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.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Character of Holy Scripture

The following is from Hermeneutics, my current class at Colorado Christian University, in pursuit of my master’s degree in theological studies.

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

How are the Christian doctrines of revelation and Scripture to be distinguished from one another, and what is the proper nature of their relationship? Additionally, where should discussion of these two distinct but related doctrines (revelation and Scripture, sometimes grouped together under “bibliology”) be located regarding systematic treatments of Christian theology?

I believe the doctrine of Holy Scripture is a type of “revelation” from God, as established by Christian doctrine. Fowl indicates, “…how and what Christians think about Scripture will influence the ways in which Christians might interpret Scripture theologically” (1). Webster believes referring to the Bible as Holy Scripture might provide “…an account of what Holy Scripture is in the saving economy of God’s loving and regenerative self-communication” (2) I would suggest that this is an appropriate determination given Scripture’s function of providing a written revelation of God’s communicable and incommunicable nature; His character regarding anger and wrath, forgiveness, unconditional love; and the manifestation of Jesus Christ, His Son and His ultimate plan of redemption. Not only is Scripture God’s special revelation, it is also a rendering of Jesus as the Word of God.

Naturally, the most profound and accurate depiction of God’s nature is contained in the Holy Scriptures. Augustine correctly stated that the rules for how Christians interpret Scripture are well-enough established throughout church history and can properly be passed on to those who have undertaken the study thereof. These so-called rules allow those who would teach the Holy Scriptures to do so “without pride or jealousy” (3) Because the Holy Scriptures are indeed a “revelation” of the Godhead, it is paramount that the sharing and teaching of them be devoid (to whatever extent possible) of human boastfulness.

According to Grudem, the established doctrines of Christianity include the Doctrine of the Word of God, including the canon of Scripture and its four characteristics (authority, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency) and the Doctrine of God under which we find the how, what, and why of God’s plans and attributes. God’s special revelation (which is distinct from general revelation) refers to His words addressed to specific peoples and nations, the words of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and the many words spoken by Jesus Christ. Webster, on speaking about the authority of Holy Scripture, indicates “…the texts of the Christian canon are normative for the speech, thought, and practice of the church, because these texts mediate God’s self-revelation” (4). Holy Scripture serves the key functions of providing the history of God’s chosen people and the theology of God.

The Christian doctrines of Revelation and Scripture share a unique and necessary relationship, with each referring to the other. The eight essential doctrines of Christianity include Holy Scripture, God, Christology, the Holy Spirit, Man, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology. It is no coincidence that each of these doctrines are found within the Holy Scriptures. It is only by its clarity over the centuries that Scripture has permeated Christian tradition and “…has the capacity to address and transform the human being, and to offer a reliable guide to human action” (5).

Stewart believes there is a difference between Revelation and Divine Inspiration. Revelation is God’s disclosure of Truth—that which we would not otherwise know. For example, consider Peter’s acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ; the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:16). Jesus responded, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (16:17, NRSV). Stewart notes, “Divine inspiration, on the other hand, refers to the recording of God’s truth.” (6). Webster reminds us, “Holy Scripture is not a single or simple entity” (7).  It is a set of texts (66 books) of divine origin and is used by the church in a systematic manner. He believes adding Holy to “Scripture” highlights their origin, function and end in divine self-communication.

I believe the Doctrine of the Word of God (to include Holy Scripture) must be clearly established as related to but separate from God’s Revelation. This is especially important given the distinct difference between God’s special revelation (Holy Scripture) and His general revelation (through creation to all people generally). It seems important, however, that these doctrines should compliment one another in our studies and in our sharing of God’s Holy Scripture. Accordingly, I believe the Doctrine of the Word of God and the Doctrine of Revelation should remain separate “doctrines” as noted in systematic theology.

Addendum

I believe God’s revelation includes Scripture, the words of the Old Testament Prophets and New Testament Apostles, every word spoken by Jesus during His life and ministry here on earth, and words inspired by God that come from pastors, elders, evangelists, teachers, and fellow believers. I also belief God can reveal Himself through any situation or through the words and actions of any person. All Scripture is revelation, but not all revelation is Scripture. God’s general revelation is comprised of His creation. By its splendid uniqueness, revelation showcases God’s “intelligent” design. God’s special revelation refers to His words addressed to specific peoples and nations, the words of the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, and the many words spoken by Jesus Christ. For the most part, His special revelation is covered by Scripture.

Footnotes

(1) Stephen E. Fowl, Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eugene: Cascade, 2009), 1.

(2) John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

(3) Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 2008), 5.

(4) John Webster, “Authority of Scripture” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005),724.

(5) John Yocum, “Clarity of Scripture,” in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Ibid., 727.

(6) Don Stewart, “Is There a Difference Between Revelation and Divine Inspiration?” Blue Letter Bible, July 18, 2018, Web. July 23, 2020. URL https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/stewart_don/faq/bible-authoritative-word/question9-revelation-and-divine-inspiration.cfm

(7) Webster, Holy Scripture, Ibid., 5.

 

Jesus and the Pharisees

The Pharisees were known for standing on the street corner in sack cloth and ashes crying aloud to God so all who pass them by thought of them as righteous and devout.

Old Theology Book Spines

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

THEN SAID JESUS to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries (1) broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men” (Matt. 23:1-7, NRSV).

What is a Pharisee?

Pharisee PointingThe root meaning of the word “Pharisee is related to the Hebrew word perisayya, which means “separated.” They held themselves to be separate from and above priests and clerics. The office of Pharisee flourished during the latter part of the Second Temple period (BC 515-AD 70), and occupied the chair of Moses in the synagogue. Unfortunately, the standard rabbinic traditions have been shaped by polemics.

The Pharisaic movement’s origin is shrouded in mystery. According to Josephus (Ant. 13.288-300), the Pharisees first became a significant force in Jewish affairs during the reign of Hyrcanus I.  Essentially, they were a society of scholars who believed in resurrection, and in following legalistic traditions. But they often enforced regulations  outside the scope of Scripture, preferring instead to apply “the traditions of their fathers.” They believed Mosaic Law and the Torah established authority for the interpretation of Jewish Laws, which they enforced with a heavy hand. They used the Torah to enforce their own theology. The result was a total of 613 commandments, or “rules,” governing every aspect of Jewish life—how to dress properly, dietary laws, practices governing Temple procedures, rules for blood sacrifice, and more. The Pharisees were strongly committed to daily observance of the Law. Further, they believed in spirits and angels, the resurrection, and the Messiah’s coming.

Jesus in the Eyes of the Pharisees

Pharisaic opposition to Jesus is recorded in all four Gospel accounts. In Mark’s eyes, Jesus’ main adversaries in Galilee were the scribes, but, according to Matthew, they were the Pharisees. Luke said, “…the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54). Many  reacted to Jesus with hostility, chiefly the scribes and Pharisees. Luke 20:20 says, “So [the Pharisees] watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.”

John tells us of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees took issue with Jesus telling the man, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” on the Sabbath. Jesus defended his actions to the Pharisees by saying, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). This remark infuriated the Pharisees even more. Jesus had intimated that He was the Son of God! “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” ( John 5:18).

