P is for Perichoresis

Perichoresis is the most beautiful and elegant picture of the Christian godhead that many Christians may be completly unaware of.P-Perichoresis

The easiest way to break down the word is:

  • Peri – as in perimeter
  • Choresis – as in choreograph (from the Greek word to ‘give away’ or ‘make room’)

It is the dance of the godhead. The picture is of movement and inter-relatedness. It is the constant exchange of moving around the edge – always providing space in the center. The concept is also known as cicumincession or interpenetration.

Circumincession: The theological concept, also referred to as perichoresis, affirming that the divine *essence is shared by each of the three persons of the *Trinity in a manner that avoids blurring the distinctions among them. By extension, this idea suggests that any essential characteristic that belongs to one of the three is shared by the others. Circumincession also affirms that the action of one of the persons of the Trinity is also fully the action of the other two persons.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 254-256). Kindle Edition.

In the gospels God points to Jesus and says “this is son in whom I am well pleased”. Jesus says “I do only that which I see the father doing”. The spirit anoints Jesus and empowers him to point people to God. Jesus leaves and sends/is replaced by the presence of Holy Spirit. This Paraclete leads into all truth and reminds us of what Jesus said (John 14:26).

Admittedly, talk about the Trinity gets complicated quickly. This is why so much contention surrounded the early churches’ councils and creeds. The filioque clause caused a schism between Easter and Western branches of the church in the 11th century.

Modern arguments abound regarding the hierarchy of Father-Son-Spirit. Contemporary conflicts multiply about the gendered language of trinitarian thought and moving toward formulations such as Creator-Redeemer-Comforter.

In fact, the list of early century heresies and modern attempts to revive or reformulate theories about the Trinity can make ones head spin. It takes upper level philosophy and vocabulary to explain how 3 can be 1 or how a monotheistic religion has 3 persons in the godhead. It gets even more complicated when one has to explain exactly what happened on the cross and where exactly ‘god’ was.
It can be done but it is sticky and messy to say the least.

Then there is the whole matter of the ‘economic’ trinity and the ‘ontological’ trinity. That is for another time. Suffice to say that examination and exploration of trinitarian theories are deep.

One sure thing is that we have a beautiful legacy in this perichoretic picture of the inner-life and dance of god from the 3rd century.

 

Artwork for the series provided by Jesse Turri

* another complicated distinction many may not know is that when speaking of the Trinity use of the phrase ‘person’ does not , in any way, conotate the modern/contemporary understudying of personhood. God is not a person in that sense. Theologians use it as a ‘super-category’ – almost like a place holder that they know needs to be defined, clarified and expanded later. 

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O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

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N is for Neoplatonism

In the same way that Empire influences and underlies nearly every thing in the Bible – and yet many do not know about it – Aristotelian thought, Platonism, and neo-Platonism saturate early church history and thus the inherited tradition.N-NeoPlatonism I had also suggested (in Liberation & Logos) that all theology has philosophical underpinnings – whether it admits it or not. It is no surprise then that much of the what would become Christianity had integrated/appropriated the philosophy of the world that it emerged from.

Neo-Platonism: The last stage of Greek philosophy (identified with Plotinus), which greatly influenced certain early church thinkers, particularly *Origen and *Augustine. Neo-Platonists taught that everything emanates (flows) from the transcendent principle of the One and is destined to return to the One through a process of purification.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 921-922). Kindle Edition.

Justo L. González. has some helpful additions:

In these emanations, the One moves toward multiplicity. Evil as such does not exist, but is rather the deprivation of the good, so that something is said to be “bad” or “corrupted” as it moves toward multiplicity and away from the One. True knowledge is attained through the contemplation of higher realities, and specifically of the One, and its goal is to culminate in *ecstasy, where the soul contemplates the One directly and loses itself into the One.

It is interesting to think about how influential these philosophies have been and to discover when they have most popular. Neoplatonism was initially rejected by christians.

