I have the immense honor of writing for The Ambrose Institute, a spiritual formation and congregational development program through Nashotah House Theological Seminary. This is my latest article written for Formatio, the online journal of Ambrose. Just click the links and see the amazing work they do to form and encourage the Body of Christ!
Last week, when I was doing a residency week at Nashotah for my next course, some friends of mine and I were invited to share supper with a resident and her husband. When I walked in, I immediately heard the phone ring several times and wondered why no one attempted to answer it. As I walked through the living room, I saw a gigantic cage and realized why no one was answering that crazy ringing phone.
The phone was a bird.
A big, grey, African parrot named Chad.
And Chad was trying to get our attention by perfectly imitating a ringing telephone.
And like kids in a candy store, we hovered around the cage and “Ooohed” and “Ahhhed” at this beautiful bird.
Chad loved the attention by dancing and flirting and showing us that he could eat cornbread and blow raspberries at the same time. Once he realized we weren’t going to harm our hosts and were going to hang out for a while, he went through his repertoire of sounds and eventually lapsed into preening himself for his nightly rest.
Until we went into the dining room to eat our wonderful supper. And Chad chirped and crooned and buzzed and meowed and zurbured as loud as possible to get our attention. He couldn’t see us anymore and was concerned we’d left him alone. He could still hear us sharing the meal together, but he couldn’t see us. He was doing all he could to get our attention.
“Come back to me! Where are you? You left me alone! Where are you? Come back to me!”
I imagine this is what God does to us when we get busy or distracted or preoccupied or stressed or lazy or …. I imagine God is much like Chad doing all He can to get our attention focused back on Him. He sends us love through a precious friend. He shows us grace through the hug and laughter of a child. He reveals His power through the changing of the seasons.
There are so many ways that God makes Himself known to us throughout the days. There are some days when I am so in tune with His presence, and there are also some days when I am so busy and distracted that I wouldn’t recognize His attention on me even if He were a parrot that landed on the top of my head!
Thank you, dear Lord, that your eyes never leave me and your hand never moves from me! Forgive me when I forget and forgive me when I fail. And thank you for using a beautiful African grey parrot for illustrating your relentless, never-ending love!
In completion of McGrath’s Christian Theology, he discusses the doctrine of the church and the sacraments, Christianity against the backdrop of world religions, and eschatology.
First, McGrath presents the populations of the church through the ages. Isidore states the church is “‘the assembly of saints joined together by correct faith and an excellent manner of life’” (377). Donatus expresses that the church is a body of “holy” believers “contingent upon the purity of the church and its minsters” (380) and that schism is “totally and absolutely unjustified” (379). Conversely, Augustine posits it is a “mix of saints and sinners” (379) in a “hospital” for healing and “renewal” (381). Calvin distinguishes the visible church (community of believers both “elect and reprobate”) and invisible (pure elect known by God) (383). Reformers such as Simons echo Isidore viewing the church as righteous (384). McGrath discusses Christ’s presence in the church (385-388) and illustrates the work of the church through the Nicene Creed: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic (391-399).
Next, McGrath discusses the sacraments: what constitutes sacrament, why celebrate it, and what does that celebration do for the believer? Augustine states “that sacraments do not merely signify grace; in some way, they evoke or enable what they signify” (401). McGrath submits Hugh’s criteria of sacrament: a “material” component, a “likeness” to the referent, “authorization to signify,” and ability of the sacrament to benefit the participant (403). Ultimately, the sacraments must offer grace, strengthen faith, unify the church body, and inspire God’s love to the believer (407-411). Discussion and debate ensued regarding the presence of Christ at the Eucharist (414-420) and similar discussion regarding the age of baptism, triggering the underlying discussion of original sin and, according to Augustine, its guilt and disease (421).
McGrath reviews religion in society (necessary or irrelevant) and where Christianity resides alongside other religions. Religious consideration can be either through a detached or a committed approach (426). McGrath states “religions show a marked tendency to depend on the particular purposes and prejudices of individual scholars” (427). He illustrates purposes of religion: Feuerbach’s “divine predicates are thus recognized as human predicates” (428), Marx’s “‘religion is the self-consciousness…of people who either have not found themselves or who have already lost themselves again’” (429), Freud’s “religion arises through inner psychological pressures” (431), Barth’s criticism of religion as a human institution (433), and Bonhoeffer who argues for “‘religionless Christianity’” (433). McGrath concludes the chapter identifying salvation through exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism with other religions (435-443).
McGrath completes the text discussing eschatology. Joachim posits three ages: Father (Old Testament), Son (New Testament), and Spirit (renewal of the church) (448). McGrath illustrates the positions of eschatology: the Enlightenment, Bultmann, Moltmann, Thielicke, dispensationalism, and Benedict XVI (451-456). He also discusses the “places” of the end of days: hell, heaven, purgatory. He also offers the theories of the millennium: amillennialism, premillennialsim, and postmillenialism (457-462). He concludes by addressing the Christian resurrection body: in earthly form or in spiritual form (462).
