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Entries in Theology (16)


How helpful is the word "evangelical?"

I'm reading Validity in Interpretation by Ed Hirch. It is a "footnote find" from way back when I read Kevin Vanhoozer's Is There a Meaning in This Text? Hirsch, in a section where he discusses the difference between meaning and implication (the two are very distinct things), he shares how he tends to avoid the terms "denotation" and "connotation" in discussing verbal meaning because he does not find those terms precise. Hence, he uses the word "implication." He goes on to say:

However, for the purpose of adequate theoretical description, it is more useful to find terms that have both precision and generality.

Just as the words "connotation" and "denotation" may lack precision, so does the word "evangelical." It is a very general term, but its precision is all but gone. It used to be that one could refer to herself as one, and be quite clear what she intended. Because the evangelical landscape has changed, it no longer communicates the kind of clarity it previously did. These days, it seems as if saying "I am an evangelical" is pretty much the same as saying "I am a Protestant." 

I have a friend from school who is in the process of going to work in Scotland with 20 Schemes. I asked him about the climate of evangelicalism in the UK, and it was his understanding that evangelical in the UK definitely means something different than in North America. It was his view that evangelicalsm there is more akin to what we in Nort America view as pentacostallism.  Another friend, in the same class, originally from the U.S., said that the term also has a different meaning there. I'm not sure what one might define as "evangelical" in Canada (other than perhaps imported terms from the U.S. which aren't entirely analagous to the culture here).

The word "evangellicalism" is no longer a precise word. There is a spectrum whereby some evangelicals may hold tightly to core doctrines such as penal substitution and inerrancy and on the other end those who may reject them. It may be tempting to wish there was a better term, but in some ways, I'd be afraid what options might be presented. 

I'll be honest; I don't use that word to describe myself when talking to others. In recent years, I have been dismayed at some of the baggage that has come to attach itself to the term. My church is Baptistic in nature, but not Reformed in any substantial way, but that is where my beliefs lie. I tell other Christians that, but when it comes to speaking with someone who has no Christian understanding, "Protestant" is actually a better term.

Ambiguity in terms can be a bad thing, but it does afford us opportunities to talk to people about what we really believe.


Experience is not theology

I have been reading the book Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilderby Caroline Fraser. It is a fascinating read. I see many similarities between her and L.M. Montgomery, who also struggled with financial hardship, although not to the extent that Wilder did. Both women wrote fiction based on their own lives which left readers assuming that the work was strictly autobiographical. And of course it was not.

Wilder's books, though based on her own childhood, were works of fiction:

Wilder was not a historian. Instead, her novels would be created from a complex tangle of subjective sources: family lore and letters, old hymnals and songbooks, treasured artifacts of her youth, and her own recollections. Her depictions of the West were drawn less from newspapers and encyclopedias than from her inner life. It was a work of pure folks art.

Wilder's daughter, Rose, a writer herself, had different ideas. She had no qualms about not only presenting fiction as fact, but taking her mother's true experiences and embellishing them to make a good story for herself. The relationship between the two is very complicated, and at times, rather ugly.

How much of a writer's experience is part of what they write? Even when it comes to works of theology, how much of our own experience runs through our writing? How much of it determines how we approach the subject and the very words we choose? What role do our presuppositions play in how we process and analyze the material we do research? 

I am a firm believer in authorial intent. But at the same time, I am aware that there can be a tension between the writer and work even the author may not fully recognize. How accurate are our memories? How biased are our experiences? Research is really important, and Caroline Fraser's excellent research has revealed that Wilder was often incorrect about her memories. This is why we need to remember that it is fiction. 

And when it comes to writing theology, research is even more crucial, because research -- especially research from an opposing view -- will challenge us to look beyond our personal experience and presuppositions. We may most certainly inject personal experience in our writing, but we also remember that our experience, while revealing our theology, is not theology itself.


Let your ordinary bloom

In the book Expressing Theology the reader is encouraged to write engaged theology. Engaged theology is not detached from every day life, but gives feet to our faith. Even an unbeliever can know theology in her head, but the one who seeks for theology to shape her life and change it is putting theology to work.

The sources for engaged theology are Scripture, tradition, experience, and research. Now, before someone gets nervous, by tradition the authors do not mean embracing tradition as equal with Scripture. We all observe tradition in our religious lives. The fact that a child grows up in the tradition of going to a youth group is something that will influence him. After my conversion at the age of 20, my faith grew churches which while not Baptist in name, may as well have been. The traditions which were observed there contributed to my theology.

When we write about theology, we should give voice to the ordinary:

Experience as a source for theology encompasses both our personal experiences and our experiences of the wider culture. Ordinary acts like eating, shopping, cleaning, driving, and working become realities with which to grasp the ultimate principles if we reflect on them with the help of Scripture, tradition, and research. Everything is both ordinary and extraordinary. Write about the ordinary: the extraordinary often blooms from it.

Everyone lives an ordinary life, even those with exceptional circumstances. Everyone has regular, typical, routine days. How we bring theology to bear on our everyday life is important. Being an ordinary Christian is not something we should apologize for.

