Thursday, April 12, 2007

Which Theologian Are You?

Apparently I am Karl Barth. Keep in mind however that the first time I did this quiz I was John Calvin (!). I could not live with myself if that were true so I took it again with only slight variations to my very self conscious answers (the questions on these things are woefully loaded of course) I managed to divest myself of my latent Calvinism only to find out I was neo-orthodox. Dang! I really wanted to be John Wesley! Hang on! He's not even on the list. Oh, it's that old chestnut again is it? Wesley was not a real theologian. Right, and Chalres Finney was I suppose?

You scored as Karl Barth. The daddy of 20th Century theology. You perceive liberal theology to be a disaster and so you insist that the revelation of Christ, not human experience, should be the starting point for all theology.

Karl Barth


John Calvin


Jürgen Moltmann


Martin Luther






Friedrich Schleiermacher


Charles Finney


Paul Tillich


Jonathan Edwards


Which theologian are you?
created with

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Reading the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-18)

The empty tomb is a hard thing to explain. When Mary came to the tomb that first Easter morning she could not make any sense out of it. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2) It remains true today that people do not know what to make of the empty tomb. The story is told of a theologian who had an a priori belief that the resurrection did not take place. An a priori belief is a belief that we set out with before we even investigate a matter. It’s a presupposition that will of course affect our conclusion. When pressed by a student, “Well, then what did happen that first Easter Sunday morning?” he could only reply, “I don’t know but I know it wasn’t the resurrection!”

People still fail to read the signs of Easter correctly. Somebody sent me a greeting card last year which depicted two chocolate bunnies, one turns to the other and says, “Happy Easter,” the second one has had both his chocolate ears bitten clear off, and can only reply, “Pardon?” There is a kind of spiritual deafness that afflicts us so that the words “Happy Easter” and the event that Easter celebrates don’t register with us.

A radio announcer a couple of weeks ago asked callers to phone in and tell him the lies their parents had told them when they were children. Things such as “If you eat your crust you’ll get curly hair,” and “if the wind changes while you’re pulling that face it will stay that way forever (a favourite of my grandmother’s). One caller said that his parents told him that the tune that the Mr. Whippy truck played meant, “Sorry, all out of ice cream.” Now, that’s really mean, but an even greater tragedy is that parents still continue to tell lies to their children about the music the church plays at Easter. We sing “Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!” but people are told the resurrection is only a myth, or it’s a story some people listen to every year but it has nothing to do with us.

I heard two radio announcers mocking Palm Sunday last week. They attended the annual Palm Sunday peace march and when telling their Moslem taxi driver where they had been he asked them what Palm Sunday was. They didn’t know what it was except that it had something to do with Jesus riding a donkey. They didn’t want the told the taxi driver to think they were Christians just because they attended a Palm Sunday march. They joked with the taxi driver, “We wouldn’t want you to think we’re Christians just because we attend a Palm Sunday march, just like you wouldn’t want us to think you were a terrorist just because you’re a Muslim!” Now I’m all for the Palm Sunday peace march but it’s sad that many who attend it are not reading its message correctly.

When I bought a potted palm for Palm Sunday from a local nursery I told the young woman in the shop that I wanted it for a Palm Sunday service. She looked at me quizzically and said, “What’s Palm Sunday?” When I explained she said, “I’ve never heard of that. My partner’s religious, but I know nothing about it. He’s Catholic but he only goes to church for midnight Mass once a year at Easter.” When I asked if she had ever gone with him she said she had, and when I asked if she enjoyed the service she simply said, “It was interesting.” How are those young people interpreting the empty tomb? If the result is a once a year church attendance then they are misreading it as surely as Mary did when she go to the tomb and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Even though the empty tomb is a hard thing to explain, attempting to do so can lead to curiosity. Even with Mary’s lack of insight her word of testimony to the other disciples led Peter and John to run to the cave to see for themselves (vv. 3-10). In verse 13, Mary repeats the same words she had used earlier, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” this time to two angels who ask her why she is crying. Then she turned and saw Jesus but she didn’t recognise him. He asked her the same question as the angels, but he added, “Who is it you are looking for?” (v.15) Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” She is still not reading this situation clearly, even when Jesus is standing right in front of her. Only the reality of the risen Christ fully explains the empty tomb.

