What Difference Does Christianity Make in Ethics?

The following is from my Second discussion assignment in Christian Ethics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies. We were asked to determine whether a person can be moral without Christianity; and, further, what difference being a Christian has made in our personal sense of morality.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

My initial reaction to the prompt for this week’s discussion is whether we are speaking of our own Christianity, or Christianity in general? No one can adhere to every tenet of Christianity, nor is every precept or teaching applicable to all situations. Perhaps this is one reason it can be difficult to consistently act in a Christ-like manner in every circumstance. Even though we take on the task of learning systematic theology or divinity, we unfortunately have a default setting that has as much to do with our upbringing as it does biblical principles we learn along the way.

Can a person be moral without Christianity?

The course shell for this session asks whether a person can be moral without believing in Christ. It states, “No matter how you answer that question, the most important thing for this session is to understand that Christianity does have a unique morality (albeit not unified in many cases).” The key question to keep in mind is, “‘What difference does your Christianity make on your morality?’ Think of it like lenses on a pair of eyeglasses…” This aided me in answering the initial question above, noting that (i) a person might be moral without believing in Jesus, but (ii) Christianity itself has a unique and ultimate morality of its own that we are to practice.

The concept of what is “right” is a rather convoluted matter. Douglas Groothuis says, “Even the truth itself must yield to ego,” adding, “…the concept of truth is closely aligned with the idea of God. Both stand over and above the individual and make demands on him or her” (1). I believe morality to be elusive when defined and enforced by man alone. Philosophy provides no real solution—either greatness is exalted at the expense of wretchedness, or wretchedness at the expense of greatness. We cannot understand the duties of humanity without obedience to God and the paramount virtue of humility.

Blaise Pascal says even though it appears that the two orientations could be formed into a perfect system of morals, the two systems of thought (Stoicism and Skepticism) cannot be synthesized by selecting helpful or compatible elements from each system (2). After all, Stoicism promotes certainty and Skepticism promotes doubt. Christian ethics is rooted in revelation—a revealed morality explained in the Bible through the life of Jesus. It is founded upon biblically based norms and ideals. But no one understands, believes, or follows every precept or doctrine of Christianity.

Psychology Today promotes morality as existing in us independently of God. As is typical of a humanist publication, an article by Gad Saad, PhD, asks which God or religion one should use to guide his or her morality (3)? Not surprisingly, the subject matter of the article is homosexuality and marriage partners. It references Anglican and Lutheran denominations as condoning same-sex relationships, and Mormonism and Islam as permitting multiple wives. Of course, this in no wise suggests that “Christian” ethics condones homosexuality or polygamy. Ethics is superior to denomination. In fact, Wayne Grudem says, “The moral argument begins from man’s sense of right and wrong, and of the need for justice to be done, and argues that there must be a God who is the source of right and wrong” (4).

What difference does Christianity make on your morality?

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, the word used by Cicero to translate the Greek êthos. The Latin word refers more properly to the habits and customs of a people, while the Greek one is related to the idea of character. So “morality” addresses character and how we interact with each other in society. I believe Christianity provides the one true and universal system of morality. When I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior at age 13, my rather persistent rebellious nature and questionable morals improved greatly.

When I drifted away from Christ after my father “quit” church cold turkey, I began a slow slide into a morality far worse than I had before my conversion. I began abusing drugs and alcohol, and my morality—my character—changed, matching that of a young man living on the down low, hiding his addiction and illegal behavior. No longer did I feel obliged to follow Christ or emulate Christian morals. I think we all can imagine the lifestyle of an addict as being out of sync with biblical standards. My decision to attend CCU had the welcome effect of convicting me regarding my compromised morality. I am now 3 classes from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies, and my studies have drastically improved my “morality.” In fact, I will be pursuing a Master’s in Divinity at Denver Seminary next spring. My sites are set on evangelism and apologetics, and I will seek a position as an associate or teaching pastor.


(1) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 344.

(2) Blaise Pascal, “Conversation with M. De Saci on Eptictetus and Montainge,” in Thoughts (New York: Collier, 1910), 392.

(3) Gad Saad, “Morality Exists Despite Religion” (Apr 30, 2012), Psychology Today, Accessed Oct. 17, 2020. URL https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/homo-consumericus/201204/morality-exists-despite-religion

(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 143.

Christian Ethics: The “Good Life”

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy

I am now only 9 credits from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies. I have enjoyed sharing with you what I have learned. I started Christian Ethics last week. The following is from my first discussion assignment. In the first class (Classical Methodologies of Ethics) is about Consequences.

