdom, how it draws on the Old Testament and its potential for transforming Christians today. The first semester started by talking about what we might mean by ‘wisdom’ and where it’s found in the Old Testament, primarily the books that are called ‘wisdom books’: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

My title was:

Is wisdom only contained in restricted sections of the Old Testament or is it possible to argue that there is a sense in which wisdom permeates the whole of it? How does this affect the transformative potential of Old Testament Wisdom?

Phew! Quite a mouthful! In the essay, I sought to show that limiting the influence of Wisdom to those three books alone is not the best way of reading the Old Testament. I looked at various sections of scripture: Pentateuch, Psalms, Prophets and narratives in Genesis and Esther; looking to see if Wisdom was a them or a shaping force in their writing. My conclusion is that Wisdom did indeed shape the Old Testament, perhaps through redaction from a wisdom school, perhaps though those schools as a force in ancient society.

I also had to spend some time looking at how this would influence Christians today. I suggested that finding wisdom throughout the Old Testament was a very powerful way of reading the Bible as many of the values associated with Wisdom resonate so much with postmoderns. I concluded the essay in this way:

In seeking the wisdom of Scripture, we have found practical advice on living, centred around God. It
appears throughout the Old Testament, in all the sections we have examined. It includes the worship of God
and study of Scripture, but recognises the limits in understanding and experience and is comfortable with
the issues of God’s apparent absence and the abundance of suffering. Wisdom seeks answers, but finds
paradoxes. Wisdom has much to speak into the culture of today when we recognise that simple, dismissive
answers characterise the fool, and the honest hard work of seeking through an enigma suits the wise woman
or man.

Wisdom Essay 1 – download a .pdf file of the full essay.

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Based on a work at www.jonrogers.co.uk.

A Year in Essays: Semester 1 Overview

As many who read my blog (or know me AFK) are aware, the academic year 2010-2011 was spent studying for an MA at London School of Theology. It was awarded to my early in December, with Merit (yes, I am a little bit proud of that). All this meant submitting a little under 50,000 words in essays, including a 20,000 word dissertation. Over the next three weeks, I want to make each of the essays that I wrote available on the site for people to read, with a short summary of each so you can see if it would be interesting to you. I don’t expect anyone to endure reading all of them, but some of you might find something of interest in there, even if it’s just a big long bibliography to help add sources to your own essay!

Semester 1 was a fun time for me: getting stuck into not only a new course, but a new discipline, with new class mates and teachers, each with their own way of doing things. Each semester had three modules, including the core Wisdom module running through both. In the first semester I took a module on Exegesis of Mark’s Gospel and one on Transforming Contemporary Apologetics.

One of the difficulties we had to learn to navigate with the course in this first semester was that the assessment (the one essay) did not match up to the majority of the learning (the seminars, along with the preparation and reading for each of them). Simply put, the essay titles each covered approximately the content of one single seminar in much greater depth, so in some senses, the hours of reading required to be intelligent and on the ball in most of those seminars was ‘wasted’, or at least unassessed. As the term drew to an end, as the deadlines started to get big in our minds, it’s no surprise that the quantity and quality of reading for the seminars decreased. I don’t know the solution to this problem, perhaps it just calls out a bit more maturity in us as students to know that our learning and our assessment are not the same thing and to do both anyway.

The essays for semester 1 were due on 7 February – four days after our baby was due to be born. I knew that babies can come early as well as late (though Nathaniel was not born until the 10th), so all the essays had to be written with plenty of time to spare – I did not want to be driving to hospital panicking that I still needed to writ another thousand words! This was a tough but important discipline for me – I’ve always been a bit last-minute, using the pressure of deadlines to focus me on work. Still, most of the writing got done during the Christmas break, leaving January quite relaxed.

I  will write a separate post for each of the essays, aiming to get through two semesters and the dissertation within three weeks. I’ll also aim to write some other things too – trying to make sure you don’t get too fed up of academic writing! As I write the posts, I will link to them from here.

