Communion: a Sign of the Gift

Tonight I went to my church’s candle light service, which is a service that is very meaningful to me. It has now been close to ten years since I remember leaving a candle light service in tears because I was so disenchanted with everything I had grown up believing. How could one man who lived 2,000 years ago be a light to the world? Did that even make sense, and did it really matter? From what I observed (and I admit, I was blinded by immature cynicism), it didn’t seem like it mattered to a host of people sitting next to me in the pews. On this night we light our candles to represent not only the light of the Christ child, but also of the light that he has put into our hearts, and it is on this night that so many Christians leave that service with only a charred candle wick to show for it.

After a nearly making a shipwreck of my faith, Christ had grace on me, and has shown me a thing or two about how his life really is light, and why the radiance of his countenance makes a difference in our lives, and how we are all growing in glory as we partake of the splendor of his image. Ten Candlesyears later, I stand amongst a crowd of people, amidst rows of burning candles, enchanted by the beauty of God’s grace.

How appropriate it is then, that the practice of First Baptist Niceville is to have communion before they begin the candle light service. Just as we share in the light of Christ, we share in the meal that is a symbol of our fellowship with him. If we do not share in this meal, we cannot partake of his light, and as John teaches in his epistle, we do not have fellowship with each other. Table fellowship with our Lord and with each other is the prerequisite for sharing in this glorious light that is symbolized by our candles. Those candles represent the integrity of that fellowship.

Now on to the point that I want to make. It is about communion, and the way we speak about it in Baptist circles. This word “symbol” is a funny word, and I often hear the word “mere” attached to it. No doubt, this attachment is added to stress Communionthat nothing happens to the bread and win. . . er, I mean grape juice. No substances are being transformed here. It is just bread, and it is just grape juice. The mere ingesting of these elements do not confer to the one who eats some special status before God. However, in the act of taking communion there is a transformation that takes place (albeit, it is not a necessary transformation, nor does this transformation take place in the vicinity of the altar). When we take take communion, we remind ourselves of the status that has already been conferred to us, and also remind ourselves of the glory that will be ours when our Lord returns. Communion is a reminder, and it is therefore a means of grace.

Now, if you are a Baptist reader you may feel like I have lured you into something that smells suspiciously sacramental. I must admit, it is sacramental, and I’m not going to hide the fact that I feel strangely sacramental when I take the Lord’s supper. I have no problems calling the communion a means of grace. What I do have a problem with is calling the Lord’s supper a “mere symbol.”

I have thought this term over for some time now and it remains to me to be the most opaque of terms. For I know what a “symbol” is, but I lose its sense of meaning the moment I attach the word “mere” to it. It has to do with my understanding of a symbol. Right now at this very moment, right before your eyes, you are presented with thousands of symbols, and everyone of them represent a reality that is very real. If I type the word “horse,” I type a symbol that represents a very real substance that exist outside my mind and my computer. If you tell someone, “I love you,” then this statement is a symbol, and I feel like it would be very insulting to the person you said it to by saying that that statement was a “mere” symbol.

Is it really? Is the way in which you express love to someone a “mere” symbol? What does that even mean?

Symbols are not mere anythings. They are signs that signify a reality about which we speak of. If I kiss a woman, this is no mere lip service. If it were, then I would have been disingenuous. A kiss may be on one level the brushing of two lips together, maybe the exchange of saliva, but on another level there is a reality to it that makes my stomach flip, my heart beat wildly, and a feeling of joy that overwhelms the senses- a feeling that very few things can surpass. A kiss is the sign of my love- yea, not love itself, but what it represents is very real, and the reality of that love is as much a gift to me as it is to the one I give it to. And this is what grace is: a gift. Grace is a gift that cannot be reduced to a mere symbol. Symbols convey grace, and it is through symbols that we encounter reality. It is through symbols that we are reminded of a reality that reaches out to us- a reality that is itself a gift from God.

Bread and grape juice are gifts. This is why we thank God for them. But what makes the Eucharist so special is that it is a gift stacked upon a gift. It is a gift that represents the most valuable gift of all.

“This is my body, this is my blood.”
This is a gift, and it is through this gift that the crucified_christ_detailgift of bread and juice, through the eyes of faith, are seen to be a reminder of Christ’s life being given to us. In the communion, the elements are a physical means through which we are reacquainted with grace, and when we respond in worship, this grace (not the bread and juice) transforms us.