Everywhere Jesus went, Jesus attracted huge crowds pressing in to listen to His every word and watch His every move. He was profoundly popular among the people. They loved Him. The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus insofar; they were far from popular given the heavy burdens they placed on the Jews. Jesus said His burden was light (see Matt. 11:28-30). The only thing the Jews felt from the Pharisees was judgment. Rather than lead the people, they looked only at their sins and faults. The Pharisees also hated Jesus because He exposed their hypocrisy. These church leaders had set a moral standard for the community that they did not necessarily adhere to, especially “to the letter.” These men sat in the highest places in the synagogue,  ornately dressed, expected nothing but honor and admiration.

The Pharisees feared Jesus, but would never admit it in public. Of main concern was the chance that Israel’s worship of Jesus as the Christ would bring the wrath of Yahweh down on their nation once again. They were quite concerned that authority over the Jews would be eliminated. Perhaps these new believers in Christ would ban together and revolt against the church. This would likely cause the Roman Empire to step in, using whatever means to bring the people back in line. Accordingly, the Pharisees plotted to arrest Jesus and remove Him from the community before He stirred up trouble.

The Pharisees in the Eyes of Jesus

Throughout His ministry, Jesus confronted the Pharisees in public, denouncing their hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, and oppressive ways. These “separate” men had been entrusted with the guardianship of the Torah, which was to be applied to everyday life. Instead, the Pharisees used the Torah to control and manipulate the people. Disregarding ethical considerations, and being devoid of mercy, they imposed an intolerable burden of legal observance upon the common people. Legal precepts invented by the Pharisees were proscribed to add excessive and oppressive laws and regulations to enslave the Jews. To this end, the Pharisees were always on alert for violations of even the simplest regulations.

The Woes of the Pharisees is a list of criticisms by Jesus against scribes and Pharisees recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Here is what Jesus said,

“Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you… you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others… you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places… you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it… you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers… you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Matt. 11:39-44, 46, 52).

Luke ends chapter twenty of his gospel with accusing the Pharisees of lying in wait to ensnare Jesus; they looked for statements made by Jesus that contradicted the Mosaic Law. Ironically, Jesus was sent to fulfill the Law, and He referred to Scripture in virtually every lesson He taught during His ministry. Jesus compared the Pharisees to tenants of a vineyard who wanted to kill the owner’s son in order to steal his inheritance (Matthew 21:38). Finally, knowing what the consequences would be, He declared that He was the Son of God. This was too much for the Pharisees to bear. How could this man be the Son of God, a man who broke their Sabbath laws and ate with sinners? To their minds it was inconceivable. “This is blasphemy!”

A shout out to Nicodemus who, although a Pharisee, earnestly sought out Christ during His earthly ministry, ultimately shared with Joseph of Arimathea the responsibility of burying Jesus’s body. (see John 3:1-21).

Jesus indeed had much to say about pretense of virtue by pious people, and how they wrongly condemn others for transgressing rules which they themselves did not follow. The message Jesus brought forth focused on faith in God and humility. He emphatically stated that religious rules and regulations cannot save man from the wages of sin. He taught that “rules” can be set aside to meet human need when necessary (Matt. 12:1-14). In essence, He said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). It has been said that the nearly-endless Jewish rules of conduct were extremely detailed. Rules about the Sabbath “…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many” (Tractate Hagiga: Synopsis of Subjects) (2).

Just after Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil [sic] them” (John 5:17), He added, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Matthew Henry writes, “No sinner partakes of Christ’s justifying righteousness till he repents of his evil deeds” (3). Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us by faith alone in Christ alone, is needed by every one that enters the kingdom of grace and glory.  Regeneration produces a thorough change in a man’s temper and conduct. Righteousness provides us with “right standing,” which wraps us in Christ and prepares us for sanctification and restoration.

Concluding Remarks

The Pharisees failed to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, the very foundation of our salvation. As a result, they could not accept the concept of putting on the righteousness of Jesus. Most Pharisees were likely “religious,” or even devout, in the Judaic beliefs. However, many were “in it” for power, recognition, privilege, and money. Jesus began attacking their hypocrisy at the start of His ministry, telling the Jewish people, “…observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). Given the disconnect between the Pharisees outward appearance and religious works and what was in their hearts, “Pharisee” took on a pejorative meaning that is synonymous with hypocrite.

These men of God were adamant that the spiritual life of the people should be centered in the Torah and the Synagogue. They claimed  authority over the Mosaic Law, and established an aristocracy of learning. Pharisaic influence was  went so far as to say that he who transgressed their words deserved death (Ber. 4a). There are some biblical scholars who believe the Pharisees saw their stronghold over Israel as one of protection; building a fence around the Law. Through this oppression that the foundation was laid for rabbinic law which piled statute upon statute until often the real purpose of the Law was lost.

When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, His authority outweighed any authority wielded by the Pharisees. Initially, the Pharisees assumed that the belief of some of the crowd was due to ignorance. But the attention lavished upon Jesus tended to increase the hatred and jealousy of the church leaders. These emotions were at the root of their plot to kill the Messiah. Remarkably, the Pharisees knew nothing of their role in creating the perfect, spotless Lamb who would be sacrificed to satisfy the debt of mankind.

 

 

 

(1) A small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law.

(2) One of the tractates comprising the Moed, one of six orders of the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions included in the Talmud.

(3) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Matthew Henry, 1997), 865.

 

 

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Creativity, Sub-Creation, Redemption, and Culture

The following summary is from the final week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Can the arts be understood as having any positive place in God’s continuing engagement with nature and history? How do you respond to the suggestion that they might make a “redemptive” contribution?

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

Art can reinforce our engagement with God, His creation, and church history. Religious art is useful for paying homage and for memorializing. Moreover, religious works of art can preserve and it can present. Thousands of works of art have been used over the centuries to depict events and doctrine, and have developed into a rich and long-lasting tradition in Christianity. Jacques Maritian said, art is “…where the maker of works especially becomes an imitator of God, where the virtue of art approaches the nobility of things absolute and self-sufficient, is in that family of arts which by itself alone constitutes a whole spiritual world, namely the fine arts” (1). Thomas Aquinas embraced beauty as a transcendent property of being.

Most of his life C.S. Lewis believed that aesthetic and intellectual endeavors were “very good for [their] own sake… good for the man” (2). Lewis says man has frequently shown an inordinate esteem (obsession, perhaps?) with culture. One benefit of preoccupation with aesthetics is that works of art are a “ready-made” outlet for promoting biblical truths. Certainly, illustrations must present doctrine accurately to serve as appropriate “visual text.” According to Michael Peterson, C.S. Lewis “…largely agreed with Platonic aesthetics in holding that higher truths must be conveyed symbolically in myths as because they cannot be conveyed literally” (3).

Wolterstorff says there is an inherent similarity worth noting between aesthetic and mystical contemplation. This is possible because the artist (like the mystic) turns away from the common everyday and gets caught in a rapture of contemplation (4). Max Weber warned “[when]…art becomes a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values that exist in their own right [then] art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation” (5). Art serves primarily, in this scenario, as salvation from the routine of everyday life. The artist must not achieve status of maker of the gods. Society must never become worshipers of the artist. If we fall into this trap, we tend to supplant the creation of art with the use of art, which often gives it purpose the artist did not intend.