Augustine (354-430) found Neoplatonism helpful in dealing with some of the difficulties he had with Christian doctrines such as the incorporeity of God and the *soul, and in dealing with the problem of how evil can exist in a world created by a good God (sec *Theodicy). He thus became one of the main channels through which Neoplatonism impacted Western Christian theology.

 Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2887-2896). Kindle Edition.

Neoplatonism was tweaked a bit (losing its objectionable elements) and was the dominant thought in Western Christianity until the 13th century when Aristotle was reintroduced – mainly through the work of Thomas Aquinas into what become known as Thomism.

I wanted to put this entry into the ABCs series because we live in a time when many are unaware of their religion’s philosophical past relationships. I will often hear concern from sincere and devout evangelical,charismatic or conservative believers who say “why do you mess around with all of that philosophical mumbo-jumbo? We already have the Bible and it should be enough. Just preach the Word.” It isn’t that easy of course. As I pointed about the Gospel of John with its use of the Logos, both scripture and church history draw deeply on philosophical underpinnings. I would actually argue that we owe it to out faith and to the contemporary culture to engage (not just combat) the contemporary philosophy of our day! If you want to follow-up on this historic precedent and trajectory, I would recommend Philosophy and Theology by John D. Caputo. It is thin and written for a wide audience. His writing style is also wonderfully light-hearted.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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M is for Metaphor (and Metaphysics)

Today we explore two words that appear at opposite ends of the language/reality spectrum but in fact have a great deal to do with each other and inform each other mutually.M-Metaphore

Before we dive into metaphor, there are two words that are needed in our theological tool-belt.

Univocal and Equivocal are important 2nd tier vocabulary words that radically transform the conversation.

Folks who hold that language is univocal tend to think that language is representative and exacting – that a word represents that which it stands in for and is exact in its ability to execute that function.

Folks who hold that language is equivocal tend to think that language is expressive and thus any word or concept expresses that which it stands in for and is inexact in its ability to do so.

If you believe language is representative (univocal), then you will say that these symbols (words & pictures)  represent that which they reference. Getting this right is essential because otherwise you are talking about something different that what is intended.

If you believe that language is expressive (equivocal), then you will say that language is both inexact and it is malleable. We do the best we can with the language/concepts/word pictures that we have but in the end they are both perspectival and provisional (it depends on where you stand and the words always stand in/substitute for the concept).

Here is how our Pocket Dictionary defines it:

Metaphor, metaphorical theology: A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that has an accepted, literal meaning is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or similarity between them. Metaphorical theology holds that God can only be spoken about through metaphors. Thus we must use metaphors to name our experience of God (the “Transcendent”); consequently, God can be described only in relational terms (that is, through the relational language of metaphor). Furthermore, metaphorical theologians, such as Sallie McFague, generally claim that such metaphors are culturally conditioned representations created by the mind as we seek to make experience intelligible.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 856-860). Kindle Edition.

Obviously we use word pictures to talk about God and God’s work. There is no shortage of examples in the Bible from a rock to a King, from a mother-hen to a dove, from a lover to a judge… and lamb.  We use analogies to talk about God and God’s work.

The question arises (post-enlightenment) when we begin to expect language to be exacting and representative. We do the same thing with the narratives of scripture when we hold them to the standard of newspaper reports and instruction manuals.

I fall squarely in the equivocal camp and think that all of our god-talk is expressive and provisional. As we come to understand more about God and God’s work in the world, we will come greater understandings and bigger revelations.

We do the best we can with the tools that we have.

This only becomes an issue when someone latches onto one a word-picture and insists that God IS a father. They mean literally and ontologically… which is impossible.
God being a ‘father’ is not exact and representative – it is a metaphor, a word picture. Jesus is saying that he relates to God as one relates to an ‘Abba’ daddy figure.
Which brings us to our second topic: metaphysics

Metaphysics: The philosophical exploration into the ultimate nature of reality lying beyond the merely physical (meta = beyond). Metaphysics deals with *ontological concerns, that is, with questions about what constitutes something as “real” or as having “being.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 860-861). Kindle Edition.

