It’s a sick day at the Ellison home after a rough week walking through the messiness of life with friends so there’s no post this week. But NEXT week you can look forward to a post on the Trinity. Specifically, I’ll talk about how the word “Trinity” isn’t a biblical word but the doctrine does seem to be biblical, how I argued with professors all through Bible college and how I came accept the reality of the Trinity even though it makes NO SENSE to me. I’ll talk about how the Trinity is unique to Christianity and how this doctrine separates us from pseudo-Christians factions (like Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses). I’ll also share my favorite Trinity videos and discuss why the trinity matters to your every day life. I may need to break it into a couple posts because you also need to know what the doctrine of eternal subordination of the Son is and its implications for the roles of men and women in the home and church. So, that’s what you have to look forward to.
Somewhere between 6,000 and 4.5 billion years ago, God created the heavens and the earth. The Bible allows flexibility on the timeline but very clearly makes the point that it was God who created. Before we address the “how ?” or “when?” we’re going to look at the “so what?”
First, God created. The Bible is pretty clear on this point. God is declared the Creator in the very first verse and then consistently referred to as Creator throughout the rest of the Bible. Here are a few examples:
“ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
“ Indeed, ask now concerning the former days which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth…” (Deuteronomy 4:32)
“Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk in it,” (Isaiah 42:5)
“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited),” (Isaiah 45:18)
First, God created everything else that exists; he is unique in his supremacy. Nothing is as worthy of worship as he is. It would be foolish to worship an idol (either a literal statue, or metaphorical idol like relationships, or food, or work, or security, or…) because we would be worshiping a created thing which is inherently less worthy of praise than the Creator (Isaiah 42:8, 45:18ff).
The Creator has the right (and, thankfully the wisdom and love), to lead and guide his creation. It’s our responsibility to submit to his leadership. “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?” (Isaiah 45:9).
When and How?
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care when the world was created. The implications of the theology don’t change if the world was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago or if it was created, at least in part, through a process of theistic evolution that began 4.5 billion years ago. Genesis is not an attempt at a footnoted historical book (as we would write a history today) but an obviously biased theological history. This doesn’t mean the contents are false (I believe they’re true) but it does mean that the author(s) are using various literary genres to communicate what happened through a lens of why it mattered for the purpose of teaching theological truth. And the theological truth of the story of creation is that God existed before anything else and then he created all of the things. This has implications for how we, his creation, relate to him. When I read Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) I think what it’s trying to tell us is that God created, more than how, or when he did it.
Genesis 1 reads like a weird narrative-poetry hybrid. It follows too much of a rhythmic pattern to be narrative but it’s clearly telling a story and doesn’t quite follow normal Hebrew poetry patterns. So it’s dangerous to read it as either strictly narrative or strictly poetry. When we read it strictly as narrative we’re lulled into believing that every bit of it MUST be understood as literal (6-24 hour days). When we read it as strictly poetry we’re tempted to see it as so metaphorical that it may doubt it really happened. I believe creation happened, and that God did it, because the rest of Scripture affirms that it did (see the verses above, for example) and I believe that the narrative-poetry hybrid nature of the story is an indicator that the author wasn’t trying to tell the story of creation literally, even though he was telling it truthfully which means we can look for the big picture of what he was trying to communicate without getting lost in the details (like how long creation took or how old the earth is).
There are other creation stories in the ancient world (see the bonus material for some links to these stories). When we compare how the creation story in Genesis 1 was written to these other stories we see some stark differences that highlight significant theological truths:
- There is only one God. This God is superior to all other things because he created them. In other creation stories there are many gods, often vying for power. In Genesis 1, there is clearly only one supreme God. This would be a significant contrast to a polytheistic worldview that all of Israel’s neighbors had.
- There is a distinction between God and his creation. It did not exist before he spoke it into existence. We are not God, God is not us. He may be “in” all things, in a sense, and he certainly sustains all things, but we are different than God.
- God’s motive for creation was not boredom, or the need for slaves, or anger, or warfare…we don’t exactly know what God’s motive is from Genesis 1, but we know that the result is peaceful, beautiful, and relational. Humans were not an after thought, or created to solve a problem, we were created, from the beginning, as image bearers with inherent dignity and value. In no other creation story do humans have this honor.
- By not naming elements of creation like the sun, which instead is called “the greater light to govern the day” God is reminding us that they are creations not worthy of praise. This stands in contrast to other ancient cultures who had gods that represented or personified elements of creation, like the sun, moon, rivers, etc.