Christoforo Landino was among the first to compare the artist (the creature as creator) to God the Creator. A work of art has no creative properties: it cannot bring into existence that which it depicts. At risk here is “artist as creator” becoming impious. Taken literally, the image of God as Creator can unwittingly become limited in our minds to only being able to create using preexisting space and material. Plato held the mistaken opinion that God was thusly limited, based on The Forms noted in Greek philosophy. We know God creates ex nihilo, i.e., “out of nothing. He created matter and time simultaneously and without limitation. We expect nothing less considering His aseity (i.e., “from self”), sovereignty, and immanence. He is the self-existing Creator of all that exists. There are no other gods (except what might “exist” in man’s mind through erroneous thinking). Everything created was created by God through the Word who became flesh.

We long to capture  God’s truth and beauty through art—painting, sculpture, crafts, drawings, visual arts, and architecture. These aspects of aesthetics are a proper discipline for such expression. We are made in God’s image. Our innate ability and desire to create is part of that image. Christian art holds an intrinsic redemptive quality in that it participates with the Creator to express His redemptive plan. Further, art serves as a means of illustrating God’s ongoing restoration? Religious works of art can contribute to bringing God’s creation back into harmony.

We are reconciled to the Father through the Son.  We have been delivered from darkness and grafted into the Kingdom of God (see Col. 1:13). We move into the light with God. As Matt Chandler puts it, “We stand as part of God’s restoring of all things, and we are brought into the missional witness to God’s restorative gospel, the body of Christ” (6). Chandler adds, “Thinking about gospel reconciliation in concentric circles, we are reconciled first to God in Christ, then to one another in covenant community, and third to what God is doing in the renewal of all creation” (7). Because art has the specific function of “bribing” us to pay attention, ensnaring us to “look, listen, and contemplate,” I believe we are reoriented by religious works of art toward something other than our empirical surroundings. Moreover, we are commanded to tame the world; subdue it, eliminate chaos, bring order and meaning to it, and place our mark on it. One way we can accomplish this is through aesthetics.

How does this relate to art making a redemptive contribution? First, we are to be responsible stewards of God’s creation. Second, we are to showcase what Christ has done to redeem and restore us. Third, we must promote redemption and restoration through our writings, drawings, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, collages, and ceramics. Nearly any artistic medium can be used to communicate our restoration. It is paramount that our illustrations (even our lifestyle) mirror God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, wrath, judgment, peace, sovereignty, and almighty power. Further, we must promulgate the delight, joy, exaltation, rejoicing, and celebration we experience when we walk in the Spirit and are able to enter the presence of God.

As Wolterstorff states, “Our sensory delight can be a threat to one’s obedience to God. It can function as a distraction… worse, it can function as a surrogate God.” For a work of art to have a redemptive or restorative function, I believe it should show “the real real” behind the work (8). Christian art should express the convictions and concerns belonging to the world behind the art in a manner that accounts for the artist’s making the work. To function effectively as a Christian work of art it must adhere to established doctrine. 


(1) Jacques Maritian, “An Essay on Art,” In Art and Scholasticism (London: Sheed and Ward, 1934), 123-39.

(2) C.S. Lewis, in Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories (London: HarperCollins, 1939/2000), 168.

(3) Michael L. Peterson, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 11.

(4) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1980), 49.

(5) Ibid., 49.

(6) Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 143.

(7) Ibid., 144.

(8) Wolterstorff, 88.

 

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and a Theology of Engagement

The following summary is from the fourth week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Given the centrality of art of some sort to most religious traditions, how can shared artistic practices and/or aesthetic experience furnish a worthwhile focal point for meaningful discussion, exchange, and mutual learning between different religious faith traditions?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

I have undertaken extensive collateral studies in Islam as a comparison to Christianity to best understand this second largest and fastest growing monotheistic religion. I also enjoy studying the history of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the Middle East. I hope to publish on these topics in the future. I would love to be well-equipped to lecture or participate in debates on Christianity vs. Islam. The more we understand about our own theology and how others think about God, the better prepared we are to engage in apologetics and evangelism.

Islamic religious art is somewhat different than what we have seen in Christianity. Primarily, the Qur’an forbids depiction of the human form in any work of art, including God/Allah. Some Islamic scholars object to including any “worldly” elements in Islamic art. Islam is “younger” than Judaism and Christianity, with an art history of about 1,400 years. Calligraphy, mosaic, and architecture are its most frequently used art forms. Christian art is nearly antithetical to Islamic art. There is no shyness with Christian artists; they generously provide their interpretation of God, Jesus, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, the Last Supper, and images regarding the Revelation to John on the Isle of Patmos.

I believe it is proper to express the doctrines of Christianity in works of art. Trevor Hart writes, “Where God and humanity finally dwell at-one, in other words, there will be culture as well as nature to be reckoned with and thus a fully human contribution offered from below as well as a decisive and determinative divine initiative from above” (1). The divine initiative is, at least in part, God’s bestowing gifts and ministries on His people, which include a multitude of art forms from paintings to frescos; from poetry to song. These works of art serve to memorialize God’s communication to us, and our understanding of the message. There is a caveat. How can we be sure to engage the arts “accurately” as part of a theological study or discussion about God? Hart is sensitive to this issue: “I am aware that this could easily be the point of departure for an entire systematic theology” (2) (italics mine). Grudem writes, “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question. ‘What does the whole Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic?” (3). This is why it is appropriate to apply hermeneutics to artwork that depicts church history, doctrine, the gospel, or the origin (the theory) of everything (4).

I believe art is an appropriate medium for unpacking the meaning of Scripture and how it applies to people’s lives. It is also an effective form of worship and adoration. I have used poetry and flash fiction to share many of my life’s lessons and how my faith provided a way out. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is rich in detail, including a beautiful ray of sunshine illuminating the Lord’s face. The accuracy of this painting lends a “hermeneutic” value. I prefer da Vinci’s painting over Michelangelo’s for this reason. Works of Christian art such as these are quite moving and can foster wonderful theological discussions. Islamic art can also provide the basis for meaningful dialog. For example, the Mihrab (prayer niche) (c. 1466) is a remarkably intricate mosaic illustration that could prompt unique conversation with a Muslim believer. This discussion could center on what the piece means, but it would also be informative to ask about Islam’s proscription of human figures in works of art. I would consider bringing up a possible correlation between Islam’s prohibition of artwork illustrating Allah with Jehovah’s warning to Moses: “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exo. 33:20, NRSV); also, to Judaism’s fear of using vowels to spell Yahweh in case they “get it wrong,” using “YHWH” instead.

Hart says, “I believe the language of ‘creativity’ and creation is not only appropriate but actually rather important to lay claim to and deploy in theological talk about the arts and other relevant spheres of human action” (5). Viladesau believes religious art, especially the pictorial, can serve as theological texts in themselves (6). Such works of art can be a locus of traditions and embodiment of actual practice. In this manner, Christian artwork fills a correlational text for Christian theology as defined by Paul Tillich. This allows a glimpse of the history of Christian theology, but it can also provide opportunity for reflection on Christian values and ideals.

I love John Ruskin’s remark that great nations tell their “autobiographies” through their deeds, the written word, and in their art. Viladesau believes this is also true of religion. Viladesau explains that “logocentrism” had dominated the study of Christian theology for centuries, which Viladesau identifies as “preoccupation with the verbal and especially the written word” (7). Of course, we must remember that logos is the “Word” of God. In fact, the universe was “painted” by the Word (see Gen. 1:3-18; John 1:1-3). Sadly, as noted by Viladesau, we have entered a more contemporary era (some call it a post-Christian society) where the study of religion is deemed cultural or anthropological in nature (8). Examination of Christian art throughout the history of the church reveals the ideals, attitudes, practices, and emotions of believers in situ.