Consequences. Every choice we make results in certain consequences, whether good or bad. As a Christian, I am concerned with the results of sin in God’s creation. Hosea said, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain salvation upon you. You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-ar’bel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children” (10:12-14, NRSV).

Four decades of active addiction led to unfortunate results, yet I continued to seek my own pleasure. Ultimately, I chose to get clean, putting God and others before my own needs. This was a hard undertaking, mainly because I was self-centered to the extreme. Today, I say yes to God rather than “secretly” pursuing my agenda. Each time we say yes to Him, He is pleased. The more we step into God’s will for us and say no to sin, the easier it gets. The sinful life is very tempting. Choosing good over evil improves our spiritual formation and serves as an example to others.

Critical thinking (as a Christian disciple) allows for self-evaluation, and typically leads to self-correcting decisions. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” To grasp this tenet is to allow for integrity, humility, sound reason, fairmindedness, and courage (1). These signposts can help us attain “the good life.” Aristotle believed whenever we act we are aiming at some good. I would suggest that this sounds like “the ends justifies the means.” Specifically, while building our lives and our futures, we may rationalize our behavior as a “means” to achieving our goals.

As Christians, we learn about “goodness” from attending church, reading Scripture, and individual (not corporate) prayer. Given the many related terms (e.g., morals, values, principles), our ethics as Christians must be rooted in the good life of Jesus Christ. After all, much of our “source material” relative to ethics involve understanding God’s attributes and choosing to let His character guide our daily living.

I agree with Robin Lovin that some autonomy must be protected. Without free will to evaluate the ethics of a behavior or event, we become mere “automatons” of God. The important subject of this session is to determine what makes something right. As Western thought slowly disintegrated over the last century, the consequence has been moral relativism. Absolute truth has all but been rejected. The ontological sense of truth and morality is systematically ignored for the mantra What’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me.

Lovin provides four primary means for moral reflection: teleology (study of the “ends” or results); deontology (a top/down theory that actions are good or bad as determined by a clear and uniform set of rules); virtue theory (the focus is on determining and living life out of moral character); and contextualism (the belief that ethics reacts to an evolving world). Contextualism allows for the individual’s “context,” which is quite similar to moral relativism. A good life is not synonymous with “the good life.” Living a good life involves an ethically-informed life that seeks justice, virtue, and flourishing within the kingdom of God.

Footnotes

(1) Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 15.

The Connection Between Substance Use Disorder and Mental Illness

From National Institute on Drug Abuse

Many individuals who develop substance use disorders (SUD) are also diagnosed with mental disorders, and vice versa. Multiple national population surveys have found that about half of those who experience a mental illness during their lives will also experience a substance use disorder and vice versa. Although there are fewer studies on comorbidity among youth, research suggests that adolescents with substance use disorders also have high rates of co-occurring mental illness; over 60 percent of adolescents in community-based substance use disorder treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.

Data show high rates of co-morbid substance use disorders and anxiety disorders—which include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Substance use disorders also co-occur at high prevalence with mental disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychotic illness, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Patients with schizophrenia have higher rates of alcohol, tobacco, and drug use disorders than the general population. As Figure 1 shows, the overlap is especially pronounced with serious mental illness (SMI). Serious mental illness among people ages 18 and older is defined at the federal level as having, at any time during the past year, a diagnosable mental, behavior, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and other mental disorders that cause serious impairment. Around 1 in 4 individuals with SMI also have an SUD.

This graph shows the percent of co-occuring substance use disorder and serious mental illness in the past year among people aged 18 or older from 2009 to 2015.

Data from a large nationally representative sample suggested that people with mental, personality, and substance use disorders were at increased risk for non-medical use of prescription opioids. Research indicates that 43 percent of people in SUD treatment for non-medical use of prescription painkillers have a diagnosis or symptoms of mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety.

Source: NIDA. 2020, May 28. Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness on 2020, October 8.

Broken Dreams

I wrote this poem in 2015, during one of the darkest periods of my life. Once again, I had been abusing prescription painkillers, believing that I’d never be free.

The sky opens, rain pours down.
Through streaming tears
I think I see God.
Still, I feel alone, without,
buried deep beneath the
remains of bad decisions.

I am trying, looking
for solutions. No time
for error, no room for emotion.
I grow weary,
unable to overcome
this deep, cold feeling
that I’m on my way out.