- God created in an intentional, orderly way. He did not create in a reactionary way. He is a the instagator, not the responder. He is in control.
So What? Revisited
So what does this mean to us? It sets us apart as one of the few monotheistic religions in the world. In North America the contrast is not so stark, in other parts of the world it is very significant. We believe in a unique God who is inherently worthy of our worship. There is no other god who is close to equal with him and no other thing should command our worship and attention like he does.
And it means that because God created the world, and because he is loving and wise, we can trust his motives and respect his right to govern the world. We should submit to his hand, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. This does not mean that we don’t ever have boundaries with other people, don’t push back, don’t protest, don’t try to change things, but it does mean that we are sensitive to God’s leading as to when to put up boundaries, push back, protest or try to change things; sometimes we fight, sometimes we resist, sometimes we just accept what he allows in our path.
Specifically, when we get frustrated with the roles that God has for us or our personal limitations, we don’t shake our fists at him in anger and ask him why he has put us here or why he has made us like this. The clay doesn’t really have the right to challenge the Potter. Neither does that mean it will be easy to accept that he has places us in this role or created us with these limitations. There may be a lot to be frustrated about, or even to mourn the loss of what could have been otherwise. But here’s the thing: even if we do shake our fists at him in anger and demand answers, the Potter will be patient with us, he will comfort us, sometimes he might give us insight and sometimes he’ll just remind us that he’s God and we’re not.
There are other ancient creation stories that have similarities to Genesis 1 like the Enuma Elish (a Babylonian creation story) or the creation story of the Greek gods. To make matters worse, there are documents that record these stories that are older than documents that contain the creation story in Genesis. The first time I heard this I freaked out a little bit. I thought that if other cultures had stories that were in anyway similar, and that I could so easily write off as fantasy, than maybe I wasn’t being consistent in my belief of the Genesis creation story. What I’ve come to learn is that even if the Genesis story was written after the others it doesn’t invalidate that God created and that he did through supernatural means. And it may help us to better understand what the author of Genesis was trying to communicate because we can find significance in how the different authors tell their stories.
“We believe in the one living and true God, both holy and loving, eternal, unlimited in power, wisdom and goodness…”
Omni-, as a prefix means, “all-” in Latin. So you can take any word (it’s probably best to use the Latin translation of the word) to make a new word that means all-that-word. For example, you may remember from elementary school that there are animals who are herbivores (eat plants), carnivores (eat meat), and omnivores (eat all the food). Here’s the breakdown: omni (all)+vore (one who eats) = omnivore (one who eats all of it). I am an omnivore. I tried to find the Latin root for ice cream because I would like to be called “one who eats ice cream” but, alas, Latin is a language that died before ice cream.
So when you see omni words, like omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent in theological writing, you know that it means all-something. I’ve listed some of the more common omni words above and I’ll define a few of them below:
- omnipotent: all-powerful
- omniscient: all-knowing
- omnipresent: being all-places
- omnisapient: all-wise
- omnibenevolent: all-good
- omnitemporal: existing in all-time
These omni words are not used in the Bible (the Bible was not written in Latin) but the ideas they represent are. The Wesleyan Church’s Articles of Religion don’t use omni words either but, again, they use the ideas they represent and it’s good for your theological education to know what these words mean and why they matter.
Unlike the rest of the created world, God has always existed. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He existed independently and chose to create everything else. This means he is inherently different than us it also means he intentionally created the world because he wanted us. It also means he always has been and always will be. This world is temporary, our trials are temporary, God is forever. He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega (the A and the Z).
He is bigger than anything we’re facing and has a much longer perspective than we do. I have a six year old. Right now car rides as short as 10 minutes are filled with commentary like, “This is soooo looong!” “Are we there yet?” and I want to help her understand that our trips around town are nothing compared to the cross-country trips my husband and I took in college (or even the 14 hour drive from our house to her grandparents house that she’s taken several times). But she’s six. And she has a limited perspective. So she can’t understand that as bad and boring as it seems right now, it’s just a blip in time and will soon be over.
Unlimited in Power (omnipotent)
God can do anything he wants. I cannot do anything I want. I am bound by time, location, and my inherent capabilities. Things I cannot do include, but are not limited to, being in two places at once, read people’s minds, go back in time, sing on key. God can (literally) move mountains. He can turn the hearts of kings. God can heal those suffering from disease and deliver those in danger. Because we know he can, and believe he might, we should ask him to. We can ask God to do big things because God can make big things happen.