It is my opinion that religious art provides a unique glimpse into any given religious faith, and, as such, is appropriate for evaluation and for prompting dialog among believers in and between the various religions. It is critical that we always maintain proper hermeneutic valuation in determining the extent to which a work of art presents an accurate portrayal.

Responses from Fellow Classmates

Steven,

To undertake a responsible “hermeneutic” of a piece of art, what fundamental questions might you purpose be asked that might be applied to any artistic work?

Tiffany

My Response to Tiffany

Tiffany,

Thanks for your kind remark and for your follow-up questions. Professor Buchanan has a similar question regarding my suggestion that hermeneutics can be used to interpret works other than written (text, poetry, lyrics). First, I regarded part of our study over the last two weeks to include seeing “visual” art as “text.” This sounded strange to me at first. But after some collateral reading, I came to see this as a possible and worthwhile exercise. A. Vidu writes, “As a theory [hermeneutics] concern[s] itself with establishing principles for correct interpretation. Since the nineteenth century the scope of the discipline expanded beyond the interpretation of texts. Currently, hermeneutics analyzes the process of the creation and understanding of meaningful communication” (9). Subjectivity is such a vital part of interpretation that I believe some method of hermeneutics is indicated in evaluating the biblical accuracy of an illustration, including the reaction a work of art (esp. of a religious nature) triggers. In other words, interpretation is not limited to an author’s (or painter’s) intent. It’s not just about aesthetics; it is important that truth be communicated. If hermeneutics as it applies to the written word has an ontological function, can this investigation apply to an artist’s “artful” interpretation of Scripture?

Biblical hermeneutics is the essential form of hermeneutics as it applies to Christianity. It is concerned with canon and exegesis, for certain. It attempts to address preconception, bias, prejudice, individual personality, history as part of its analysis. The same can be said for how someone interprets paintings in the Sistine Chapel on Creation, the Life of Christ, the Life of Moses, Adam and Eve, and the like. I also believe Tillich’s correlation theology allows room for art and what the character of a spiritual situation or depiction is (see Viladesau, 1989, 154). Viladesau warns of limitations for “art as text and as revelatory word” (157). These limitations include, for example, the medium or materials, whether it is 2D or 3D, the sociological ramifications, era, culture, personal theological worldview, and so on.

I look forward to feedback from you, Prof. Buchanan, and anyone else regarding this interesting element of art as illustrated text, and how hermeneutics may (or may not) aid in accurate analysis of such works of art. Of course (not to muddy the conversation) maybe we’re speaking of a proper “exegetical” analysis of religious artwork instead? I look forward to both of these upcoming courses.

Blessings,

Steven Barto


(1) Trevor Hart, Making Good: Creation, Creativity, and Artistry (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014), 313.
(2) Hart, 313.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 21.
(4) You may recall “The Theory of Everything” was Stephen Hawking’s doctoral thesis.
(5) Hart, 314.
(6) Richard Viladesau, Theology of the Arts (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989), 123.
(7) Viladeeau, 125.
(8) Ibid., 126.
(9) A. Vidu, “Hermeneutics,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 378.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Hermeneutic Function of Music in Religion

The following summary is from the second week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

What does it mean to suggest that music serves a “hermeneutic function” with respect to texts (Viladesau 2000, 48)? Might something similar be argued with respect to images?

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

Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things” (1). Whitehead believes religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness, which might include expression of one’s devotion to God through song. But he added, “Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious” (2). To me, this flies in the face of the need for corporate worship, fellowship, Sunday school and other study groups, and observance of the Lord’s Supper as a congregation. As Whitehead shared, Earth (indeed, the universe) is sustained by creative energy. Whitehead uniquely says, “…actual fact is a fact of aesthetic experience” (3). He adds, “Expression is the one fundamental sacrament” (4). An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

We are to answer the question whether music has any hermeneutic value. In other words, can music mirror God and His Word? Maeve Louise Heaney did a theological-hermeneutical analysis of this question through exploring Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (for cello and piano). As I closed my eyes and listened to this amazing piece of music, I was pulled into contemplation. The cello invited introspection while the piano notes seemed to tick off time—suggesting an “inventory” of behaviors or thoughts. This is a great example of how music can take us to a place of transformation.

Christian music, contemporary or traditional, tends to create in me a sense of spirituality that prepares me for whatever comes next in my day. It especially prepares me for hearing the sermon that follows our worship service. We have a full-time Worship Pastor (Holly) who has an M.A. Our worship segment is quite beautiful. Holly has a way of getting everyone involved in worship, as it should be. I believe Christian music that is based on sound Christian doctrine cannot help but mirror God and instruct or motive us to action. Heaney says, “Music is a powerful symbolic form which I believe can and does enrich human living and mediate the Christian faith experience” (5).

Hermeneutics involves explaining, interpreting, or translating Scripture. Much of the same pitfalls that accompany biblical studies—presupposition, bias, personal taste or conviction, attitudes toward the subject matter, and the like— can befall us during interpretation of music (liturgical or other). This should not invalidate the hermeneutic value of music. Viladesau noted that liturgical music is not simply a parallel experience; it is a metaexperience. It can prepare hearts and minds for the “spoken” message delivered by the pastor. The sermon can be “co-experienced” with worship music. Viladesau says music can lead our minds to the sacred by being the “bearer” of the message; by eliciting appropriate emotional reactions; and by the manifestation of a beauty that transcends the human spirit. Music can also carry doctrinal truth. I agree with Viladesau that music serves a hermeneutical function because it helps us interpret the Word of God, moving it from interlocutory to emotive. Music “…does not merely ‘charm the sense,’ but also ‘captivates the mind’ and ‘strikes the heart’” (6).

Response from Fellow Classmates

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your contribution to this conversation. I agree with Viladesau’s statements, as well, regarding the hermeneutic function of music with respect to text. I would also have to agree with Alfred Whitehead’s position as you quoted. I don’t necessarily agree with your assertions, that Whitehead’s statement regarding religion and solitude “flies in the face of the need for corporate worship”, but please do clarify your point if I’m missing something. I don’t see it as a “either/or” position, but rather a “both/add”. He doesn’t say “only of you are solitary”, he says, “if you are never solitary”. Solitary has it place as does corporate worship, I think Whitehead would agree. It could be easy to get caught up in the emotion of corporate worship, without ever contemplating the meaning of a song. Lord knows I have, even while playing in the church band, or singing in the choir. Both “solitariness” and corporate worship, in my mind have an a distinct, but in same respects separate, roles to play in the development of our faith. Anyway, loved reading your thoughts, now excuse me while I click on the link you shared.

My Response to David

David,

Thanks for your comments regarding my initial discussion post. I looked back at Whitehead’s statement. I initially took issue with his remark concerning the “practice” of religion because it sounded too emphatic in stating that religion is solitariness. He further states if you are never solitary, you are never religious. I want to thank you as I think you helped me see my part in limiting Whitehead’s meaning; in fact, it is possibly me who read the statements too narrowly. I thought he was saying we are only religious (or practicing religion) when we’re “solitary.” I now believe Whitehead meant we are only religious if part of our daily worship is solitary: alone with God. This can even include singing privately unto Him. I also agree with (and really like) your assertion that if our worship is limited to times spent with the community of believers, then we might lack true (solitary) worship. Agreed. The corporate worship experience has (by default) a tendency to stifle personal contact and solitary experience.