Morning comes,
surprised I’m still here.
Oh, how I want to fly; soaring
above failure; somewhere
far over the hills, away from the
stench of my broken dreams
and all this pathetic roadkill.

© 2015 Steven Barto

Lectio Divina and Spiritual Formation

It can be overwhelming to prepare a capstone-like summation of coursework in discussion form at the end of a class. As noted in the course shell, we have been building a plan of action for our personalized “spiritual practice” since the first session. I love the question, “What is your plan for a preferred spiritual future?” Last winter I told my pastor, “I want to grow spiritually in the next six months more than I have grown so far in my Christian life.” This class started at a time close to the end of that six-month period. I believe this is no coincidence.

I related well to the experience of James Bryan Smith described in “The Jogging Monk and the Exegesis of the Heart.” For most of my life, I thought I needed to “understand” something before I could do what it suggested. I was told this was merely a well-camouflaged form of procrastination. Thankfully, this week’s exercise proves otherwise. Our approach to the Word of God must fit the task at hand: epistemology, hermeneutics, exegesis, exposition, word studies. But we cannot take an “investigative” approach when reading Scripture for devotion, instruction, or edification. As the monk in the article told Smith, “You cannot make your­self sleep, but you can cre­ate the con­di­tions that allow sleep to hap­pen. All I want you to do is cre­ate the con­di­tions: Open your Bible, read it slow­ly, lis­ten to it, and reflect on it.” For me, learning this approach is the capstone for my experience in this class. It is exactly what I needed to learn at just the right time.

I chose to read and meditate on a key verse for me: “[F]or God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7, NRSV).

What did it teach you?

No matter the need or the situation, it is God who provides. No longer must I be a “coward,” as I was for most of my life. For it is not my power, but the power God has been instilled in me, that allows me to stand firm in boldness. I also learned that courage comes not only from having a “power source” but from soundness of mind—having understanding and judgment to weather the circumstance. 

What did it say to you?

I have used this verse for inspiration and encouragement for several years. It became a great source of comfort during recovery from active addiction. I took much stock in its promise. God has blessing me with courage and soundness of mind I need to let go of my past and my finite solutions and turn to God for strength and wisdom. It also spoke to me from an apologetic perspective. As I prepare for ministry in evangelism and apologetics, the power and Spirit of God will embolden me to stand against the isms prevalent in today’s post-Christian culture and equip me to make a defense for the hope that is in me that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Were you struck by any­thing?

I was able to see a thread running through Scripture, from Jonah and Joseph through David and Samson; from Matthew and Stephen through Paul and Peter—men who stood steadfast in faith and courage, not doubt and fear. I recognized God’s providence in every situation. I also saw that this verse speaks of the Spirit that God gave us. It is this “spirit” Paul was expressing to Timothy in the first epistle. The first seven verses of 2 Timothy 1 are addressed to a man of God, doing the work of an evangelist—a category that includes all who are called of God to serve, even in the twenty-first century. The same power, love, and soundness of mind available to Paul and Timothy is available to me today.

Did you expe­ri­ence God in your reading?

Yes. I had a strong sense of His presence and inner peace. I was aware that I will stand and serve God no matter what it might cost me. I sensed He knows I am willing to die for my Christian belief; that I would never renounce Him to avoid persecution, torture, or even death. I became emotional, realizing I have truly begun to see that I am crucified with Christ. I could see two “sides” of me, and felt strongly that I am “removed” from my sins as far as the east is from the west.

Concluding Thoughts

I am so happy this class reminded me of the five steps of lectio devina which I learned about in my class on hermeneutics. The process begins with reading a passage slowly and carefully, then opening a dialog with God about what I read. I have always enjoyed meditating on Scripture, but I have a better sense lately of the need for doing so as a daily routine. Contemplation involves focusing on a key thought or word from what I read and waiting on God to quicken it in my spirit. Resting in God’s presence is key to knowing His will. Then, I can “go and do likewise.” I feel honored and blessed to be called to ministry. For years, I thought I was lost to God, never to return. I felt “too damaged.” But God uses the broken. 

Why Can’t God Stop Evil?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

One of the most troublesome questions Christians face when engaging in evangelism or apologetics is the problem of evil. This difficulty relates to two likely causes: lack of sufficient biblical knowledge on the topic; and, a pervasive spirit of empiricism, secularism, and militant atheism in Western civilization today. What is meant by “evil?” In a general sense, evil is the opposite or absence of good. The narrower scope signifies profound wickedness or immorality. Relative to the more specific definition, Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally reprehensible: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct.”