Unlimited in Wisdom (omnisapient)
Wisdom does not mean knowing everything, it means knowing how to best use the information and resources you have. God always knows what the best thing to do is (if there is a best thing). Because God is all-wise and I am not, I ask him for wisdom. I ask for wisdom when parenting my daughter. I ask for wisdom when listening to my husband talk about work. I ask for wisdom when meeting with people who are asking the church for financial assistance. I ask for wisdom when preparing to teach. Even as I write this, I know I should ask for wisdom even more than I do. James 1:5 reminds me, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you,” and who better to get wisdom from than the one who is unlimited in wisdom?
Unlimited in Goodness (omnibenevolent)
If you have lived (or currently live) with someone who is prone to mood swings (like maybe a toddler, a teen age daughter, someone who is bipolar) you understand what it’s like to live with relational instability. You never know how they’ll respond, when they’ll be mad at you, or when everything will be okay. So you understand the value of a God who is consistently good. He will not suddenly dive into darkness, melt down in tears, or burst out in anger. He remains constant, good, and you need not fear unexpected changes in mood or character or walk on egg shells around him. You can walk in peace because his constancy provides stability.
When I surrendered my life to him as a teenager I could do so because I trusted him to be who he said he was, who I’d seen him to be. I knew he was consistently good and that I could trust that he would continue to be good.
I also believe that he is working all things together for my good. I don’t believe that everything that has happened to me or around me is good (or even necessary for God’s goodness or glory) but I believe he can take it and use it for my good eventually. “ And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) I believe he works all things together for my good (and the good of those who love him) because he is good.
Theodicy: A Very Real and Important Problem that I’m not Solving in This Post (sorry)
But sometimes life sucks. Your world gets shattered by death, divorce, cancer, violence, war, betrayal and God does not feel good, or powerful, or wise. There’s a name for trying to figure out how the omnipotent, omniniscient, onmibenevolent God could allow bad things to happen. It’s called “the problem of evil” or “theodicy.” This struggle is real and should not be ignored, discounted, brushed aside or treated with platitudes. When people are wrestling with God because of evil’s impact on their lives we should allow and even encourage them to wrestle. We should join them in the wrestling so they are not alone. We’ll address theodicy eventually…but not in this post. If you want to explore more, just google “problem of evil” or “theodicy” and you’ll get a lot of passionate posts and videos to stretch your brain (you don’t have to agree with all of them).
“We believe in the one living and true God, both holy and loving, eternal, unlimited in power, wisdom and goodness…”
What does this mean to you? How have you experienced God’s omni-ness in your life? Which omni- is easiest for you to relate to? Which omni- might God want you to experience in a new way?
King Of My Heart doesn’t use the language “omnibenevolent” but it carries the idea…
You are good, good, oh…You are good, good, oh…
Omniscient: I noticed the Wesleyan Church doesn’t say “unlimited in knowledge” instead, apparently, choosing to focus on “unlimited in wisdom” which is a much less common choice for a basic attributes of God list. I’m not sure why this is. We do have some Open View/Open Theism theologians (who believe that God knows all the things that can be known but the future is not a thing that exists so it cannot be known) though this isn’t a mainstream Wesleyan view, which may be why that word wasn’t chosen. I’ll have to look into this some more…
I was a counselor at a Christian one summer camp during college. When my cabin of high school girls gathered after the evening rally and I asked them what “holy”meant. We had just finished singing about how holy God was and it occurred to me they might not understand what they had so passionately been declaring. My question was met with blank stares. I was right, they didn’t know, and I realized it was my job to explain to them something I barely understood myself. 15 years later I think I’ve got it narrowed down a little bit…
The essence of holiness is being separate from something else.
Separated by kind. God is holy. Though he is intimately involved in creation he exists independently of it and is distinct from it. He is holy, separated, because he is of a different kind than we are.
Separated from sin (moral purity). God is also holy in the sense that he is completely separate from sin. He has not sinned, he will not sin, he does what is right and is what is right.
Separated into chosen/unchosen for a purpose. Israel was a holy nation because they were chosen, set apart, separated from other nations. Items used in temple worship were holy because they were set apart for only sacred (religious) use. With this usage, the intent of the separation (for religious purposes) carries the implication of sacredness.
The English word holy most commonly come from the the Hebrew root קֹ֫דֶשׁ (qodesh) and the Greek root ἅγιος (hagios). There are other Greek and Hebrew words that are translated as holy, but these are the most common. At the core of both of these words is the idea of separateness or apart-ness. Alternate translations into English include words like hallowed, sanctified, and dedicated. When the holy is repeated it is for emphasis; instead of saying, “very holy” the author might say “holy holy” or “holy of holies.” When holy is repeated three times (as in Isaiah 6:3) it is means, basically, “the holiest thing ever.” Only God is holy, holy, holy.