Thanks for the challenge. It allowed me to correct my viewpoint before it became “ingrained.”

Blessings,

Steven Barto


(1) Alfred North Whitehead, “Religion in the Making” Lecture 1 notes (March 13, 1926).
(2) Ibid.
(3) Whitehead, “Religion in the Making” Lecture 3 notes.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Maeve Louise Heaney, “Can Music Mirror God? A Theological-Hermeneutical Exploration of Music,” (April 1, 2014. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel5020361
(6) Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 38.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and Spirituality

The following summary is from the first week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Assess the claim that art relates us to realities of a “spiritual” sort. Include in your answer particular reference to John Ruskin’s notion of Theoria (1903).

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

ART SPEAKS TO ME on a level that reaches far deeper than tenets or doctrines. Although such underlying (especially “systematic”) precepts provide a degree of universality to religious practice, my valuation and interpretation of art (for art’s sake) must not be rooted in preconception, bias, “proper” or “theological” interpretation, or value—it’s not theological, but spiritual. Theoria is, after all, contemplative and rational by nature. Here is the fascinating part. In Neoplatonism, theoria (contemplation) is the creative power of the cosmos. This makes me think a painter could present the “unadulterated truth” of a subject, yet the beholder could see a completely different “truth.” Moreover, relative to whose “unadulterated truth?” Ask that question of the wrong person and you will get an earful about absolute truth being a myth. What, therefore, is causing the “creation?” The act of doing art, or the act of interpreting it? (Why does this question sound hauntingly like the proverbial “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

It seems Ruskin understands how psychology also plays a role in interpretation of art. Even experimental psychology looks for “visual truth.” That is not to say all art is a therapeutic Rorschach, but how one views an object of art says something about the beholder that can be distinct from the intention of the artist. Does not theoretic faculty involve analyzing the “value and meaning” of mental impressions? Further, Ruskin does not believe imagination can be taught or explained. And even if in arguendo such skills could be taught, I would think the paradigm of the teacher and/or the technique being used to teach could (to a certain degree) impact or “mentor” the student regarding what is imagination and how to practice it. Moreover, interpretation can be impacted by one’s community of believers through suggesting (from a group think or group feel perspective) what one sees or should see. I think this communal context often causes geniuses and the gifted to fear misunderstanding, ridicule, or rejection, which can ultimately stifle expression. This begs the question Can something created but never publicly shared be called art?

I feel more confident now than at the beginning of this exercise to state that art must have a spiritual component. Creativity is gifted to us by the Creator. We are commanded to be creative; to procreate, use, subdue, name, categorize, and build upon what is. In this manner, creation (or if you prefer, art) is not “just art.” It is not only mechanical action. To a degree, art is “functional.” It is the “creative” use of that which is in order to make something which is not. This is precisely how God “created” Creation. He had a concept, intention, or desire (indeed, the “will” to make something) and He “expressed it” by essentially painting with His words! To me, this same process (albeit to a much lesser or universally dramatic degree) is utilized by artists (i.e., other “creators”) to express their vision in a manner that is an honest and accurate expression of what they were thinking or feeling. Creating a painting on canvas does not have the same “function” as a 1957 Corvette Stingray, but both are (at least to some) works of art. Of course, I cannot drive the painting to work!

I look forward to your feedback.

“Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000), 18–19.

Responses from Classmates
From Meredith:

Hi Steven!

When reading through Ruskin, I found it very interesting how he related beauty to morality. You mention the idea of absolute truth, and I am curious if you think there is an absolute truth to what is beautiful–an absolute truth to what should inspire theoria? Ruskin also mentioned that humans can misuse pleasures and the senses, and that the Christian goal is not a hedonistic lifestyle. Do you think that art, when misused, can lead to lust, greed, or idolization that would not align with what Christianity teaches?

My response to Meredith:

The question of “absolute truth” is something I’ve been studying and writing about for over a year. I find it quite fun to compare and contrast the various isms (pluralism, moral relativism, secularism) with the Truth of the gospel. I wet my whistle (so to speak) in an undergraduate class at CCU regarding the history and philosophy of psychology. I’ll begin with deontological ethics. This school of thought is a principles-based system in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values. This differs from moral relativism in that the latter takes its cue (indeed, its definition) from culture or the situation. It is “relative” to the circumstances. Moral relativists believe morals are malleable. As a Christian, I believe moral truth is found in the Scriptures.

One of the greatest influences on my worldview (and my “apologetic” focus) is Ravi Zacharias. Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” It touts the “freedom” of not being held to “someone else’s moral compass.” Ravi says, “Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules” (1). He adds that Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It allows us to respond to any situation in a uniform manner, freeing us from trying to “figure out” right and wrong in an ad hoc manner regarding each given scenario. We live in a society that increasingly does not value truth on the biggest questions of life. I believe man’s fear stifles the truth about what we’re doing here, how we got here, how we should “behave,” and where we’re going when we die. Man bends the truth, stretches the truth, manipulates the truth to fit a particular worldview, culture, time period, or situation.

I do not believe there is a definition of “absolute beauty” as it applies to any give piece of art or to an observer’s response to that work of art. This is kind of tricky, because I do believe in an absolute underlying truth and morality that applies no matter the person or situation. This universal truth actually reveals the character and attributes of God. I see the ministry of Jesus as a pure revelation of truth and of the will of the Father. Given the fact that theoria essentially means “comprehension,” and can be impacted by linguistics and knowledge, it is not a foolproof means for determining the absolute meaning or “truth” behind a work of art. However, theoria is supposed to focus on direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Indeed, this can be implicated in interpreting art that has a philosophical or theological theme. What might muddy the waters a bit is that Neoplatonists not only see theoria as contemplation, they believe it is the creative power of the cosmos. This likely refers to Creation being spoken into existence. God created the universe and all its elements and creatures by “saying” what He wanted and it came to pass. His words were his “paint brush.”

Yes, I do believe art can be misused, but that seems to be limited to misuse of a work of art in a heretical or cult-like situation. It would be virtually impossible for the observer of a work of art to make an ontological determination of the intent or truthfulness of the artist by merely looking at the art. If the artwork seems wildly off base, however, then it seems a conversation with the artist would clarify his or her meaning. However, I don’t know where I stand regarding art as idolatry. I recommend looking at Professor Buchanan’s feedback to my initial discussion post. 

_________________________________________________________________________

(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York: Faith Words, 2019), 28.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Colonialism and Christianity

The following summary is from the last class in Church History in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Early nineteenth century missionaries were important participants in colonial expeditions. Given that many in twenty-first century Western culture decry the era, goals, and abuses of colonialism, we must ask: Did Christianity benefit from an un-Christian impulse (colonialism)? Discuss this by answering the following questions. Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism? Does the fact that colonialism aided Christianity in its spread throughout the entire world bestow ultimate value on the colonial experiences, making colonialism worth it?