Ultimately, McGrath offers evaluation of the body of Christ, how that body corresponds to the faiths, and non-faiths, of the world, and the hope that the body awaits.
Alister McGrath, in his Christian Theology, spent the last two chapters discussing the doctrine of God and of the Holy Spirit. It stands to reason that his next chapters discuss the doctrine of Christ and Christ in history.
Christology, the doctrine of the person of Christ, seeks to understand what Christ reveals in an historical context. It also attempts to evaluate the implications of Jesus as savior, as a man fully human, and as a being fully divine. Before McGrath delves into the various aspects of Jesus’s nature, he points out the rationalist approach to Christ: Jesus had nothing new to bring to the table of moral and reasonable human interaction and therefore had no true value. Arguing against this rationalist approach, Ritschl stated that what Jesus did exemplify was, “a new and hitherto unknown relation to God” (267). Man could know God differently than before the incarnation because of the incarnation. McGrath briefly defines New Testament terms given for Jesus: Son of God, Savior, Lord, Son of Man, and Messiah (268-271). Within the idea of Jesus as God, Arius posited, “as a creature, the Son was changeable and capable of moral development, and subject to pain, fear, grief, and weariness. This is simply inconsistent with the notion of an immutable God” (275). Thus, two opposing schools of thought arose: the Alexandrian and the Antiochene. These schools debated the extent of the duality of natures within Jesus (271-279). Theological concepts of Christology and soteriology gave rise to kerygma or the “proclamation of Christ” that will transmit the soteriological content of the Christ-event” (284). How Christ responds is how God is revealed to us and how He bears the Holy Spirit to us (286-291).
Next, McGrath posits the problems of historicity, namely the Enlightenment movement in the 18th century. The Enlightenment saw no purpose for history in that it was inherently flawed by perspective and subjectivity. The incarnation, divine miracles, the resurrection, and even the person of Jesus Himself were called into question (295-304). Theologians and philosophers questioned the life of Christ from three aspects: chronology, metaphysics, and existentialism (297-299). Gotthold Ephraim Lessing stated: “What can the relevance of such an outdated and archaic message be for the modern world?” (299). This “life of Jesus” movement attempted to reshape the values Jesus proposed to fit with new evolving generations. However, Martin Kahler refuted this historical approach to the person of Jesus. The gospels were not to be read as historical documents, but rather as “accounts of the faith of believers” and, “Christian faith is not based upon this historical Jesus, but upon the existentially significant and faith-evoking figure of the Christ of faith” (304-305). As Strauss, Bultmann, Barth, and Pannenberg debated the validity of the resurrection, McGrath concludes, “it must be appreciated that the resurrection of Jesus serves an additional function within Christian theology. It establishes and undergirds the Christian hope. This has both soteriological and eschatological implications” (310-314).
“Bless, O Lord, this House, set apart to the glory of thy great name and the benefit of thy Holy Church; and grant that thy Name may be worshipped here in truth and purity to all generations. Give thy grace and wisdom to all the authorities, that they may exercise holy discipline, and be themselves patterns of holiness, simplicity, and self-denial.
“Bless all who may be trained here; take from them all pride, vanity, and self-conceit, and give them true humility and self-abasement. Enlighten their minds, subdue their wills, purify their hearts, and so penetrate them with thy Spirit and fill them with thy love, that they may go forth animated with earnest zeal for thy glory; and may thine ever living Word so dwell within their hearts, that they may speak with that resistless energy of love which shall melt the hearts of sinners to the love of thee.
“Open, O Lord, the hearts and hands of thy people, that they may be ready to give and glad to distribute to our necessities. Bless the founders and benefactors of this House, and recompense them with the riches of thine everlasting kingdom. for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
The project will reveal the significance of the sacrament of baptism in the work of the church, both regarding the baptismal candidate as well as the catholic church. Jewish history reveals purification ceremonies that, with the baptism of Jesus, have marked a critical moment of the believer in a bath of both water and Holy Spirit. This moment crosses denominational lines to be an ecumenical awareness of God’s grace for His people. However, the sacrament of baptism does not involve the candidate alone but is an opportunity for the church to reaffirm its baptismal covenant at each event. For liturgical churches, there is a vow within the baptismal covenant promising guidance and partnership from the church to the baptized. That vow has been forfeited over time and has caused the process of Christian formation to be lost; thus, the church has failed the church. However, there is hope for the body of Christ to reclaim its vow and restore its commitment to this most holy sacrament. Fred P. Edie in Book, Bath, Table, and Time illustrates that baptism is an acknowledgment, a movement, of “being” for the baptized into “doing” for both baptized and church body. This acknowledgment is the pivot point for the growth and future of the church. Simon Chan in Liturgical Theology rightly noted, “Strong martial language is used, for baptism is part of a cosmic struggle to reclaim humanity and the world for Christ” (118).