Wisdom (in the Old Testament)

Apologetics (in the postmodern era)

Mark (the Temple and the fig tree)

Does God Change, Does God Feel?

I’ve been thinking about what God is like to day as I’ve been reading about Process Theology. It’s something I have come into contact with a few times over the past year or so, especially when looking at some of the ideas of the emerging church. It’s not something I’ve really had much call to study, so I’ve had little more than a basic understanding of what it means. But prompted by blog posts and conversations I decided to have a bit more of a look at what it’s really about and try to look into some of the questions it raises. If you want to know more about what I’m talking about before engaging with the questions below, have a look at this or that.

The first thing that Process Theology requires you to question is ‘what is God like‘? In Process Theology, everything is to be understood relationally and God must be understood as interdependent with creation. Now that is a difficult pill for many who have been raised with more traditional theologies to swallow. But exploring that one suggestion raises more questions for me.

Firstly, if we’re to think of God as relational, we must first think about God as an emotional person. The ancient Greek idea of God, going back to Aristotle was that of ‘apatheia‘, unfeeling, unmoved, impassible. A quick scan of the Old Testament shows us that that was not the experience of the Jews – their God was compassionate, loving, merciful, patient. And if we see Jesus as the very embodiment, the incarnation of what God is like, then we can see that the gospels depict him as a passionate man – recognising the pain of the people he met with, experiencing it himself, literally moved – to tears, to respond.

Some have sought to reconcile this by suggesting that although we experience God as compassionate, or having one another of these ‘anthropomorphic’ emotions, in his real being he is not moved, that he is still dispassionate. This is deeply dissatisfying to me, especially as I think of John’s epistle saying that ‘God is love’. The ‘god of the philosophers’ does not seem to match the revealed God that we follow.

If God does feel and if we see this most clearly in Jesus, then we have to think of God’s suffering. This is something I’ve written about before, thinking about how God suffers with us based on Romans 8. Here and elsewhere in Paul’s writings, suffering is seen through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion – the suffering, dying God. Christians, like Paul, are called to have their lives moulded by their suffering with Christ into a ‘cruciform shape’. On this topic, I’ve started to read Moltmann’s The Crucified God to explore his perspective on this.

But this thought of a suffering God brings up the idea of change – one that sits uncomfortably with traditional understandings of God. If we are shaped and transformed by suffering with Jesus, does this mean that he was changed by his suffering? If Yes, that implies that God can be changed in a very fundamental way; if No, did he really suffer in a meaningful way. Suffering, perhaps more than any other feeling, must change us, often in the most profound ways. The depth of faith of martyrs, holocaust survivors and so on is unquestionable, and that it was developed as a direct result of the suffering they endured seems obvious. If God really suffered and continues to suffer with us, does that mean that very experience changes him?

Wayne Grudem (who I would think to be a standard go-to for a conservative evangelical take on this) rejects the idea of God being impassive. He also suggests that God is unchangeable in four ways: his being, his perfections, his purposes and his promises. By his definitions, it seems what I’m talking about above are God’s ‘perfections’ – the attributes that he has that are perfect, full, complete – his love and compassion being examples. But Process Theology would also challenge Gruden’s conception of the unchangeable being of God. For Grudem, people – and all creatures – are constantly ‘becoming’, while God as pure ‘being’, with no potentiality or changability is where they can find rest.

So my first reflection on Process Theology has circled around whether God can change. I wonder how we can reconcile the feeling, suffering God with the idea that really feeling something is transformative while keeping the belief that God cannot change or be changed. On the other hand, what does it mean for God to be ‘the Rock’, ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ if the every part of the universe in their relationships with him change him?

What do you think?  Have I misunderstood the nature of feeling, experience and how it transforms? Or are there better ways of thinking about the unchangeability of God that I have not explored? Please add your comment below!