As I alluded to in a recent blog post, my wife Amy and I recently hosted three ‘theology-themed’ evening services at our local Church, South West London Vineyard. This is the edited text of the talk we prepared together, and I gave, which I reproduce here for anyone who either missed it or is interested. It is quite long (just over 2000 words), but broken into three ‘things’, so I hope it will be helpful for some.
What even is theology/for?
Theology, simply understood, is the study of God. Of course, everything the church does is theological, in that we exist to point people to God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. One of my favourite things about the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels is the curiosity, the excitement, the interest of a whole range of people. Whether its a vast crowd gathering on the shore, a lame man’s friends destroying a roof to be near Him, or a concerned parent desperately trying to bring Jesus back to what turns out to be his daughter’s deathbed, there is an eagerness to see God. And that is in one sense what church is all about – inviting people to come and see Jesus, and then when we are in relationship with him, look beyond ourselves us and see what God is doing and calling us to do.
Everyone has questions about God’s activity, God’s character, God’s word, and perhaps especially about the conduct of God’s people.
We hope that this can be a place to ask questions
With that in mind, we want to gather questions this evening – to hold and to wrestle with. We won’t engage with them all – but recognising them is important. Feel free to text the number on the screen with any questions you have, or write them down and give them to someone who looks like they will pass them on to Amy or I, or someone else who’s been on the stage or the sound desk. We’d love to journey some of these questions with you, whether in the context of the upcoming services, or in a smaller setting.
Let me start with the obvious question, thing 1.
Thing 1 – What is Theology?
Theology is one of these words we hear bandied around. In the Vineyard, we claim to be very de-churched and low key – but even that is a theological description. Because there is no aspect of life, in or outside the church, that God doesn’t have an interest in, everything we do is theological.
First of all, theology is not just believing what the church tells you to believe. One of my intellectual heroes, a guy called John Calvin, said
“is it faith to understand nothing, and merely submit your convictions to the Church?”
When we come to Christ, or consider Christ, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit there is an element of understanding. Whether this is your first time in any church, the first time in years back at this or any church, or if you’ve been around longer than me, I hope you will be willing to consider the invitation of theology – in faith, to move towards understanding Jesus better.
Another John, Piper, describes theology in an image I really like.
“Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
We are are really blessed here to have leaders and servants who dig for us. Whether it is Sophie and Helen getting stuck into GDPR, Charlie praying, Neil marinading himself in the Bible, Kate speaking life, or any of us non-staff people doing anything, we know that following Jesus can be hard. We appreciate the hard work that they do. And we are invited to do digging too. We can rearrange the metaphorical deckchairs in our Christian life, raking the leaves so we are presentable. But diamonds are more valuable than leaves. And you only find these by digging.
Practically speaking, what does this digging look like? There are a myriad of ways to study theology. Pick up the Bible – and maybe get another version to compare and contrast. Pick up a good book – I’ll recommend a few later – and read it with an open mind, but also aware that it won’t be verbatim true. Check out Vineyard Training online, the new Vineyardists podcast or N. T. Wright’s online stuff, or the St Mellitus Godpod series. Come along to the Vineyard UK theological symposium or connect with the Society of Vineyard Scholars. There are loads of ways ‘in’ to theology!
We speak about honouring and loving each other in the church, and in our relationships. But what about honouring God?
Julian of Norwich was a woman who loved Jesus. Interestingly, she was also the first woman to write a book in English, back in 1395. In that book, Revelations of Divine Love, she said this:
“the greatest honour we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love”
Would you like to honour God? Then live gladly. How can we know that we can live gladly? Because of the knowledge of his love. Theology begins and ends with the God who is the object of our worship and our feeble attempts at study.
It is a truism to say that everyone is a theologian. It would be better to ask how you, as a worshipper, a thinker, a dreamer, someone concerned with Justice and the Kingdom of God, can be a good theologian.
Evagrius of Pontus, one of the leaders in the early church, said something that I hope will challenge us all to consider what doing theology and being a theologian actually involves:
“A theologian is one who prays”
We can only pray in faith, we can only meaningfully dig into truth with an attitude of prayer, we can only truly begin to have our eyes opened and our gladness-bringing knowledge increased, from a posture of prayer, the creature standing before the creator, and inviting the Spirit to come into our minds.
Permit me another quote from John Calvin, from the opening of one of his most famous books:
“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves”
Basically, if you want to be wise, get to know God, and get to know ourselves. This is the invitation I want to offer as we do theology together, and as we consider what it means for the Spirit to come into our minds.
Thing 2 – The Mind of Christ
Whilst praying about this evening, and indeed the wider adventure of doing theology as a community gathered around Jesus, the Lord led me to a passage from 1 Corinthians 2:6-16
“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”[b]—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.”