In Allen’s and Springsted’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology, chapters 7 through 11 builds upon the established philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Barth. They move to modern philosophies as methods for understanding how man assesses his relationship to The Divine.
The authors illustrate in the seventh chapter through several approaches: moderate realism, humanism, hierarchical methodology, and mechanical philosophy. In moderate realism we understand an object by assessing its knowable essence. Interestingly, Ockham rejected natural philosophy and based his awareness of God on faith as opposed to “philosophical demonstrations” in nature proposing that nature is “sheer fact” and contingent upon God, thus, contradicting Aristotle’s process (117-118). Humanism aided the philosophical evolution through the Enlightenment as it defined a structural hierarchy, macrocosm and microcosm, and established man’s place in that universe. Newton was aware but did not fully ascribe to the Deist theory in that he used God as a stop-gap for those occurrences in nature which could not be explained. His checkered illustration could be unraveled as we see later in the text (124-127).
Next, the authors illustrate the notion of modern philosophy and the demise of natural theology. In modern philosophy there is more to experience than sensory experience; Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” postulation arises and concludes with three ontological realities: mind, extension, and God (129-133). Disturbingly, morality is contingent upon logic, and matter determines viability (134-138). Additional is Bayle’s notion that Christianity does not inherently equate to morality, thus, arises a “rational, enlightened religion” (142).
In the following chapter, the authors focus on Kant’s terms of knowledge: a priori and a posteriori. The authors also illustrate Kant’s branches of metaphysics: “self (rational psychology), world (rational cosmology), and God (rational theology)” (160). The authors note that Kant needs qualifiers to the third branch to distinguish practical reason from pure reason and to allow an aspect of faith to prove God’s existence (163); he posits that we would seek morality for itself, not for the pursuit of happiness (167).
Hegel then proposes that God manifests Himself historically and that our awareness of His inclusiveness is a continual process, “self-unfolding and self-realization” (169). Hegel’s criticism of philosophical theology was that it is too narrow; his emphasis on reconciliation of finite man to the infinite God embodies his theology in an historical context (179). Furthermore, we cannot comprehend reconciliation without the foundation of the incarnation.
One of the main threads in the last chapter is the intentionality of consciousness. We become aware of God as we recognize the chasm between man and The Divine. Existentialism reveals that we believe in God but are without God (191); phenomenology and hermeneutics offer the approach to know God through matter and the interpretation of events (201-203).
A subcurrent of the text is the relationship between God and Christ to man’s morality: Christ does not guarantee moral actions nor does morality, when stripped away, reveal a Christian.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 NRSV.
We arrive with knowledge of God, the One, through Aristotle’s methods: “…as is possible for us in connection with sensible things” (29). Alternately, we begin to know God as Augustin posits “only insofar as God illumines the intellect” (29). Awareness, knowledge, of God comes to us through logos and rationale or faith and self-revelation. There is a third possibility of knowing God, according to the Middle Platonist, which is only achieved in the next life (47); this concept echoes Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”
Because we cannot fully know the mind of God, we adapt our analysis and study and look to analogies or metaphors. In our finite, limited understanding of an infinite Being, we see what God is not, so we might arrive at what He is. Our analogies may be flawed: “They are comparable to reflections of objects seen on the surface of water, with the distortions and limitations of reflections” (83). However, “logic teaches us to reason rightly so as to gain knowledge” (86). Application of a metaphor assists us to comprehend the One. As we gain clarity, that clarity is in two distinct categories: practical matters and theoretical knowledge (99). When aptly combined, we achieve theoretical wisdom or sophia where “the highest part of [our] nature is fulfilled” (100).
However, this fulfillment cannot occur until the self is emptied or purged through kenosis. We must employ “the procedure for getting rid of our lower souls…to gain knowledge. We presently are between our higher souls and our lower souls” (54). “There is no intimate knowledge of God without such moral…change in the knower” (29). We must be changed first by faith, then the acquisition of knowledge will continue to purge self so that faith in knowledge will grow. Justin Martyr stated, “that such knowledge is not possible for anyone using only one’s natural capacities. It is only by faith in God’s revelation by the incarnate Word that such intimate knowledge of God is possible…”(27). Justin’s concept is contrary to Aristotle’s understanding of sensible things. However, it was Epictetus who envisioned the kenosis process: We have by nature been endowed with the faculties to bear whatever happens to us without being degraded or crushed…One can complain about such misfortune or bear whatever comes without degradation by seeing its necessity and yielding to it courageously and magnanimously” (43).
Ultimately, to achieve the theoretical wisdom or sophia and behave as the Cynics, “the wise person in action” (41), we must empty ourselves, use rationale as well as faith, and employ metaphors to comprehend what the mind cannot conceive.
Allen, Diogenes and Eric O. Springsted. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Louisville:
Westminster John Know Press. 2007. 2nd ed.