At the heart of Christianity is God’s love and benevolence. Alvin Plantinga writes, “Perhaps the most widely accepted and impressive piece of natural atheology has to do with the so-called problem of evil” (italics mine) (1). Many secular philosophers and atheists believe the existence of evil constitutes a problem for the theist. They think the presence of evil makes belief in God unreasonable or rationally unacceptable. Much ado is made about “natural” evils, such as disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, and hurricanes. In addition, there are evils that result from human cruelty, arrogance, avarice, the savagery of war, and stupidity.

Clearly the world contains a great deal of evil. If God is as benevolent as Christian theists claim, He must be just as appalled as we are at all this evil. But if He is also as powerful as they claim, then presumably He is in a position to do something about it. Why doesn’t God orient the world in a manner that eliminates evil? How could evil be a part of His design for creation and for mankind? Groothuis says, “The presence of evil in the face of a good God has classically been called the problem of evil” (italics added) (2). Epicurus said, “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able.

Jeremey Evans writes, “Christians have generally agreed that evil is not a substance or a thing but instead is a privation of a good thing that God made” (3). Evans presented the proposition that because God created only actual things (of substance), and because evil is not an actual thing (substance), then God did not create evil. Groothuis speaks of the importance of definitively addressing the problem of evil. He says believers must stand firm in the gospel and refuse defeat of their faith based on one problem. God never does evil and is never to be blamed for evil.

Grudem notes the following from Scripture: “Jesus also combines God’s predestination of the crucifixion with moral blame on those who carry it out: ‘For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed’ (Luke 22:22; cf. Matt. 26:24; Mark 14:21)” (italics in the original) (4). This verse is critical for confronting misconceptions from New Atheists regarding the crucifixion: e.g., Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), who espoused that the crucifixion was an unnecessary and barbaric form of human sacrifice: what he called “propitiatory murder” (5).

What is the Free Will Defense?

Plantinga is perhaps the first prominent theological scholar to state that not even God can bring about a good state of affairs without bringing about an evil state of affairs. He calls this the Free Will Defense. Specifically, he says being free with respect to an action must mean a person is free to perform an action and free to refrain from it. It is within his power to choose (6). Emphatically, a world wherein man is significantly free (and freely performs more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world devoid of such freedom.

To create creatures capable of moral good, God must create creatures also capable of moral evil. Moreover, He can’t give such creatures freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from choosing to do evil. Sadly, of course, man has proven himself capable of choosing to do evil as much as to do good. Our first parents made a conscious decision to disobey God’s one and only commandment and eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This choice is highly significant in that it demonstrated man’s choice to look within for morality and purpose rather than heavenward.

The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong cannot be counted against God’s omnipotence nor against his goodness. Plantinga says God cannot be expected to do “literally everything.” Sentient beings with free will, no matter the circumstance, will likely make at least one “bad” decision; one that might have the potential to be egregious. If God, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, created the world—a good world wherein evil was possible and which became actual—then the proper conclusion would not be “God created evil,” but “the world contains evil(7). To say, for example, that I act freely on a given occasion is to say only this: if I had chosen to do otherwise, I would have done otherwise. It is paramount that we have the freedom to choose A (a good deed) or B (an evil deed). Anything less is devoid of the freedom to choose.

Groothuis says we cannot take up the problem of evil in a philosophical vacuum. The Christian faith is multifaceted and cumulative, as we learn from the progressive thread of redemption in Scripture. If so, then the biblical worldview cannot prima facie be refuted by one particular problem. Augustine believed evil is “privation” of the good; it is parasitic on the good, and not a substance in and of itself. Good itself is rooted in God’s eternal character, and cannot exist otherwise.

Groothuis astutely writes, “Since evil is a defection from good and parasitic on an antecedent good… it is impossible that God could defect from the good” (8). C.S. Lewis observed that no one does evil simply because he or she takes it to be evil. The “badness” of an action consists in pursuing [good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. He writes, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness” (9). He provides the example of sadism as a sexual perversion, noting we must first have an idea of normal sexuality before we can talk about it being perverted.

A Final Thought

In light of God’s goodness and sovereignty, it must be noted that evil might be used in accord with God’s infinite wisdom to bring about His desired ends. Groothuis calls this evil’s “secondary status in the universe” (10). Despite the fact that God created all that we see, evil is not a direct “creation” of God. Evil comes about due to human mismanagement of people and of the environment. Consider this: the Fall (while based on human rebellion) opens up possibilities for virtue not otherwise attainable. Evil serves an instrumental purpose in the providence of God. This has been called the Greater Good Defense. In other words, evil is logically necessary to some good; this good outweighs the evil, and there are no alternative goods not involving those evils that would have been better.