Communion is a symbol, but there is nothing “mere” about it. It represents something very real, and when the elements are presented to me, I choose to recommit my life to the very foundation that makes that bread and juice meaningful. Through the Communion, I am presented with grace upon grace, and it is a grace that reconnects me to Christ and his Church, as well as a grace that causes me to be a light to a world that Christ came to redeem.

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Divine Impassibility

Here’s my paper that I wrote for Senior Seminar.

Click here to read

A word about theological minutiae:
It has come to my attention that my views stated in this paper boarder on Nestorianism, and I would like to clarify my position. If I had stated that Christ suffered in his human nature, but not his divine nature, this would have been Nestorian, and this is not what I advocate. I state what Cyril of Alexandria said of the Hypostatic Union- that the very Son of God, the Logos incarnate, suffered and died, and that he suffered and died as a man. This means that God’s act of “becoming” flesh was a personal/existential becoming, so that God the Son’s mode of existing was as man, and it was as a man that he suffered and died. Jesus, the Son of God, had two natures, one divine and one human, and that these two natures are united in the person who is Jesus Christ. It is the person, the Logos, the Son of God, truly God, existing truly as a man, that suffered and died for us.

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How Beauty Changed the Beast

One of my favorite movies of all time is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Aside from the fact that it has an incredible musical score and stunning animation, it is one of my favorite stories due to the fact that it captures a very deep and profound truth about reality: It takes beauty to change that which is beastly.

If you recall, the Beast was not always outwardly grotesque. He had been a handsome
prince. However, as the narrator at the beginning of the movie tells us, he was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. One night a haggard and disfigured old woman came to the Prince’s castle in hopes that she could find shelter from the bitter cold. But the Prince was disgusted by the woman’s appearance, and turned her away. The woman then told the Prince not to be deceived by appearances, “for beauty”, the disfigured woman says, “is found within.” After the prince cruelly dismisses her to the cold night, the old woman changed form and appeared as a beautiful enchantress, who transforms the prince into a hideous beast, and places the castle and all who dwell there under a spell.

EnchantressAnd most of us know the rest of the story. A woman named Belle (which in French means “beauty”), wins the affections of the Beast over, they fall in love, and the Beast is transformed. But his outward form is not the only thing that has changed. He’s not merely what he used to be in appearance. No, he is more than what he used to be: his outside appearance is finally proportionate to his inside appearance, and we all know that if it were not for Beauty, he would have never changed.

This post is about beauty, and its captivating, alluring, and (if we let it) transformative power. But, you may ask, how does beauty transform? And further, what is beauty? As much as I would love to explore the great theory of beauty in detail here, I will look at only one facet of the theory in this post, and this facet is called proportion, or harmony.

Reality consists in proportionate relations. Certain colors harmonize with some colors better than others. Certain musical notes sound more harmonious with some than others. Painters oftentimes try to balance the tight rope between unity and diversity. Make a painting too unified and it can be bland; paint a picture with little to no unity and it becomes too busy. Mathematical formulas are harmonious in that they consists in true relations with the way the world is, and therefore are called “elegant.” A story that harmonizes what we know of reality with a metaphor “rings true” and captivates our imagination, filling our senses with awe, and sometimes causing us to say “that is beautiful!”

But there is another type of harmonious relation that I want to focus on in this post, and it is the relations of persons- relationships.

The Enchantress in Beauty and the Beast is right- Beauty is more than appearances. How many times have we met someone who was beautiful in appearance, and yet their immaturity, selfishness, and cruelty, among other vices, repulsed us? Sometimes a person’s physical appearance can be diminished due to their lack of virtue. And this is a truth learned from Beauty and the Beast. Because of the prince’s cruelty, he was already a beast. Or to put it more technically, the prince was not in proper relation to his fellow human beings. the Enchantress made his outward form match his inward nature.

And this is where Beauty steps in.
Beauty graces the halls of the enchanted castle, loving its residents, and its prince, and despite his disfigurement and beast-like cruelty, love wins him over, and his affections are oriented toward Beauty, falling in love with her, and finally being transformed (or should I say “transfigured”) from more than he once was, to what he was meant to be. As Mrs. Pots said “there’s something there that wasn’t there before.”