It was only when Jesus spoke her name, “Mary!” that her eyes were opened and she knew it was the Lord. She replied to his single word exclamation also with a single word – “Rabboni!” an Aramaic word meaning “teacher.” He says “Mary” and she says “Rabboni” and a world is spoken in just those two words.

We are confused by the signs of God’s presence in the world until we hear him speak our name and then our eyes are opened. Jesus is not merely alive because he lives in our memory. We often speak of famous people as being immortal or we say that they will “live forever” because of the contribution they made to the arts and sciences or to society. The famous comedian and Hollywood director Woody Allen was once asked whether he wanted to achieve immortality through his work. He replied, “No. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which is it? Is Jesus alive because there are those who remembered and cherished the fact that once we walked this “vale of tears” or he alive because he has once and forever battered down the gates of death? Gerald O’Collins has said, “In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It is not Christianity at all.”

Mary went from “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!” in v. 2, to her final exclamation in v. 18, “I have seen the Lord!” perhaps today we can take her journey and arrive at the same place. The empty tomb brought us to church again. After all it is Easter and you go to church at Easter right? You had your explanations perhaps about the meaning of the empty tomb or maybe you just figured it was a mystery too deep to explain and had put it in the too hard basket. But this Jesus is speaking your name. Perhaps with Mary, you will call out his name in reply and be able to say, “I have seen the Lord!”

The King of the Hill Goes to Church

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Palms or Passion?

Worship leaders are told that we have the option on this day of celebrating the Liturgy of the Palms that focuses on Jesus’ triumphal entry or a Liturgy of the Passion that focuses on his impending suffering and death. It’s a hard decision to make. Obviously the Liturgy of the Palms is more of a celebration but this seems somehow out of step with the more solemn services of Holy Week.
We don’t want to get to Easter Sunday too soon.

They call the walk from the condemned prisoner’s cell to the place of execution, “The Green Mile.” Jesus is not quite there yet but that time is approaching. All the more wonderful too him, therefore, knowing he had not much time left, must the joyous shouts of praise have been – “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” This is the focus of the Liturgy of the Palms. But the story has within it hints of the Liturgy of the Passion also.

One of the great westerns is the 1952 film High Noon starring Gary Cooper as embattled Marshall Will Kane who one by one loses the support of the townspeople so that he has to face the outlaws alone. They are coming into town on the noon train having sworn to kill the sheriff when they arrive. The film is shot roughly in real time and the director Fred Zinnemann masterfully builds the suspense by returning to two shots – the clock on the wall approaching twelve and the long railroad track stretching off into the distance and which will convey the bad guys into town. Every one has deserted him – his deputies, all the menfolk of the town, even those who boasted early that they could help him face the bad guys even his new bride has left him. One of the great lines in the film is when Kane replies to the question of why he has to go the final showdown he says, “I've got to, that's the whole thing.”

Well Palm Sunday is the last hurrah before people start deserting Jesus and he will have to face his High Noon alone just like Will Kane. Only here the stakes are much higher. Kane was facing his fears to protect his own dignity and self respect and for the protection of a small frontier town. But Jesus was facing his High Noon alone for the salvation of the world. Barclay reminds us that this…"was an act of glorious defiance, and of superlative courage. By this time there was a price on Jesus’ head (John 11:57). It would have been natural that, if He was going into Jerusalem at all, He should have slipped in unseen and hidden Himself in some secret place in the back streets. But he entered in such a way as to focus the whole lime-light upon himself, and to occupy the centre of the stage. It is a breath-taking thing to think of a man with a price upon his head, an outlaw, deliberately riding in to a city in such a way that every eye was fixed upon him. It is impossible to exaggerate the sheer courage of Jesus.” [William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke: Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1953), 249.] This was a well planned dramatic prophetic action in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who sometimes acted out their prophetic messages in dramatic action. Barclay again…"Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the centre of the stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defiance; and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst."