Irenaeus called this the soul-making strategy. Origen joined in, saying, “Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by probation. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined. Apart from evil, there would be no crown of victory in store for him who rightly struggled” (11). Augustine noted God’s supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, stating God would not permit the existence of evil among His works if He were not able to bring good even out of evil (12).


Footnotes

(1) Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, 1977), 7.

(2) Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2011), 492.

(3) Jeremey A. Evans, The Problem of Evil (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2013), 1.

(4) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MN: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

(5) Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2007), 208.

(6) Plantinga, Ibid., 30.

(7) Groothuis, Ibid.,503.

(8) Ibid., 620.

(9) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 44.

(10) Groothuis, Ibid., 637.

(11) Origen, quoted in Henry Bettenson, ed., The Early Christian Fathers (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1956), 264.

(12) Augustine, Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. J.F. Shaw (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1961), 11.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Be Still and Know

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

The following is from my class in Spiritual Formation in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies.

Select one of the following tools of worship and practice it: Silence, Walk, Pray, or Write. Post a reflection of what you got out of this experience. Stay focused on the uniqueness, spiritual value, and biblical fidelity of the experience rather than on the deep, remedial, or personal work God may have done through the experience.

Silence. A hard proposition for someone with a type-A racing brain that wants to know everything right now. I am not, however, driven by the notion that the more recent the information I learn, the better informed I am. So, when I choose to “study” and then sit and contemplate, I am not “memorizing” data; rather, I am experiencing a meeting of the mind and the heart. I was told many times in the past that I needed to get God out of my head and into my heart. One of my prior pastors said, “I don’t think you have a heart for God.” I did not take kindly to that suggestion at all.

Amazingly, I understand these comments today. I was reading for the “mind” of it and not the “heart” of it. I was accumulating information. It took about a year of struggling with this issue to see the difference between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus. There is no devotional quality to cramming my brain full of personal, genealogical, historical, and cultural information about Jesus of Nazareth. Christ is central to Christianity. He is, as noted brilliantly by C.S. Lewis, “mere Christianity.” As you can see by my comments, I do a lot of “thinking.” Analyzing and digesting. But this is not divine reading. Moreover, it does not lead to “silence.”

I spent three hours last night worshiping God. It started with watching YouTube videos of Hillsong United, Kari Jobe, Bryan and Katie Torwalt. I began singing along. I was awash with emotions: peace was chief among them, followed by gratitude, joy, contentment, and wonder. I ended up on my living room floor, face down, praying the words of the songs: I am Not Alone. Holy Spirit. Let the Heavens Open. Initially, the silence was in me. My mind simply gave the joystick over to my heart and said nothing. I just sang along and worshiped.

I did not know holiness, or sacrifice, or mercy. These godly attributes were swimming in and through me. God was so close. Jesus was so, personal. I listened to Kari and the band worship Christ for over ten minutes in a live performance, then hit MUTE. I poured out my heart to God. I thanked the Holy Spirit for helping me think about what I think about; to pay attention to my comments, especially about others. I asked Him to continue granting me discernment to be aware of the fleshly desires and evil spirits attempting to attach themselves to me: the spirit of pharmacia; the spirit of lust and pornography; the spirit of pride; the spirit of anger and resentment. My heart was praying. My joy and contentment were unbelievable. My sense of God’s complete forgiveness was crystal, and my usual “default” mode of 90-miles-an-hour changed. I thanked God for the call on my life; for delivering me from 40 years of bondage to addiction to alcohol, to drugs, to pornography—to fleshy living. I told Him, “I am yours.” And vowed to serve Him, acknowledge Him, and glorify Him by how I live, what I say, how I love, how I forgive.

Then, I just lay there, on the floor of my living room, face down, in silence. I focused on my breathing, slowing it, experiencing it. I imagined Jesus breathing, living, eating, sleeping. I imagined Him teaching, healing, gathering disciples. I imagined Him suffering, bleeding, stumbling. I saw Him dutifully walking to Calvary. Afraid, yet not afraid. I saw Him being nailed down, and then hoisted high. I could not move. I dared not speak.