Beauty transforms the beastly. If beauty consists in harmony, as the great theory proposes (and I believe it is partly correct), then beauty is to be found in harmonious humanBeautybeast2 relationships, and they are only harmonious when they match the way things ought to be.
When people are properly related to others, then beauty results, and it does so because it is truth.

And this why Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful story. It’s beautiful because it tells us something true. It tells us something true about relationships and the way that reality is designed. No, men don’t get turned into beasts, candle stands, and clocks by enchantresses. There is no such a thing as a magical flower. However, G. K Chesterton once wrote “My first and last philosophy, that which I believed in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery… The things I believed most then-the things I believe most now-are the things called fairy tales.” Why did he say this? Because he was not concerned with such contingencies as enchantments. He was concerned with the spirit of fairy land’s law. In fairy land you can magically change a man into a beast, but you cannot magically change cruelty into good, or good into cruelty, for you cannot change truth. “Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne, and we in fairy land submit.”

Beauty is intrinsically tied to truth. In fact, they’re really two sides of the same coin.

And that is why Jesus, on the Christian worldview, is beautiful. When we are not in proper relationship with God, the very author of our being, then we are not properly related to the God who is there- the God who is true and beautiful. Because of sin we are not in a proper relationship with God, and our life is not in harmony- not in proportion to reality. This means that who we are does not match who he is, and this is the epitome of ugly. We have become the beasts.

And this is where Beauty steps in.
Jesus graces our depraved existence, and loves us to the very depths of where depravity leads. He who was beauty itself took on the ugliness of our sin on the cross, and allowed that which would destroy us to bury him in the grave. And it was there in the ugliness of death that he made all things beautiful. It wasn’t that he made the ugly beautiful. No, what beauty did was to reach out in order to redeem that which is ugly, and to transfigure it. Beauty destroyed death. The penalty of sin was death, and through death, beauty conquered sin.

“Crown him the Lord of Life, behold his hands anthe-resurrection-of-christ-1612 (1)d side!
His wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified!”

Our Savior is good, and he is truth. Therefore, he is beautiful. Truth, goodness, and beauty are inseparable because truth, goodness, and beauty find their source in the matter-of-fact existence of a God who is there, and who has acted beautifully in time and space through his Son, Jesus Christ.

His beauty is what transforms us, because it is his beauty that changes our affections toward him in order to change our beastliness into something glorious. Through Jesus, we become properly related to the God of the universe, and thus exemplify a true and harmonious relationship that is beautiful. That is why the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar can say that beauty is “a divine summons to change one’s life.” Beauty transforms us because beauty puts us back into harmony with the God of this universe.

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Reflections on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

Truth, goodness, and beauty.
All eternally exist in the self-giving, and self-existent God, whose life pours out as a gift to the other.

Truth, goodness, and beauty.
Knowable because truth, lovable because good, and delightful because beautiful.

Truth, goodness, and beauty exist because of the existence of the other; the Three Persons within the Godhead; others in unity, self-existent, and self-giving.

Being (God who is ultimate being) exists in relation to truth, goodness, and beauty because  the being of the Godhead itself consists in these relations. Within the life of the Trinity, the persons know themselves, love themselves, and delight in themselves. God is a “community of being,” who exists in relation to himself. Truth, goodness, and beauty cannot not exist.  They are necessary and eternal because God himself is necessary and eternal.

Because of this self-giving relationship, God pours himself out as a gift, creating the other (the universe and all that is within it). He creates the other who is other than himself- the other which owes its existence to, and depends on the existence of the other who made it. All things created are defined by this other- this Tri-Personal God.

Creation is an extension of the self-giving relationship of God. Creation is a gift, a gift that exists necessarily in relation to the one who made it, and therefore exists in relation to truth, goodness, and beauty. Creation partakes in the relations of truth, goodness, and beauty because creation is a reflection of these primordial relations. These relations existed within the Godhead, and now these relations have been poured out as a gift to something other than the Godhead. God created the heavens and the earth “and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Truth- the self-disclosure of reality- being’s way of calling out and saying “I am here,” is an objective relation. If something is true, then it is the way reality really is. God created something other than himself and said “it is real, it exist, and it is good.” It is truth. Not only that, but that it is beautiful. When God said that what he had made was good, he was making an aesthetic judgement. Thus we see that truth, goodness, and beauty are inseparably bound to each other, and are real relations that creation is objectively ordered to. Creation is true, good, and beautiful, because the one who made it is true, good, and beautiful.

