Fairly often in the discussion of issues surrounding the intersection of science and faith some mention is made of the inherent lopsidedness of the discussion. Theology, it appears to many, has to respond to science, as if it is the younger sibling and the less robust method of knowing. But I think this is a misunderstanding of the process. It is not that theology is the lesser form, but rather that it is more central to human existence. Because theology is so central, and because God interacts in relationship with his creation we must constantly reengage our understanding of the Christian faith, each person and each generation.
In this video interview N. T. Wright reflects on a number of important questions. The first and the last are particularly relevant to many of our discussions. The rest is well worth watching as well.
The first question posed: Why do we need to ask the question “what is the gospel?” Wright’s answer, as is the case with many of his answers, goes well beyond the specific question asked.
(0:16-1:14) One of the funny things about the Christian faith, and indeed about the Bible, is that it seems to be, as it were, designed that every generation has to chew it through afresh. We can none of us live on what was done before, because the culture is always changing, and that has always been so. The language is always changing. The pressure points for people are always changing. And again and again. And this is not just in our generation, every generation has found this, the way that people said things before seem to go stale on you. It is rather like the Israelites with the manna in the wilderness, you just have to go out and get the fresh stuff each day. The good thing about that is that it means that we all have to grow up. There can be no passengers. We’ve all got to think it through and that’s the Pauline business about being transformed by the renewal of our minds. That has to happen. And the only way that happens I think, for most of us, is when we are faced with new situations, which demand that we think through afresh just what is it that we say and what do we mean by it. We’ve got to do that.
We need to ask many questions of which “what is the gospel?” is only one. Who was Adam? What is the purpose of scripture? What does it mean to say with Paul that scripture is God-breathed and able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus? And many, many more.
I have found that these points of conflict and dissonance have driven me to a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Christian faith than a conflict free acceptance ever would have produced. We all have to grow up – and learn to engage with the depth of our faith and our understanding of God and his work in the world. Our culture and situation may cause us to ask different questions, and arrive at somewhat different answers than those who have gone before, but this it the way it has always been.
How does this work out in your situation?
Where are the resources, mentoring, and community to enable Christians to chew through it afresh?
I expect that these will be different in a University community (my situation), a suburban community, a rural community, an inner city church, not to mention in Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and China. But the truth remains – we must all grow up and chew through it afresh in the context of our culture and situation.
How do we “grow up?” The end of the video raises another question: what would your advice be to a young evangelist?
(11:40-13:08) I had an email just early this morning from someone who wanted to take his study of Paul’s theology to the next stage as it were. Someone with a masters degree asking me where it was all going what it should be about. I am afraid I gave him the same old fashioned advice that I give to everybody. You just have to soak yourself in the scripture much more than you’d ever imaging doing, preferably in the original languages. And you have to soak yourself in prayer, and you have to listen hard to the cries of pain that are coming, whether from your next door neighbor, or from people on the other side of the world. Jesus himself and the New Testament itself teach us that the way we get to know who we are and where we are called to be is through scripture, through prayer, through the sacraments. Jesus himself constituting these as the way of life for God’s people, baptism and the Lord’s supper particularly. But then also the cry of the poor, Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that’s where we will actually meet him without even realizing that we are doing so. And it seems to me in each generation there is no formula, there is no hey this is the book you should read and then it will all be alright. Because God wants to do new things, but the people through whom he will do those new things are Bible people, prayer people, sacrament people, and listening to the poor people. And somehow Jesus will come afresh to them and, please God, through them in ways that we can’t at the moment imagine, or predict, let alone control.
Again, Wright’s answer goes far beyond the specific question asked. We will only grow in a healthy manner as we wrestle with the depth of the Christian faith soaked in scripture from beginning to end, in prayer, and ideally as part of a sacramental community that lives out the faith.
There is no replacement for scripture, prayer, and sacrament, or for community.
And it may surprise some, but it is no coincidence that Wright tacks “listening to the poor” onto his list alongside scripture, prayer, and sacrament. This isn’t a dab of liberal theology attached to biblical devotion. There is no way one can be soaked in scripture and not hear the call for compassion toward the poor, the orphan, the widow, the powerless, and the stranger. It isn’t a hidden message, or in secret code. There is no escape clause. Jesus himself summarized the commands found in scripture as love for God and love for neighbor. The theme runs from Exodus through Malachi, in the law, the prophets, and the writings. And it runs through the teachings of the New Testament, from Jesus and from the apostles.
What does it mean to be soaked in scripture? Is this something to which we are called?
What does it mean to be Bible people, prayer people, sacrament people, and listening to the poor people?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.