In one sense Jesus is walking into a trap but it isn’t really a trap because he knows what will take place. “No one takes my life,” he says, “I give it.” Jesus started this journey to Jerusalem with a crowd, but he will end it alone, or all but alone, with only his mother and the beloved disciple staying by him.

Do you find when you watch a favourite movie, even though you know the outcome, you feel like you want to influence the players toward a different one? You know Rick is going to say to Ilsa in the final scene of Casablanca that she should get on that plane and leave with her husband. When Bogie says “it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” You know what’s coming; you’ve seen it all before. She’s going to get on that plane just the same as she has done every time you’ve watched the film. But there’s a part of you that wishes she wouldn’t.

In the same way the story of Easter is familiar to us. We know there is an inevitability to it and yet it still draws us in. There may not be real suspense any longer, because we’ve seen the ending, but there is still involvement and dramatic power. But there is one sense in which we can affect the outcome of the story – in our response to it. What if we were to walk with Jesus and share these experiences to some degree with him this week? Yesterday and today we have enjoyed time with friends and family – with the community of believers. This is what Jesus did before entering jeruslanm, he was with his friends at Bethany. We all have our Marys, Marthas and Lazaruses. Today we shout “Hosanna” and wave our Palm branches welcoming the King. What if tomorrow we were to drive out some money changers of our own as Jesus did when he went up to the temple? Perform some act of righteous indignation – sign a petition, write to our local member, challenge some injustice. During this last week Jesus taught several parables including the parable of the talents. On Tuesday we could ask ourselves whether we are utilising the talents we have been given, and whether we are ready to give our account to God. Charles Wesley wrote in 1762 -

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.

Jesus spent Wednesday alone in prayer. What if on Wednesday we set aside some special time to be with God and to think about Jesus’ betrayal, and what ways we continue to betray him in our own lives? The early church fasted every Wednesday and every Friday, and John Wesley adopted this practice also - Wednesday in commemoration of Jesus’ betrayal, and Friday in commemoration of his death.

On Thursday we will have the opportunity to gather with the Lord and remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper in our Maundy Thursday service.

Friday will be a day of mourning, a day of deep agony, when sorrow and love will flow mingled down upon the most perfect brow of the Son of God. Will we be with Mary and John watching with them at the cross or will be trembling in hiding with the other disciples? I’m not asking, “will we be in church?” but something much more important, will we watch with Jesus, standing by him?

On Saturday the tomb will be sealed shut. Will we stand vigil and allow ourselves to let the tragedy of the death of Jesus really sink in?

When Sunday comes, we will be back here as we are each Sunday – but it will be a Sunday with a difference because the story has a twist. From Palms to Passion, and then...what?
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Palm Sunday at Spring Street

This is a photo taken last Sunday by Liselle Gonsalves of our altar table after members of the congregation had laid down their palm branches in honour of Christ the King during Eucharist. Thanks Liselle. There are also some great Eucharistic images, such as the one below, to be found at Rev. Melissa Powell's blog Pensees. Thanks Melissa.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Don't Look Back

Here's Bob Dylan behaving very badly indeed at a press conference. From the cinema verite classic Don't Look Back (1967), D. A. Pennebaker's take on the 1965 tour of England. Spare a thought for the poor bloke trying to do the interview! Megan may wish to differ from Dylan's opinion of himself as a singer, stated about 20 seconds from the close of the interview.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like Thunder On the Mountain, Bob Dylan in Melbourne 1966, The Concert for Bangladesh, The Magic of the Black Disc, and iPod Therefore I Am.

Revisiting Hellenism

One of my Kingsley students has entered the following interesting comment on the Intro to Theology blog.