Creation is defined by the character and self-giving existence of the one who fashioned it. Existence derives its meaning in relation to God. It could be no other way. Therefore, to sin is to ultimately lose one’s meaning. To sin is to commit and absurdity, and to strive toward absurdity. To sin is to revolt against the other, and to the necessary relations that inhere to reality. To sin is to create what is not God and to call it truth, goodness and beauty. To sin is to redefine reality.

Because we have redefined reality, we have necessarily redefined what truth, goodness, and beauty are. In redefining the truth of reality, we have embraced falsehood, therefore making what was good bad, and ultimately making what was beautiful ugly. We have lost our sense of taste. In redefining reality, we have come to delight in the false, the bad, and the ugly. We have distorted everything that once made us human, and we are ultimately going to lose ourselves unless someone comes and finds us.

To sin is to deny the other his immanency, and to assert one’s autonomy. Only, one can never truly be autonomous. Autonomy cannot exists due to reality’s necessary relations. One can no more deny God’s sovereignty than he can make a square circle. To deny God’s sovereignty is to collapse in on the self. Consequently, to revolt against the other is to lose the other, and therefore to lose truth, goodness, and beauty. With the loss of the other, we lose what inherently made us who we are. For to exists is to be in relation to the other. Salvation consists in being rightly related to the other- to the God who is there.

And now we come to Christ’ paradoxical statement: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Christ, the incarnation of the other, the God-man, gives his life for us, so that we may give our life to him.  As I spelled out above, existence is defined by this self-giving relationship. It can be no other way. Turn back to the one through whom we move and have our very being, or lose that which gave us meaning. That is why Christ is and must be the only way. Life has no other meaning.

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Salvation, Peace, and Joy

I started a study of Luke tonight and came across this verse in Luke chapter one. The story goes that two women, Elizabeth and Mary, have both been told by an angel that they have been favored by God and that both will bear sons. Elizabeth was barren, and Mary was a virgin. Both are very excited of their fortunes. Even better, both have been told that their sons will be the means by which God’s salvation will be brought to Israel. Indeed, Mary’s child, Jesus, will be salvation itself. But this is what caught my eye.

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

While not really related to my passage, there was a thought that crossed my mind.

Salvation, peace, and joy are inextricably linked.

Salvation brings joy, and does so because salvation brings peace. Just read Zechariah’s prophecy (Elizabeth’s husband) at the end of Luke chapter 1.

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

ResurrectionSalvation, peace, and joy. These all go together.
Salvation must always end in joy. Salvation must lead to joy for salvation is peace; peace with God, peace with others, and peace with oneself. Salvation brings peace to all of these areas. Peace results when there is a reconciliation of beings to ultimate being; when we are properly related to being as it should be. Peace is not the mere absence of war; peace is the absence of deformity in God’s good creation. Salvation accomplishes nothing short of all creation being transformed and transfigured- creation redeemed and restored to its original purpose. In fact, more than restored- glorified. That is peace. Read what Isaiah says:

“”For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.” -Isaiah 65:17-25

Salvation brings peace, and peace results in joy, for it is God’s delight to bring peace through salvation. And that is why salvation, peace, and joy go together.

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Art for God’s Sake

“…beauty and truth are connected. The problem with some modern and postmodern art is that it seeks to offer truth at the expense of beauty. It tells the truth only about ugliness and alienation, leaving out the beauty of creation and redemption.

A good deal of Christian art tends to have the opposite problem. It tries to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false- dishonest about tragic implications of our depravity. Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall, or light, cheery melodies that characterize the Christian life as one of undiminished happiness. Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world God sent his Son to save.” -Philip Ryken

Take a look at some of these modern and post-modern paintings.

Guernica

 

Rothko1

The first one is by Pablo Picasso, the second is by Mark Rothko. I would encourage you to look up their life stories, and learn why they painted the way they did. It is very enlightening.

The next two are by Christian artists Thomas Kinkade and Stephen Sawyer.

Kinkade

 

lover of my soul

 

This says it all. I believe Ryken is correct in what he says in the above quote.

I could give many more examples, but it pained me greatly to find examples of sentimental Christian art, and I don’t think I could bear to do it again.