It is unfortunately true that abuses and ulterior motives lurk in nearly every corner of human endeavor. I think it is interesting to track and analyze historical, social, and theological developments. The “birth” of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. Most people during the first century saw Christianity as a heretical sect of Judaism and not necessarily a “new” religion. When I consider the progressive thread of redemption throughout the entirety of Scripture, I am able to accept some of the negatives of Christianity developing alongside colonialism.

Were Christian missionaries a positive exception to the abuses of colonialism?

Colonialism is the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. It is reasonable to expect abuses and negative consequences with such activity. Many Christians in academia and the church see globalization as a two-edged sword. Some of the more egregious actions often taken in the name of conquest or expansion include domination of indigenous peoples, the taking of land in the name of expansion, and forceful servitude (slavery). It would be nice if this had not occurred specific to evangelism during global expansion, but it was likely unavoidable. Consequently, it can be difficult to see the “good” impact Christianity had on new populations during the era in question.

Most mission societies were not responsible for the troublesome side effects of colonization. However, as Gonzalez notes, the relationship between colonialism and missions is complex and difficult to gauge. Tradesmen, explorers, and colonizers were often accompanied by missionaries. This interrelationship was both positive and negative. I think it is no coincidence that not all churches or colonizers supported missions. Several key companies objected to spreading the Gospel in conjunction with colonialism and industrialization as they feared it would cause disagreements and protests that could hinder economic growth. The aim of colonization was to exploit the economy of each region, which usually led to making the new colony economically dependent on the colonizers; not to share the gospel or plant new churches.

From a positive perspective, the missionary movement necessitated a spirit of cooperation that seemed to bring churches and denominations together in pursuit of the Great Commission. Gonzalez stated that missionary societies often pulled members from more than one denomination. I agree that this helped curb “competing” messages and rivalries among witnessing missionaries. This was possibly the spark that prompted a more ecumenical movement in Christianity. Missionaries stood up against the caste system in India. Protestantism helped liberate those people deemed “untouchable” and excluded from everyday society. Other missions helped rescue women from sexism and violence and spawned their education. Further, the rapid Westernization of Japan aided the work of Christian missionaries.

Although colonialism brought much abuse and controversy to new regions, does the spread of Christianity outweigh the negative?

Gonzalez tries to draw a line-in-the-sand between colonialism and missions. Missions over the centuries have reached regions not visited by white explorers, traders, or colonizers. Were these “missionary” activities better than those occurring in tandem with expansionism? Is “saving souls” worth it no matter what? Do the ends justify the means? Not an easy question to answer! Many individuals have been brought to Christ during colonization. Over the centuries, Christianity has been labeled elitist, manipulative, arrogant, destructive. Gonzalez describes the so-called “white man’s burden.” Simply stated, it means taking to the rest of the world the benefits of industrialization, capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. I cannot help but think about watching TV documentaries on countries devastated by war and extremism (such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq), or underdeveloped nations showing conditions that no one should want to endure. It’s easy to ask (from my comfortable recliner in modern America) why anyone would enjoy living in such conditions? Actually, this underlying question (nay, concern) is one of the driving forces of many efforts over the centuries to industrialize or “modernize” underdeveloped nations.

Gonzalez said modernity has produced the dislocation of vast masses who became landless, suffering the destruction of cultural patterns that had sustained them for generations. Expansionism has been blamed for growing disparities in living conditions between rich and poor throughout the world (1). Indigenous populations frequently suffered a loss of culture as colonizers tried to impose their way of life on their new “subjects.” White colonizers often considered these native peoples to be savage and lacking in culture. No doubt they felt justified in attempting to bring stability to what they might have considered “barbaric” or primitive populations. This is unfortunately as much a “value judgment” as it is a desire to aid in improving the living conditions.

I think it is necessary to separate the sociocultural impact of colonization from the religious impact of missions. Certainly, most Christian missionaries who bring the gospel to remote parts of the globe have a singleness of purpose: to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in accordance with the command in Matthew 28:18-20. To achieve this, missionaries have translated and distributed the Bible in many languages. Countless indigenous peoples have learned to read through the work of missions. Treaties often included clauses that made allowances for the work of Christian missions. Following the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, the presence of tens of thousands of Protestant missionaries throughout the provinces (many in positions of authority in the church) helped quash further rebellion. Corrupt governments and rampant exploitations met staunch Christian opposition.

I would conclude that colonization was not specific to evangelism. Moreover, globalization was not always undertaken with pure motives. It seems the lion’s share of colonizers intended to benefit from expansion, industrialization, increased labor forces, additional sources of raw materials and minerals, agriculture, hunting and trapping, and eventual resale of real estate for profit. Of those colonizers, some intended to bring indigenous peoples out of their primitive state of existence. A smaller percentage, although their prime objective was economical, were practicing Christians who brought the gospel with them. I see no reason to pitch the baby out with the bathwater. At the least, many seeds of faith were planted. Of course, I believe most missionaries were primarily motivated by the Great Commission. Thankfully, all things tend to work for good for those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). To this end, I believe the pros of colonialism outweigh the cons relative to spreading the gospel.

Response from Classmates

Thanks for sharing a great post. I deduced that you feel that it was “worth it” in the end. Although I must admit that I wrestled A LOT with my answer this week, I ended up concluding that the abuses of colonialism were not “worth it,” as I don’t think that God would place inherent worth/value on sin and evil. However, I do agree that He can bring good out of all things.

You and I have both shared painful experiences from our own past throughout the coursework. As I was writing this prompt, I couldn’t help but think about how it could relate to my life, or anyone who has experienced some form of abuse. I honestly felt as though the pain that I endured was “worth it” because it led me to Christ, and my salvation is the greatest gift I could receive in this life. I also realized that Christ’s abuses were deemed “worth it” for our salvation—His sufferings in the world and horrible death on the cross gave us a shot at eternity. This is where I struggled!

However, there was a difference with colonization—the individuals who were abused during colonization were not Jesus, but rather His sheep. That is where I decided that the abuses of some to lead to the salvation of others was not “worth it.” God does not delight in sin, and calls us to spread the Gospel, not evil. One of our classmates mentioned that they don’t think that Christians should ally themselves with the “lesser evil,” but rather should uphold to what is true according to the Word. Do you think it could be dangerous to justify a lesser evil in the name of a greater good?

Meredith

My Response to Meredith

Thanks for your response to my initial discussion post. Let me begin by (re)stating the definition of colonialism: the total control or governing influence of one nation over people in another nation or territory. I do so in order to draw a definite line in the sand between colonizers and missionaries. I would further state that those colonizers who were Christians and yet chose to cajole, cheat, manipulate, dominate, or otherwise force themselves and their beliefs on indigenous people merely to profit from associated gains are to blame, and not Christianity itself. Further to this point, I am quoting from Tiffany’s initial discussion post:

It is important to separate out Christianity from Christians, as well as those falsely speaking under the claim of Christianity, in support of this assertion. It is not that Christianity was tarnished, but that the reputation of Christianity blemished. Christianity suffers in the way Christ suffered—in that Christianity is birthed in, sustained by, and brought to culmination in Christ. He is the identity of Christianity (italics in the original).

I would argue that one of the positives of colonization was missionaries often accompanied the colonizers, making it possible for missions to have the means and companionship to travel where they might otherwise be unable to get to. Admittedly, there were more explorers and tradesmen who were motivated by expansion, wealth, and increased territory than there were Christians solely dedicated to sharing the gospel. I can tell you’re on the fence regarding the “worth it” question. You are closer to saying yes than you think. You referenced Romans 8:28: God will always use whatever circumstance or individual He requires to bring about His will.