The important thing to understand about meta-physics is:

  • Unless you are a reductive-naturalist (that everything is physical) you have a metaphysic.
  • Metaphysics is how you explain the world (or universe) beyond what is seen and measurable.
  • A 21st century christian is not limited to the metaphysics of the ancient world that the Bible was written in.
  • The Copernican revolution (away from the Ptolemaic geo-centric world view) has seen cascading effects of de-centering both earth and thus humans from being central to everything.
  • This is why some have found a Process world-view a valuable alternative that incorporates scientific discoveries into views of the world and universe.

When one tackles metaphysical concerns, it is helpful to first have in place a notion of language (univocal v equivocal) and of metaphor when it comes to using word pictures and symbols to help us understand the world and human experience and existence.

Tell me how you are using language – then let’s talk about what is going on beyond the physical world.

Artwork for the series by Jessi Turri 

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L is for Liberation (and Logos)

Two concepts that anybody doing theology in the 21st century must know are Liberation and Logos. They play into so much of what we do in the theological endeavor.L-Liberation

Liberation Theology: This term most often refers to a theological movement developed in the late 1960s in Latin America (where it continues to hold prominence). In attempting to unite theology and sociopolitical concerns, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez emphasize the scriptural theme of liberation, understood as the overcoming of poverty and oppression. Liberation theologies have also found expression among representatives of seemingly marginalized groups in North American society, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 797-800). Kindle Edition.

It might be helpful to understand how I came to liberation theologies. I was writing my Master’s Thesis at an evangelical seminary on ‘Contextual Theology’. I was doing so because I had been raised and ordained in a Missionary denomination. I wanted to encourage and advance the work of those who claimed the ‘missional’ and/or ‘missions’ moniker.
It was in the midst of engagement with Bevans and Schreiter that I stumbled upon a form of contextual theology (an alternative perspective) that stood apart from the enlightenment/colonial models. It was called ‘Liberation’ and it was unlike any of the other models being examined.

Gonzalez adds a couple of important clarifications:

Some liberation theologies center their attention on international economic oppression, while others are particularly concerned with classism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and other foci. Besides acknowledging and claiming their contextuality, … liberation theologies insist on the need to promote and practice justice and love, not only at the personal level, but also in societal practices and structures.

Justo L. González. Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 2442-2446). Kindle Edition.

The only thing that I will add as far a Logos theology goes is that one must account for they way in which the word (logos) became flesh. ?This is the case, not just because John 1 is so important in protestant-conservative-evangelical-charismatic circles, but because one must figure out in what way God was present in Christ.

There is much to be said on this issue not just because the Incarnation sets the tone for contextual (liberation) models of ministry but because the entire christian gospel is based on (centered on) the reality that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt (camped-tabernacled) among us.

In more philosophical circles, Logos theology takes on a much broader concern. As early as the 6th century B.C.E. Greek philosophers were addressing the Logos as “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning.”
The Gospel of John borrows/appropriates/adopts this term to address the pre-existence of Christ and how that manifested in the person of Jesus. It is important to understand that the gospel writer integrated/adapted Greek philosophy. This move is significant for several reasons:

  1. Proclamations about Jesus were not made in a vacuum.
  2. Some early church writers drew from Hebrew narratives and themes.
  3. Others spliced in philosophical ideas and concepts from non-Jewish sources.
  4. Both in scripture and in church history we see a constant and elaborate mixing/integrating of external philosophies and concepts.