Part of my developing theology comes from the resources I utilizie. Right now, attending seminary at  Heritage College and Seminary is one those resources. As I learn principles of theology through my classes, they affect how I interpret and understand my ordinary circumstances. One of the lessons I have learned at seminary is the value of community. Being with a group of students every week over a number of months means we learn together, support one another, and care about one another. That principle has reminded me of the importance of my local church and the reality that we are all learning and growing together in our faith.

To avoid writing about the ordinary is a lost opportunity to not only practice writing, but a lost opportunity to understand how the ordinary and the theoretical work together. I will continue to write about the ordinary, here on this quiet little place on the internet. Who knows when something extraordinary may start blooming?


Becoming an ordinary theologian

I beleve R.C. Sproul when he said that everyone is a theologian. It was Sproul who showed me that theology is not for the professional alone. About eighteen years ago, I felt a lot of frustration when it came to things happening in my local church. Frustration can lead to grumbling, and grumbling is not helpful.

I determined that I needed to be more gracious with others. But did I understand grace? I didn't really think I did, so I set out to learn. At that time, in the old days when people used catalogues, I found myself in possession of one from Ligioner. In and among the titles there, I found one called Grace Unknown. Now, that sounded promising. I had already read The Holiness of God, and I liked R.C. Sproul, so I bought it. It was a turning point. Theology was exciting, and while it would often make me more frustrated, the process of searching was good for what ails a frustrated person.

This kind of probing, of course, was not always met with the enthusiasm that I had for it. I remember sitting with a gentleman at one point and shared with him that I was reading Stephen Charnock. He looked at me with total surprise and said it didn't seem like a book women would like to read. It wasn't just men who were perplexed. Other women did not always understand why I would rather read Charnock instead of the current popular women's book. The answer is simply that the book which was popular for women wasn't helping me understand what I wanted to understand.

Once I started reading Sproul and other authors, I realized that theologians were not just the guys with the doctorates writing scholarly papers. Theologians are everywhere. And once I began blogging, I discovered quite a few women who were also embracing the identity of ordinary theologian. In recent years, there have been a few more books written by women that go beyond practical living advice and get to the heart of the issue. One I can think of is Hannah Anderson's Made for More, exploring what it means being created in God's image. Keri Folmar wrote The Good Portion, which discusses the doctrine of Scripture. It's encouraging to see women writing about deep theological issues. One of my favourite authors is Karen Jobes, and if you begin probing into more academic circles, there are more women writing about theology. We also have to remember that women are not required to read only women authors. We need to read good authors who have done their work regardless of whether they are men or women.

Ordinary theologians have been around a long time. While some of the currently popular female authors were still in college or perhaps even high school, we were trying to raise young children while plumbing the depths of doctrine and God's Word. Long before Christianity Today launched its Her.meneutics blog, there were those of us who, without the aid of Twitter and Facebook, were seeking.

When we find a treasure, we feel excited. We want to share it with others. We may even think we're the first ones to discover it. But usually, someone else has already been where we are. And that is an exciting thing. Growing in Christ is a communal thing; we don't do it alone. We may feel alone, but there are always others out there. 


The temptation of the academic exercise

Many years ago, a friend and I spent some time at a summer camp teaching the Bible to women. The camp was held in early August, and we began preparing in the spring. We met often to pray about what we would be doing. One thing my friend prayed often was that our study would not become mere academic exercise. That is a prayer that I have to repeat to myself often since beginning seminary.

Last year, I took systematic theology over two semesters and each time we began a new topic, I took note of resources for further study so that I could go back and re-visit the topics. It is not hard to see how theologians ultimately focus on a specific area of study. Recently, I began my foray into the world of Logos software, and as I began browsing and compiling a wishlist, I saw how easy it is to investigate every fine of point of theology we want. It is tempting, however, to poke and prod at theological issues without ever addressing my own heart. 

No matter what kind of theologian we are -- the ordinary kind or the professional kind -- there is a responsibility before God to be holy because he is holy (I Pet 1:13-16). It is easy to think we are holy because we are engaged in deep study of theology, but pursuing holiness means we have to actually look away from the study and examine ourselves. I love the study. I love following the bunny trails. But if the end result is nothing but a head full of facts without any heart impact, I may as well study something other than theology.

Last semester, as we studied sanctification, it became apparent to me that there were holes in my understanding. When school was over and I had time, I started reading Sinclair Ferguson's book Devoted to God and then J.I. Packer's Re-Discovering Holiness. I'm glad I read those books. I'm glad I took the time to look at my own heart; to get to that place where the rubber meets the road. 

It's easy to become immersed in doctrine while checking my heart at the door. What good does a reading list of ten or twenty books on a subject if I'm not pursuing holiness? Does all of the doctrinal study I do lead me ultimately to praise God? To love his word more? It's actually quite easy to know a lot of theology, to read a lot of books on the subject, and maybe even write eloquently about it, but never actually spend a lot of time in the Bible itself. There are so many experts out there who have done the work for us that it's easy to just take their word for it and never engage scripture with any depth.

My mother used to say two contrasting, but complementary things: "A little knowledge is a light load to carry," and "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Knowledge can be a benefit, but used incorrectly, it can become a source of pride. Study is good, but if we're not paying attention to our own sanctification in the process, then all of that knowledge is a hollow accomplishment.

I want my studies to make a difference in the every day. I want them to make me more thankful, more prone to praising God, more yielded to God's will, more gracious, and more at peace. It is still my prayer that study will not be mere academic exercise.