This week I have been reading ‘The Shaping of Things to Come’ by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, anyone read it? On pages 119-123, the authors present an interesting discussion on the topic of Hebrew and Hellenistic thinking in early Christian doctrines and their impact upon Christendom throughout the History of the Church. I have found the authors comments to be interesting and am keen to hear anyone’s comments in response to what they have to say. In summery, they argue that early Christian doctrine and thinking, including the creeds were largely and inappropriately influenced by Hellenistic thinking; an imbalance which could have been avoided had the early church fathers stuck to a more ‘Hebraic Spirit’ when interpreting scripture and discussing Christian dogma. They also perceive that when discussing Christology, early theologians focused too much on speculative doctrines, topics such as the Trinity, rather than ‘…the very elements that are stressed in scripture; ethics, discipleship, life and mission…[while also there being] no mention at all of Jesus the revolutionary, the subversive, the activist.’ As you have been reading through theology this semester, what do you think? Too much speculative theology, not enough practical? If so, has this had a profound impact of Christendom? In ‘Christian Theology, an Introduction’ on page 276, the ‘History of Dogma’ is introduced in relation to the topic of a suffering God. In this case, recent theologians seem to have altered their theology on this topic due to them having discovered an inappropriate leaning toward Greek Philosophy by earlier Christian theologians. Is there a danger of the same being the case in numerous other topics of Christian theology? I suppose, in view of Church history and theology, such questions have been the very heart of those who have gone before. Thomas Aquinas, an advocate for Greek philosophy, and Tertullian of Carthage, a strong advocate against the merging of theology and philosophy would be examples of this. Maybe I’m asking questions that too big for our little theology class. None the less, I feel it doesn’t hurt to ask and ponder.

Here is my reply: Certainly we need to be careful that we don’t allow our theology to be unduly influenced by philosophy (Hellenistic or otherwise) and the example you gave about the rediscovery by contemporary theologians of a suffering God is an excellent case in point. However the simplistic Hebraism good/Hellenism bad typology can be pushed too far. After all, the New Testament itself was written in Greek and the Old Testament Bible of Jesus and the Apostles was the Greek Septuagint translation, a product of Hellenised Judaism.

According to Cyril C. Richardson, “It was the Greek, rather than the Jew, who became the inheritor of the Christian message - a fact which should give pause to those who unduly exaggerate the importance of Hebrew over Greek thinking.” Christianity both inherited and displaced the older Greek philosophical system. When the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical school in Athens in 529 it was in one sense a sign of the victory of Christian theology over earlier modes of thought, but also a sign that the older views were no longer captivating the human heart and mind. Pelikan reminds us that the closing of the school was “more the act of a coroner than an executioner.”

Yet this “victory” over Greek philosophy was not complete “for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics.” A good example of this is the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation with its reliance on Aristotle’s distinctions between “substance” and “accidence.”

The so-called “Hellenization” of Christianity continues to be viewed as a subversion of genuine Christian teaching. This may be too simplistic but it remains true that in struggling to overcome pagan thought Christian thinkers often accommodated its terms in such a way that a high price was paid. Clement of Alexandria, for example, was heavily influenced by Middle Platonism. Even Tertullian, who asked what Jerusalem had to do with Athens, applied philosophical categories in his very attempt to distance himself from philosophy! The continuing influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology is evidenced in part by the latter’s keen interest on the twin themes of the “absoluteness of God” and the immortality of the soul. Christian theologians typically asserted the Greek concept of the impassibility of God (his inability to experience feelings) as a given without providing much biblical proof for the idea, a concept which, as you have pointed out, has come under increasing attack in more recent theology.

Still, we should not press this “Hellenization” theory too far as if Christianity were not making an entirely new contribution or did not have its own unique voice. Chadwick comments on the paradox of Clement of Alexandria being “Hellenized to the core of his being, yet unreserved in his adhesion to the church.” The Fathers very often modified Greek philosophical ideas in light of Scripture. Indeed, Pelikan has argued that the theology of the creeds may well be seen a result of the “dehellenization” of earlier errors and that the real place to find Hellenism is among the heretics!

It could also be argued that Hellenized Christians were living in a Greek-speaking, Greek-thinking culture, so that Hellenising its message was simpy being missional! They utilized the thought forms of the very air that the church was breathing, in order to speak the truth of the gospel to a watching world. Indeed, it could be argued that if the church had failed effectively to Hellenize its message it would have remained a Jewish sect, exerting little influence on the surrounding world.


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