There is so much cool stuff going on there. One thing that surprised me, is that the Holy Spirit, who is God, is doing theology. Did you see that? The Spirit is searching the deep things of God. And we get to be invited into doing that.
But the thing I want to focus on, to invite us all into, is that closing phrase.
But we have the mind of Christ.
We won’t understand these things naturally. But we are invited, as new creations in Christ, to put on a new mind. So when we ‘do’ theology, we are actually seeing the Kingdom come a little more, we are inviting the Holy Spirit into more of our lives, and we are being obedient to Jesus.
The Spirit, who, as I say, seems to be doing theology and imparting wisdom, helps us to understand more and more what we are given in Christ. The Father has freely given us so much – and part of this is this controversial idea that the words we use matter, and that being filled with the Spirit involves making judgements, discerning, observing, seeing truth, and pointing towards Jesus. Some of you might be noting a Trinitarian shape to what I’m saying – and that is deliberate.
Let me put that another way, with help from Julian of Norwich:
“Truth sees God, and wisdom contemplates God, and from these two comes a third, a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love”
In that quote is a beautiful theology of salvation. In Christ, we encounter truth, which helps us to see God. The Spirit helps us to contemplate God – perhaps Julian is echoing the passage _ read, which so powerfully shows us the role of the Holy Spirit in this activity called ‘theology’. Finally and thirdly, as we accept the truth and contemplate the truth, we end up being enamoured with a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love.
That might not be your experience of something called ‘theology’.
It may be that ‘theology’ has stopped you asking questions, been used as a weapon to keep you from all that God has for your, and been a way that you haven’t been allowed to speak and write and think.
And this is why I think we are invited to lay hold of and lean into ‘the mind of Christ’.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. Put simply, to love God (out of which flows love of/for neighbour) involves our whole self, which includes our mind, however big or small, empty or full, tired and excited, that mind may be.
One of my wife’s favourite inspirational teachers, Joyce Meyer, puts this invitation in a really helpful way:
“When we learn to change our way of thinking we can experience the fullness of life found in Christ”
That is the invitation of theology. To consider what it might mean to change our minds, our ways of thinking, our reasons for thinking and believing, in order to have the gladness that Julian speaks of, the faith that Calvin points us towards, the fullness of life that Jesus describes.
And this leads me onto my final thing, thing 3.
Thing 3 – Questions welcome
There’s something in our names. Amy, one way or another, means love. If you’ve encountered Amy, then you’ll know that she is a person full of love. Some names don’t have such a deep meaning, and other names are slightly less simply positive.
My name is Thomas, but I only get called that when I’m in trouble. A key person in the bible who shares that name is one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. Unfortunately, he’s pretty much the most unimpressive one, by most standards. Church history, and probably most people’s recollection therein, records him as ‘Doubting Thomas’. But I think that is good. This follower of Jesus didn’t just take people’s words for it – he went to encounter Jesus. He didn’t go along with the crowd – either the convenient answers of his community of faith, or the accepted orthodoxy of the culture he found himself in. He also had another nickname – ‘Confessing Thomas’, echoing his words to Jesus. After being rightly sceptical that Jesus had come back from the dead, Thomas is encountered with the evidence he’s asked for.
I’ve always found it so encouraging that Jesus didn’t challenge his doubt. Instead, he presented him with himself. Jesus didn’t judge him with questions – but invited him into reality. From this, from a relationship with Jesus that was in touch with reality rather than taking things as read (though that is of course important from time to time), Thomas was able to confess faith in Christ, recognising him. In John 20:28 we read:
“And Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and My God’”
Of course, Jesus also asked a lot of questions. He asked questions in response to questions, asked questions as part of his discipleship of the 12, and asked questions directly of his Father, God.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been told not to ask questions. As a fairly obnoxious child, I was thankfully encouraged to ask questions. This has continued throughout my life – especially whilst studying theology formally, and seeking to connect that study with the realities of life.
Some questions can be answered, sometimes with a bit of hard work.
Other questions can’t be answered, at least not by us.
Everyone has questions about God’s activity, God’s character, God’s word, and perhaps especially about the conduct of God’s people.
I hope that this stream of the evening service can be a place to ask questions.
If you’ve made it to the bottom of this quite long post – well done! The next one engages with questions about the Bible, whilst the third ponders a bigger question, that of evil and suffering.
I recommended a few books – links will take you to reviews.
- Derek Morphew – Breakthrough (A great overview of Kingdom Theology)
- Jen Wilkin – None Like Him (A great ‘gaze’ at God’s magnificence)
- Tim Challies and Josh Byers – Visual Theology (A theology book for people who don’t like books!)