Monday, March 07, 2011

Reflections - Week One

This was my first week back at study. It has been an exhilarating week and I have already begun my journey towards new and varied knowledge. I am glad that I chose to take “An Introduction to Christian Theology” before any of the other pre-requisite courses. Whilst I am sure I would have found “An Introduction to the Old Testament Studies” (THL105) a valuable subject to have begun my formal theological studies, it seems provident that I chose the overview itself first.

In this week we were asked to learn a little about what theology is. Whilst the details, to me, are not boring I am sure you don’t want to know them all. Let’s just say that I learned that theology is talk about God. Splitting this into its two root constituents – both Greek – we have God (theos) and word (logos). It is like the other “ology” subjects – spirit (psyche) and word (logos), life (bios) and word logos).
However theology is more like those subjects as well. Just as there is clinical psychology, applied psychology or even electrical engineering and software engineering, so there are different types of theological study. Some types are: biblical theology, historical theology, pastoral or applied theology and systematic theology.

We will be studying systematic theology.

In brief the goal of systematic theology is to discuss the overarching topics within theology in one, integrated whole. It aims to logically discuss this God-talk in a fashion that presents what we understand of God’s talk to ourselves, to each other and to God. From what I have read, it is a very old way of doing Christian theology. Origen, Aquinas, Luther, Barth and Calvin have all participated in this type of theology. Today I was at Barr Smith library and was simply looking at the more than 20 volumes of Luther’s theology; it was a far cry from the monk who stuck a small set of complaints on a church door!

The text book, Daniel L. Migliore’s “Faith Seeking Understanding – An Introduction to Christian Theology”, is clearly written from an Episcopalian, somewhat liberal point of view. Migliore claims his method is heavily influenced by Barth but I have not read enough Barth to know the nuance this gives the methodology. That said, I have no particular reason to doubt Migliore’s word and given the book is in its second edition I would hope that another person, academic or otherwise, might have challenged him to change this statement if it weren’t true.

This disposition suits me. I have discovered, quite by accident, that I am most definitely of the Anglican heritage (the Episcopalian Church is the equivalent, in the USA, of the Anglican Church in Australia). In fact, to my consternation, I have discovered that I have accepted its traditions without necessarily knowing exactly what I was accepting or knowing the great debates, schisms and angst that came eventually to set those traditions in place. As Janet, my local priest said, “You’ll find that it will challenge you to think!”

Hence, as a more liberal, Episcopalian text book, I have not found – yet – that it says anything I strongly disagree with. That said, it’s a very different text to Alistair E. McGrath’s “Christian Theology – An Introduction.” It is hard to pin-point the exact difference but McGrath tends to take a more expository and historical approach to the subject matter. Migliore clearly invites the reader to believe with him and take the journey with him whilst McGrath is more like a tutor who gently guides you along the path towards knowledge. This is not to say that McGrath is any less a theologian or Christian than Migliore (in fact it’s McGrath’s fault I joined the course) it is simply, I think, a matter of text style.

So, I took to reading the text book. I read up until the Good Creation (Chapter 5). And then I fell on a stumbling block. The Trinity – God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost – has been a given of my faith. It is something that my Anglican heritage has “passed over” to me. It is the very definition of “tradition”. So, as I read Migliore’s chapter on “The Triune God” it became increasingly clear to me that I wasn’t following the logic.

I want to get something straight here though. I never have found it difficult to believe that one God can be the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, all at one time. I don’t recite the Nicene-Constantinople creed like a parrot. I recite it because I believe in it and I can believe in it. That said, though, I’ve always left “how God can be one in three” up to the theologians and I’ve never particularly thought more of what the Trinity means other than God is both one and three.

And the wheels fell off my studying a little. For a number of days now it’s as though I had been walking around in fog wrestling with this concept. I posted a little of my confusion to the student forum. The lecturer was kind enough to respond and helped point me gently in the right direction. I decided that I needed to get some historical background on all of this, so I read up McGrath’s excellent summary of historical theology in his introductory textbook (although he acknowledges it as somewhat of a whirlwind tour) and his chapter on the Trinity.
But I still didn’t get it.

So, after reading Migliore’s chapter yet again I threw my hands in the air and decided to study the first reading which I have to do in any case. I found a lot of value in that reading. Migliore takes a more process-centric approach, for want of a better description, to describe the task of theology. He states what it can be, how some have questioned it and how he agrees with some of those questions. He talks about what questions need to be asked and how one can answer them. Yet the reading, by Mark McIntosh, the third chapter “Becoming a Theologian” in his book “Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology” discusses how theology is God Himself talking.

It could be accused of being some sort of “cute” turn around but the words ring true for me. Raising such matters as it being very difficult to actually “get” God-talk (theology) without believing in God, McIntosh shows how our beliefs and our frameworks can affect our theology. He also discusses a method to validate our theology but not in the usual critical sense. Given that we are to believe (if he is to be believed) that “good” theology is actually God talking or having a conversation with us, it is somewhat difficult to prove what the subject is saying – how does one prove that the theologian is not talking to the wrong spirit and such? But one way that one can is by watching the change in the theologian, a method well put in a number of sermons or addresses by John Henry Newman.

How does this lead to where I am taking us now? I had one of those “Ah Hah” moments. Another student had sowed the seed by pointing me to the Epistle to the Philippians which indicates that Jesus had form before he was incarnate. I had somehow remembered that McGrath in another book, “Historical Theology – An Introduction” had said that Augustine of Hippo had described the Holy Ghost as “Love” but also that Augustine had used a very “relational” way of describing the Trinity. And this made Migliore suddenly “click”.

So I can see how the Unitarianism of the Father, or the Redeemer or the Spirit can lead to some particularly un-Christian like results. It suddenly made sense to me when Migliore would discuss the relationship or interaction between the three “Persons” in the Trinity. And finally, a word from McGrath stuck in my mind – “Tri-Unity”. It suddenly dawned on me that, “I still have a lot to learn but now I’m beginning to grasp why this somewhat difficult and complex Trinity concept is actually useful.”

At the end of the study week – I have decided my study week ends on Monday nights – I feel exhausted and exhilarated. Reaching out a little further afield than the prescribed text book and texts (somehow I got a treatise on Tertullian when I wanted a summary of Augustine’s Trinitas), I do feel that I am not alone in this.
It’s been a long journey and I honestly feel God is walking there with me – I wonder if it would be too cheeky to ask him to write my essays?

That’s all for now!


Migliore, D. L. (2004). Faith seeking understanding : an introduction to Christian theology (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.

McGrath, A. E. (2011). Christian theology : an introduction (5th ed.). Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

McIntosh, M. A. (2008). Divine teaching : an introduction to Christian theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.