I bring this up because a major objection to Liberation theology is its use/appropriation of secular political theories (like Marxism) and critics will use this to discredit Liberation thought. We need to be careful with that kind of easy dismissal. ?Liberation theology does have its drawbacks and limitations* – but simply having philosophical partnership is not one of them. In fact, there has never been a theological or ‘biblical’ expression that did not have philosophical underpinnings or explicit frameworks.
Theology does not happen in a vacuum. All theology is contextual theology. This is not a problem. The only problem is when certain theologies don’t recognize their contextual nature with time and place and purport to being both universal and timeless.

Liberation theology is not for everyone and it does not happen everywhere. While true that it is thoroughly political and radically ideological at points, it is also highly contextual and local – as all theology should be.

 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

 

* some object to Liberation’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed. 

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K is for Kenosis (and the Kingdom)

Kenosis is one of those Greek words in the New Testament that I wish went untranslated in English. It is a special and mysterious word that would be great just left as it was and put in italics by Bible translators.

I have a list of words that I wish remained in Greek. Words like agape, kiononia, kairos, and ecclesia. They are just great words that would carry some power/mystery if we did not offer an English translation.

I am a big fan of translating the Bible – in fact I think that the translatability of the christian scriptures is a major distinction from other religious traditions like Islam. We don’t have to learn the original language in order to read and interpret the Bible.

Lamin Sanneh in Whose Religion Is Christianity: the Gospel Beyond the West, says:

Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it…  Since Jesus did not write or dictate the Gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. (Sanneh p. 97)

You can read an older post about this issue here.

So while I love this translatability aspect of the christian testament, I also mourn for the loss of deep and mysterious words from the original language.K-Kenosis

Kenosis appears four times in the New Testament. Three times in is translated ‘made void’ or ‘to no effect’. The most famous appearance is in Philippians 2:7 when it talks about Christ Jesus and is translated ‘emptied himself’.
The self-emptying of God had become a big topic in the 18th and 19th century – then expanded in the theological work after the Second World War. Most people that I talk to are familiar with this concept in the work of thinkers like Motlmann and his ‘Crucified God’.

Our Pocket Dictionary defines it as:

Kenosis, kenoticism: Derived from the use of the Greek verb ekenosen (he emptied himself) in Philippians 2:7-11. Kenosis refers to the self-emptying of Christ in the incarnation, as well as his conscious acceptance of obedience to the divine will that led him to death by crucifixion. Many theologians see in the term a reference to Jesus’ choice not to exercise the prerogatives and powers that were his by virtue of his divine nature. In the nineteenth century certain thinkers built this idea into a kenotic *Christology,which spoke of the incarnation as the self-emptying of the preexistent, eternal Son to become the human Jesus. This self-emptying involved the setting aside of certain divine attributes, or at least the independent exercise of his divine powers.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 773-777). Kindle Edition.

While the concept is beautiful … it also gets really tricky really fast.
What exactly did he empty himself of? You have to be careful because almost any answer is either:

  1. a historical heresy
  2. based on a presupposition that he had that attribute in the first place

Most people go for the low hanging fruit of ‘3 omnis’ (as I call them) of omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience. Obviously Jesus could not have been those 3 things and been human.
But once you start down this road you quickly run into your first barrier: if Jesus was lacking something that God has … how exactly was he still God? BUT if he had something that no other human had … then he wasn’t really all that like us and thus his being tempted or performing miracles is not really something that we can exactly imitate…

Many times this leads to a ‘Clark Kent’ version of Jesus where he wore a flesh suit and appeared to be human but underneath was a superman who could have done anything he wanted … it’s just that he chose not to!
This is part of why there is no end to the work of christology. Depending on your ontology (view of reality), metaphysics (beyond the physical), your view of the Trinity and your anthropology (view of humanity) … the danger of getting tied in knots is constricting.

What starts out as a beautiful word – Kenosis – hides a dangerous concept that can quickly become theological quicksand.

This is the opposite of a different ‘K’ word: kingdom.

What is often translated ‘the Kingdom of God’ in English is another phrase that I wish went untranslated: Basileia tou Theou.