Thankfully, not all modern and post-modern art fits Ryken’s description. Neither does all of Christian art (thank goodness). But what Ryken call us Christians to is a sensitivity to matters of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and an understanding of the inter-relatedness of these three categories in the realm of art.

Check out Philip Ryken’s book “Art for God’s Sake.”
You can buy it here.

It’s only $6, and is only 58 pages.

 

 

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What is Theology?: Part 2

In the first part of this blog series, I attempted to explain what theology is. Theology is the study of God, and theological understanding comes from a relationship with God. Just as when we are in a relationship with someone, we not only experience what they are like, but knowing them leads to knowing things about them. Theology is knowing things about God.adam God

Then in the first part, I attempted to explore the doctrine of special revelation: The unique idea that God himself has actually spoken and has provided us with the means that makes theology even possible. In the Bible, God has given us his self-disclosure, which provides with sufficient knowledge of who he is, and his purposes. The Bible is the primary source for all theology. Without it, we would not even know what God was like.

But there are other sources of theology that I alluded to. So what are these sources? Historically, Christianity has recognized four sources of theology.

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Reason
  4. Religious Experience

Since I’ve already examined the first and primary source, I will now explore the other three sources of Christian Theology.

Tradition
You might be surprised that tradition is a source of theology. For some, tradition is something to be highly skeptical of, or outrightly rejected. But tradition, properly defined, has actually had a positive role in the history of the Christian church. The word tradition comes from the Latin word “to hand over” or “to hand down.” The Apostle Paul actually uses the idea of tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 when talking about the core teachings of the Christian faith. Paul says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” Here, Paul is talking about a body of teaching that he had received and had passed down to the church. It is important to note that the new testament church did not have a “New Testament” yet. What they had heard came down from other people who had been eyewitnesses, and had heard about Jesus. There were no written reports, only the tradition that had been passed down from the Apostles and those who had seen and heard about Jesus. So here, tradition is understood to be the handing down of sound Christian doctrine, thus making tradition a valid source of theology.

The importance of tradition in Christian theology can be seen in an event that took place around 160 A. D. At this time, there were a group of renegade Christians called the Gnostics who began to interpret the Bible in ways that the Christian church had never Irenaeusheard of before. A Christian by the name of Irenaeus (eye-run-ay-us) realized that the Gnostics could interpret Scripture to mean anything they wanted it to mean. But Irenaeus pointed out that the Gnostics were interpreting passages of Scripture to mean something that they had never meant before. So what Irenaeus did was point back to the body of tradition that had been passed down in the history of the Church. The argument went something like this:

“Scripture has been interpreted this way for years, and has been handed down from the Apostles to the present day. No one in the church has ever interpreted these passages to mean such things!”

That which had been handed down to them was handed down from the community of faith, who had ultimately received it from the Apostles (take note that the Apostles lived only some 100 years before Irenaeus). Irenaeus stands as an important figure in Christian history because he took the traditions of those who had gone before him seriously.

As we can see, tradition was a source of theology for Irenaeus because it provided him with a standard by which to measure the claims of the Gnostics. When given a counter-claim, Irenaeus essentially asked a very legitimate question, “why has no one interpreted those passages to mean that before?” While this may not have been the strongest argument, tradition still provided a source of reference in theology. By looking at what had been handed down to him, Irenaeus took seriously the claims of the historical Christian community.

An additional word needs to be said regarding tradition. While tradition should be considered seriously, tradition should ultimately be measured to the bar of scripture. If tradition ever contradicts Scripture, then tradition should be rejected in favor of a more biblical approach. Whenever there is a tradition that does not have clear biblical warrant (that is, if there is a “grey” area), then tradition should not be considered as binding on any believer, but kept individually according to the conscience of that believer.

Reason
So what role does reason play in Christian theology? This has a long and complicated history. Early on in the the history of the Christian church, the Christian faith was being increasingly attacked bPaul athensy the Gnostics and by pagans in the surrounding culture. Christian writers such as Justin Martyr (100-165 A. D.), Tertullian (160-225 A. D.) Athanasius (296-373 A. D.) and many others tried to defend the Christian faith using rational arguments. The assumption that they all had was that Christianity was a reasonable faith, and that faith could be defended using rational arguments, built on evidences and logical inferences. Reason was a friend of faith, not its enemy. At times, faith was seen to be above reason, but this never made faith irrational.