Grudem (1994) provides insight regarding God’s will as it relates to (i) His absolute moral will, and (ii) His providential will. God’s moral will is revealed in Scripture. We know His character, His affection, His desire for us. We know how He wishes us to behave. He has provided certain “moral commands.” God also has providential (or “secret”) will (1). God is able to permit us to do something that might displease Him in the short run but which brings about His intended results in the long run. This is the very essence of Romans 8:28.

Speaking of our pasts, as I struggled a year and a half ago to stop abusing pain medication and to “forgive” myself of my past and see it as an asset for helping others (rather than a liability), I met a gentleman from Brooklyn who had spent 17 years in active addiction living on the streets. He became a born-again Christian and quit abusing crack. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” That got my attention for sure. He continued: “He wants you to know that everything you’ve been through from the moment of your birth to this moment right now meeting me was ordained by Him in order to assure you became the man He needs you to be to carry out your ministry.” Whoa!

The concept of God’s providential will also speaks to His eternal plan whereby He determined (before the foundation of the world) to bring about everything that happens, and to work it together for our and His good. Grudem believes this “decree” type of will is critical because it shows us God doesn’t “make things up as He goes.” Grudem says, “He knows the end from the beginning, and he will accomplish all his good purposes” (2).

You quoted a classmate who declared that Christians should not align themselves with the “lesser evil” just because of a potential good outcome. For me, “aligning” with any evil would suggest being complicit. This is a question of personal motive. We must always remember that God works through human actions (even the horrific ones) in His providential oversight of creation. The individual making the wrong decision for the wrong reason is liable for his or her behavior, but God has absolute providence over the situation. I believe we must always remember that nothing about God, His creation, or us (as His image-bearers) is determined by chance or randomness; nor are they determined by impersonal fate or karma (determinism). God is sovereign over all.

Footnotes

(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 418.

(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 332.

(3) Grudem, 333.

Let’s Go To Theology Class: The Thirty Years War

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) was the last of the European religious wars and one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts. Due to casualties, disease, and all other horrors of war, the population of the Holy Roman Empire dropped by 7.5 million during that period. To appreciate the religious significance of the war, discuss both the beginning and ending of the conflict.

Specifically, answer these questions:

  • What were the contributions to the war effort made by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics (address all three groups)?
  • What were the results of the war for Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics (again, all three groups)?
  • Who would you say won the war?

How it Began

The impetus for the Thirty Years War was the Holy Roman Emperor’s attempts to reestablish Catholic hegemony over Protestant regions. The teaching style of seventeenth and eighteenth theologians began to morph into something that was no longer based entirely on Scripture. Justo L. Gonzalez believes the approach of many church leaders became increasingly rigid, cold, and academic. No doubt this militant and dogmatic style provided a momentum during the period leading up to the Thirty Years War that was nearly impossible to stop. Gonzalez notes, “Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love”(1).

Prior to the War, the Peace of Nuremberg (1532) permitted Protestants to practice their faith but prohibited spreading Protestantism. Gonzalez says, “The Peace of Augsburg, which put an end to religious wars in Germany in the sixteenth century, could not last”(2). This was true in part because freedom of religion was granted only to the rulers. Further, regions ruled by bishops often remained Catholic even if their bishops became Protestant (3).

Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism each vied for dominance in Europe. Rebellion spread quickly. Charles V (for Catholicism) and Frederick the Wise (for Protestantism) saw “[N]o higher interest than the cause of God’s truth as they saw it, and subordinated their political and personal ambitions to that cause” (4) (italics mine). Gonzalez: “[T]he peace achieved at Augsburg was at best an armistice that would hold only as long as each side felt unable to take military action against the other” (5).

The Lutherans

The war began in Bohemia after the Defenestration of Prague. Much had been happening on the fringes regarding Protestantism. Skirmishes did little to settle the matter of “official” religious beliefs in the nation-states. Books on Protestantism began to circulate following invention of the printing press. Martin Luther’s Reformation caused a division among German princes within the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, these rulers began using religion to further their political ambition. Lutherans objected violently when Ferdinand closed one Protestant church and destroyed another. Many historians claim the Thirty Years War cost the lives of nearly half of Germany’s population. No doubt true believers were growing wary of Catholic orthodoxy.

Bohemian Protestants waged was against Ferdinand, but they were defeated. Ferdinand reasserted his control over Bohemia and was also named emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Gonzalez indicates that Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans assumed that a nation-state must have a single religion to which all its subjects must adhere. Not only is this idea a factor in the Thirty Years War, it is an impetus for eventual colonization of America in the name of freedom from this very situation. According to Gonzalez, Philip of Hesse took the duchy of Wurttemberg for himself. The population of the duchy swung toward Protestantism. Gonzalez also reminds us that peace in Europe was only attained by deciding that some states would be Lutheran and some Catholic: This is the application of the concept cuju regis eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”). Lutheranism was born out of Martin Luther’s push for reform in the Roman Catholic Church. A precursor to the War was failure of the Inquistion to quell what Gonzalez calls the “Lutheran contagion.” Luther would not back down, even in the face of official opposition from the papacy.

The Calvinists

According to Tom Richey, “Calvinism, which was not established as a legal religion in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg, spread throughout the Empire despite its prohibition, as Calvinists did not care whether their religion was legal or not. The spread of Calvinism threatened the tranquility of the Empire, as did places like Bohemia, where the ruler’s religion was different from most of the population” (6).

Gonzalez remarks that medieval foundations (the empire, the papacy, and tradition) were weakening. Calvinism, which was not established as a legal religion in the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg, spread throughout the Empire despite being prohibited. Calvinists didn’t care whether their religion was legal or not. As Calvinism continued to spread, it threatened the tranquility of the Empire. Social and political unrest was rapidly becoming the norm. Luther and Calvin were determined to see the church return to the Word of God, thereby reforming Catholicism. Calvin discovered the freedom of justification through the unmerited grace of God, which resulted in his hallmark doctrine of predestination. Gonzalez relates Poland’s distrust and disdain for the Germans, causing Lutheranism there to grow at a snail’s pace. He wrote, “It was when Calvinism made its way into the country that Protestantism began making headway” (7). Anti-Trinitarian heresies took root there. This may well have led to Poland becoming one of the most Catholic nation-states in Europe (see Gonzalez, 160).

The Roman Catholics

The Holy Roman Empire was a fragmented collection of largely independent states. The Reformation caused division between Catholic and Protestant rule. The origins of the conflict and goals of the participants were complex. Initially, the war was fought largely as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. Mary Tudor and other notable nobles were committed to restoring Roman Catholicism in England. She became known as “Bloody Mary” because of her increasingly repressive and violent acts against Protestants. Gonzalez notes England’s official return to obedience to the pope in late 1554—Protestants were now persecuted as a matter of policy.

St. Ignatius of Loyola emerged as the new face of Catholic “reformation.” In 1540, as a response to burgeoning Protestantism, the Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”) came to be quite a force for defeating the Protestants. The papacy put their resources to task. These early Jesuits operated under a quasi-military structure. Also, “[F]or generations the tendency within Roman Catholicism had been toward greater centralization in Rome, after the model of a monarchical government” (8). Protestantism was not similarly organized.