From the age of Ceasars to the reign of Kings it made sense to translate it this way. It no longer does.
Not only does ‘kingdom’ not capture the nuance and possibility of expectation in Basileia tou Theou. It can actually be misleading because people think they know what a Kingdom is and are just waiting for God to take off this Clark Kent costume and take up the rightful claim to the throne!!

There are so many better translations of Basileia tou Theou. I have heard :

  • Kin-dom of God (family)
  • Reign of God (still too royal for me)
  • Common-wealth of God (my favorite)
  • Community of God (no hierarchy assumed)

I wish that we just left it untranslated as Basileia tou Theou.

You can see in these two ‘K’ words that translation is a tricky business and provides a constant supply of new material for the theological endeavor.

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J is for Justification (a snapshot of theology)

The word Justification in English has the same convenient memory device as atonement did. Many use the Just-as-if to remember ‘it is just as if I never sinned’. J-Justification

Here is how our pocket dictionary defines it:

Justification, justification by faith: A forensic (legal) term related to the idea of acquittal, justification refers to the divine act whereby God makes humans, who are sinful and therefore worthy of condemnation, acceptable before a God who is holy and righteous. More appropriately described as “justification by grace through faith,” this key doctrine of the *Reformation asserts that a sinner is justified (pardoned from the punishment and condemnation of sin) and brought into relationship with God by faith in God’s grace alone.

 Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 764-767). Kindle Edition.

Our other resource for this series, Essential Theological Terms by Justo L. González, provides a helpful distinction about the heated debates between Protestant and Catholic thinkers during the Protestant Reformation.

The difference lay in that for Luther and the main Protestant theologians justification was God’s gracious act of declaring a sinner just, even in spite of the continued presence of sin, while Roman Catholics saw justification as God’s act of infusing *grace into the sinner, who can then perform acts of justice-good works-and thus become just.

(Kindle Locations 2246-2248). Kindle Edition.

Justification provides a telling snapshot about the task of contemporary theology.

  1. The concept is vital within the realm of theology.
  2. The underlying truth plays a central role with the christian tradition.
  3. There are many excellent theories and explanations regarding the concept.
  4. Consensus can be difficult to come by due to competing theories and explanations.
  5. Much of the work is subject to speculation.
  6. If one does not subscribe to the assumed presumption (in this case like ‘original sin’) then the solution seems arbitrary and unnecessary.

This is why I selected justification – as an illustration of the grand, elaborate, nuanced and speculative nature of much theology.

You might be surprised at how excited I get about the topic of justification and how committed I am to both proclaiming and explaining it to congregations that I pastor.
One of my favorite sermons is a high energy presentation of Romans 5 which begins:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

I then take v. 12-21 and convert the words into math formulas in order illustrate the fantastic work of God in Christ!

Keep that in mind when I say that justification is illustrative of the theological endeavor.

  • It is vital to the faith.
  • It is central to the tradition.
  • It is contentious as points.
  • It can be speculative.
  • It is rooted in suppositions that may be outdated or even antiquated.

This is a great snapshot of our task in contemporary theology: to take the tradition seriously, to account for the variety of perspectives and frameworks, and to adjust/adapt the ‘answers’ to the questions being posed by our present situation.

This is why simply parroting the answers of the past is often not sufficient. There are new considerations provided by sociology, biblical scholarship, history and science.
This is also what makes the theological endeavor A) exciting B) important C) difficult and D) complex.

 

Thanks to Jesse Turri for the artwork for this series.

 

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TNT: for G H I (of the ABC’s)

Callid and Bo chat about genre, hermeneutics and inerrancy on the 3rd episode of the ABC’s of theology series. H-Hermeneutics

You can read the original posts here:

G is for Genre 

H is for Hermeneutics 

I is for Inerrancy & Infallibility

 

Thanks to Jesse Turri for providing the artwork of the series. You can here the Unfolded podcast here.

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