For these early Christian writers, God was a rational being. While his reason is far beyond our understanding, he was nevertheless a rational God. Therefore, their theology was informed by the belief that God’s truth could be tested and tried, and that his revealed word (the Bible) could stand the test of scrutiny.

The interplay between faith and reason is a complex issue, so a detailed illustration will go beyond the scope (and desired length) of this particular blog. But for now, it is sufficient to say that reason aids in the study of theology because it can clarify seemingly absurd doctrines, and deepen our understanding of the Christian faith. Here are a few questions that theologians have asked, questions that have been answered with the help of reason:

What does it mean to say that God is three persons? What exactly is a person?
How can God be three “persons” and yet still be one God? Isn’t this contradictory?
How can Jesus be both God and man?
How can an infinite God even communicate to finite humans? Is this even possible?
If God is all-powerful, can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?

Religious Experience
Here is the aspect of Christian theology that I alluded to in the first part of this blog. It is the one aspect of theology that many of us want to focus a lot of attention on. For Passioncommited Christians, experiencing God in a personal way is deeply important. The deep rooted conviction that Christianity is about a relationship with God, and not a mere system of beliefs about God is one of the reasons many people don’t like the term “theology.” But as we have seen, theology is not a stale academic subject. Theology, properly understood, should arise from having a deeply personal relationship with the God of the universe. Properly speaking, you can have a theology without a true relationship with God, but you can’t have a relationship with God without a theology. Knowing God entails knowing things about God.

But what does it mean to experience God? This may sound fuzzy to some people. The word experience comes from a latin word which means “that which arises out of traveling through life.” In the Christian life, we may go through certain circumstances that impress upon us the feeling that God taught us something through that experience. Other times, Night skywe may feel that we have encountered God in a “ineffable” way; that is, in a way that is hard to describe. There are times when we can be overpowered with the feeling that God is closer in that moment than in other moments. This feeling could happen when one is in awe of nature, or maybe in a worship setting at church. This can happen even when reading the Bible. These feelings can have a powerful impact on us, and can play a powerful role in the development of our theology.

However, religious experience poses a unique challenge to the Christian faith. Sometimes religious experiences can be contradictory in its content. An important question must be asked: how much of our theology is informed by our experiences, and how much of our experiences are informed by our theology?

1) Suppose that a young Christian moves off to college and while there, becomes close friends with people from differing religious backgrounds. All his life, the Christian has been taught that Christianity is the only true religion, and that Jesus is the only way to God. However, his friends are so sincere, and they are good people who live ethical lives. How could they be wrong? Ultimately, he reasons that Jesus’ teachings must be re-interpreted, and he begins to believe that all religions are equally true, and that all lead to the same God.

2) A young man feels attracted to other men, despite the fact that his Christian upbringing has told him that homosexuality is wrong. Because this young man’s desires are so strong, he reasons that God must have made him this way, therefore he believes that God desires that he finds a male companion.

3) An atheist is invited to a huge Christian conference by some friends. During a worship service one night, he feels overwhelmed by the presence of God and becomes aware of his deep need for a savior. Because his feelings are so strong, he ends up committing his life to Jesus Christ.

How do we interpret these situations? Do we let our experiences interpret our theology, or do we let our theology interpret our experiences?

This is a long and difficult subject that cannot be dealt with fully in this blog. But for now, it is most certain that theology and experiences have a two-way exchange. In Christianity, it has been taught that experiences, while providing many questions for theology, must themselves be interpreted though a theological framework.

Oftentimes, Christians draw too much theology from their experiences. I have known many fellow brothers and sisters who have been led into making decisions based upon feeling and not upon faith. Faith is not irrational, contrary to what you may have heard. Faith is a trust that we have in a God who has revealed himself to be trustworthy. If faith is not built upon God’s special revelation, then it is not true faith. Feelings on the other hand can be irrational, and can oftentimes be misleading.

As we have seen, experience is not the only source of theology. According to Christianity, the Bible is the primary source of all theology. All other sources bow the knee to the supremacy of Scripture. If tradition contradicts Scripture, then tradition must be abolished. If reason falsifies biblical claims, then so much the worse for reason. And if a religious experience leads us to understand something differently then what the Bible makes clear, then our experience must be reinterpreted through the lenses of God’s word.

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