How it Ended

The Peace of Westphalia (comprised of a series of “cease-fire” treaties) recognized sovereign equality—the balance of power and non-intervention in affairs of the nation-states—established a variety of political kingdoms in Europe. Several earlier events caused the War to start slowing down—e.g., the Peace of Prague signed in 1634 ended Saxony’s participation. The Spain’s military fizzled out in 1640. Tom Richey said Westphalia set a “normative” state—a standard applicable to all territories—which fixed the control of churches, the right to public worship, and the so-called “confessional status” of each territory to the state it had been in as of January 1, 1624. Richey wrote, “By establishing a standard applicable to all, it also represented a convenient means of avoiding the conflicts of honour [sic] inherent in early-modern negotiations in which princes were asked to make concessions” (9). The Peace of Westphalia established an order of conditional sovereignty.

Catholic France and Protestant England emerged as the two most powerful European states. The rulers of the European nation-states could now choose their official religions. Catholics and Protestants were now decidedly equal under the law. Also, Calvinism lost its heretical or dogmatic stigma and was given legal recognition. The Thirty Years War came to an end in 1648. Obviously, both sides suffered greatly, seeming to have exhausted their military personnel and armaments. Spain began to collapse during the Thirty Years War, which seems to have continued after the Peace of Westphalia. Catholicism in France faired well as a result of War, but to no true detriment to Protestantism there. This was no small feat, and it involved France conscientiously rising above religious bigotry and hatred. In this regard, although Catholicism did not vanish in France, the Protestants were able to establish a strong religious presence as well. Yet I feel Protestantism won the day. They rose above what could have been total annihilation. Then again, the gospel has progressed over the centuries in exactly the manner God determined.


(1) Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II (New York: HarperOne, 2010), Gonzalez, 174.

(2) 177.

(3) 177.

(4) 173.

(5) 177.

(6) Tom Richey, “The Thirty Years War (AP Euro Lecture Notes),” The Blog @ Tom Richey.net (09/26/2016), URL: https://www.tomrichey.net/blog/the-thirty-years-war-ap-euro-lecture-notes

(7) Gonzalez, 159.

(8) 453.

(9) Tom Richey, “The Thirty Years War (AP Euro Lecture Notes),” The Blog @ Tom Richey.net

Let’s Go to Theology Class: What Difference Does it Make?

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

What difference do heaven, the second coming of Christ, and Hell make to you right this very moment? The emphasis, as it was for Paul in 2 Thessalonians, is on “right now.” Be honest, appropriately personal, and conversant with course sources – including Scripture – in formulating your post.

Reflecting on the above query, I immediately think of the purpose of Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians. Interestingly, Paul had visited this church only a few months prior, only to learn of lingering questions among the new believers. More troublesome, some new Christians were deliberately misleading others. Paul wrote in First Thessalonians, “…remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).

Paul noted also that new converts were initially led by the Holy Spirit, which provided them with the “gospel truth” that should have remained undeniable.  Paul said, “…when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (2:13). Paul heard of the good news from Timothy of the faith and love of these new believers. This made his distress and affliction worth enduring. Paul was most pleased, and he encouraged these new believers to “do just as you are doing” (4:1). Of course, he was speaking here of those who had remained faithful to the gospel.

It is fitting, then, that Paul also informed the new converts in Thessalonica to not pay attention to the murmurings of sudden travail and destruction at the second coming of Christ. He said, “For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness” (5:5). Paul provided some key guidelines for the last days: give thanks in all circumstances; avoid quenching the Holy Spirit; do not denigrate prophesy; abstain from evil; hold fast to that which is good. Moreover, Paul reminded the Thessalonians in his second epistle (as he first told them) the day of the Lord will not come until the unleashing of a great rebellion and the coming of the son of perdition, who will seek to be worshiped; he will take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Paul told them to warn even their greatest enemy of the coming of the son of perdition. Kind of reminds me of the platitude, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

For me, much of what Paul warned the church about in his two letters to the church at Thessalonica is prevalent today. My “right now” has to do with the responsibility of us believers to not merely sit idle and wait for Christ, nor to close our eyes to travail and destruction and hide in our “ivory tower.” Many of today’s challenges to Christianity come from the halls of academia—in our high schools and our universities. Christianity is no longer the predominant religious influence over academia or culture it once was. The proliferation of secularism, scientism, naturalism, and moral relativism (I find most isms to be bad news) has blinded non-believers with a catch-all “just do good and you’ll be fine” vibe for life on earth. Theism (especially Christianity) is attacked as a backward, elitist belief in a fairytale invisible “God.” Atheists and agnostics shout from the rooftops that there is no absolute (ontological) truth. It is difficult today to discuss religion in the public forum as it has been relegated to a private, personal belief that should be kept to one’s self. I consider this the first wave of unbelief.

The second wave relates to an attack on our Christian sons and daughters who enter post-secondary education only to have their beliefs eviscerated. Militant atheism is determined to outlaw all discussion of religion in public, including in our high schools and universities. These “last things” (the eschatology of Christianity) carry an intense importance. Right now, we are facing a tall order: explaining what is meant by heaven, hell, and the second coming of Christ. Government officials and university professors and deans continually tie our hands and tape our mouths shut. Tertullian wrote, “And so we are also ridiculed because we proclaim that God is going to judge the world. Yet even the poets and philosophers place a judgment seat in the underworld.” [1]

Grudem says we should eagerly welcome Christ’s return. Because we long for this wonderous event as believers without knowing when it will occur, many have the tendency to procrastinate relative to sharing the gospel. But modernity has dulled our “spiritual senses” about the final days. It has served to distract us from the paramount importance of Christ’s great commission. Most believers agree on one major fact: Christ is coming back for His bride. Some even possess knowledge about what the final days will be like. Still, many Christians today remain silent. Grudem asks, “Could Christ come back at any time?” [2] Scripture says, “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:42, 44b). We do know first the gospel must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10). Jesus said we’d be hated for His name’s sake; regardless, we are commanded to go forth and preach the gospel no matter the obstacles or personal costs.

I believe the Church must speak unequivocally, honestly, and emphatically about the reality of heaven, hell, and the trials and hardships of the great tribulation during the final days. There are times when I feel overwhelmingly guilty for squandering decades of my life fulfilling the pleasures of the flesh while walking in near-complete apostasy despite what I knew to be true. Through my outrageous behavior while in active addiction, I brought shame to my family and detracted many from becoming a Christian. Today, my “right now” entails studying the doctrines of Christian theology and becoming comfortable with the absolute truth of gospel (indeed, I must present a “living” theology), then stepping into this fallen world and sharing Christ, defending to anyone who asks me what is the hope that is in me concerning Jesus Christ and Him crucified (see 1 Pet. 3:15).

Our eschatology, as Grudem notes, provides a great motive for evangelism. Grudem writes, “In fact, Peter indicates that the delay of the Lord’s return is due to the fact that God ‘is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).” [3] As Christians, we believe hell is a real place, reserved for eternal conscious punishment of those who have refused to repent and believe in Christ Jesus. As noted in the parable of Lazarus and the certain rich man, there are no second chances for believing the gospel; nor can the departed unbeliever warn his family about what is to come for those who reject Christ. There is only the right now.


[1] Tertulian, “On Hell and Heaven,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 534.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1095.

[3]Grudem, 1148.