There was nothing to say. No “thank you” would do. No words were necessary. But this is what is needed. This silence. This quintessential contemplation of God’s unconditional love. Edwards writes, “The kind of religion that God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless ‘wouldings’—those weak inclinations that lack convictions—that raise us but a little above indifference ” (1). For me, I cannot be fervent in of heart, praying without ceasing, without looking heavenward for the “vertical orientation” we lost when Adam and Even decided to eat the forbidden fruit and look inward for purpose, origin, the meaning of good and evil. Holy fear and affection were sacrificed that day in the name of pride and self-centeredness. Human will was exercised in a decisive and lasting manner. No longer could man walk with God in the cool of the day, in complete fellowship, listening with the heart and not the ear. Silence was lost. Peace was lost. Life became complicated. Unfair. Troublesome. Hard. Our friends started dying of heroin overdoses. Our parents got sick. Our bodies began to break down from toil. 

We stopped stopping. We stopped being silent. We stopped listening.


(1) Johnathan Edwards, “Engagement of the Heart,” in Devotional Classics (New York: HarperOne, 1990, 2005), 19.

An Autumn Prayer

Trees make a tunnel,
red and orange foliage,
branches arched over roads.

Headlights cut haze,
that crawls across streets
leaves give themselves to wind,

dance and tumble in decay.
This warmth reminds me
of mid-May, when crocuses

reach up like tiny fingers.
I study the sky, the widening
blue canvas pushing out gray.

I want to raise my hands, reach
towards sunlight. Foolish, maybe,
to whisper a prayer to prolong

the warmth, and stretch these days
before winter’s howls and gusts,
when I will wake and clench bed sheets,

the way I squeeze the steering wheel now,
driving through mid-morning fog.

©2018 Brian Fanelli

https://brianfanelli.com/

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Church, Holy Scripture, and Canon

The following lesson is from the fourth week of my course in Hermeneutics in pursuit of my M.A. in Theological Studies at Colorado Christian University.

What is the proper dogmatic relationship between the church and the canon of Holy Scripture? With reference to Webster (2003, 42–67) in particular, respond by addressing what it means for the church to be the “hearing church,” specifically as it relates to the authority of Scripture in the church and the canonization of Scripture.

Webster calls Holy Scripture “an element in the drama of God’s redeeming and communicative self-giving” (1). God’s chief activity as concerning the church is revelation, sanctification, and inspiration. Yet, we must remember to consider God’s triune nature. Who reveals? Is it the Father? Who sanctifies? Is it Jesus Christ? Who inspires? Is it the Holy Spirit?

Theological study can be complicated in any given religion, but Christian theology challenges us to grasp and interact with the Godhead. This can be a confusing proposition. In fact, I do not believe this would be possible without the framework of systematic theology, a universal set of doctrines, the community of believers, and the tools of hermeneutics and exegesis.

A “speaking God” requires a “hearing church.” The church is God’s intended audience and active participant. When considering the community of believers and the Bible, the concept of a “hearing church” becomes clearer. One step further, and we also see the church as “spiritually visible” and “apostolic.” It has been said unless we believe we will not understand. And we cannot hear without our hearts being cleansed (2). These various elements of Christian theology are clues to God’s heart and intensions, but also to His immanence.

Scripture has innate authority in the church. The “creature” of the divine Word is the church body. A link is established between the Doctrine of God’s Word and the Doctrine of Ecclesiology. These two precedents are critical for establishing the authority of God’s Word. They are necessary for the church’s action of canonization. With the church as creature, and Holy Scripture as God’s special revelation, “creature” and “hearing church” are synonymous. Webster tells us Christian theology is properly undertaken by the speaking and hearing church. Fowl identifies the vital element of Scripture, and how it fits God’s nature and place. He is quick to state, “…how and what Christians think about Scripture will influence the ways in which Christians might interpret Scripture theologically” (3).

Revisiting Webster’s idea, revelation is God’s divine presence. Scripture—God’s special revelation—contains God’s theology, which has but one preoccupation: God and everything else in His created universe. Everything that exists is His and nothing exists that is not His. Webster says, “…gospel is not just the ‘theme’ or ‘matter’ of theology as if the gospel were one more topic” (4). Gospel brings theology into existence. Faith before knowledge. Kapic believes “…true theology is inevitably lived theology” (5).

Theology is what Webster calls an irreducibly positive science. He adds, “It is reason directed to an object in a place… the church is assembled by the Word and for the Word” (6). There simply is no theology—at least a dynamic or living theology—without the hearing church.


  • (1) John Webster, Holy Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 42.
  • (2) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 53.
  • (3) Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2009), 1.
  • (4) Webster, Ibid., 123.
  • (5) Kapic, Ibid., 42
  • (6) Ibid., 124.