Christians are Holy
As Christians we are called holy and told to grow in holiness.
We are holy because we have been chosen to be God’s people, his children. 2 Peter 1:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are set apart with a purpose of declaring his praises.
We are also holy because Jesus has washed away our sins making us legally sinless or pure (more on that when we get to salvation and atonement).
We are called holy, and told to act holy. “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'” (1 Peter 1: 15-16). We are holy people and we should act holy.
We are separated from the world to God. We are separated from sin to right-living.
Holiness and Love
God is love. God is holy. These things, love and holiness, are not really that different from each other when you understand that sin is primarily failing to love God or love others well. Love isn’t about following rules, it’s about priorities.
When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus famously replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” He says that every law and every rule points us to loving God and loving others.
His admonishments weren’t about avoiding sin, they were about loving without reserve. Sin, most often, isn’t about breaking rules but about failing to love. Gossip is sin because it’s disrespectful and unloving; it does not take into consideration the feelings of the person being talked about. Watching porn is sinful because it’s failing to treat others as children of God, made in his image, with dignity, potential brothers and sisters in Christ. When you use others for your sexual arousal, you are not loving them. When you are loving them, when you see them as human beings, want the best for them, and to pray for them, you’re less likely to find the satisfaction that you’re looking for when you view porn.
Holiness is less about avoiding sin or becoming moral and more about letting the Holy Spirit so fill you with love that it oozes out of your pores and into every interaction you have with every single person in every moment of every day.
When you’re focusing on sinning less, you’re focusing on sin more often.
When you’re focusing on loving more, you’ll sin less.
Our God is both holy and loving. Let him love you. Be rooted and grounded in his love. Let his love be your firm foundation. (This is an excellent devotional to help you go deeper in delighting yourself in his love). With intimate knowledge of and experience of his love you’ll long to love him and others the same way. When you are rooted in love you will long for holiness because you will want to love others with the love you’ve experienced.
Our God is both holy and loving and we are called to be increasingly more holy and loving. The two are so intertwined that you cannot be one without the other.
Take some time this week exploring God’s holiness and his love; allow yourself to experience this love. Then explore what it means to love and be holy. An easy place to start is simply be looking up these words and reading the verses that contain these words (and surrounding context). So, for example, go to www.biblegateway.com and search holy. After you’ve read all those verses, search for holiness, then holy ones. Share what you learn about God and about yourself with someone else this week.
We are called saints (or holy ones, depending on your translation) several times in the New Testament (1 Romans 1:7, Corinthians 1:12, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, etc.).
Too much separation from the world can lead to Christian ghettos. In order to avoid being defiled by the world, Wesleyans and other holiness denominations, have, at times, erred on the side of seclusion. We put our colleges in the middle of nowhere so our students would be less effected by the evil around them, we hang out at church with people who are like us, we don’t go to dances or movies, and strive to avoid sin. But holiness isn’t just about avoiding sin, it’s about loving fully.
The first thing called holy in the Bible is the 7th day, during creation (Genesis 2:3). He called the 7th day the Sabbath, or day of rest, because it was separate from the other days. On the other six days, God worked. On this day, God rests. It is a holy day.
Songs about Love & Holiness
The first time I heard this song was when I worked at the Portland Rescue Mission. One of the staff had heard it and shared with the residents who were standing nearby. I think this might have been the only song we heard for at least the next week. So many of the women, the staff included, needed to be reminded and renewed with the truth that God’s love for us is not an analytical choice but a passionate, exuberant love.
Here’s the same song with a different flavor:
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God.” (Is 45:5)
“For this is what the Lord says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it…he says:“I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
(Is 45:18, emphasis mine)
If you were to read Isaiah 45 out loud with all the passion that God felt when hee it (instead of the boring way we often read the Bible), I think anyone who was listening to you would sit down, shut up, and think about their choices.
God is emphatically declaring that he is the only real god. Other spiritual beings exist but they are in a different class of beings; he is far superior to them. He is pre-existent, self-existent (he existed before everything else and exists of his own power). All other beings came into existence when he created them, they continue to exist by his power. He is unique. He alone is worthy of the respect, honor, and worship that we, his creation, have to give. He is the one true God.
You should definitely take a moment and read the whole chapter here. It might take you a few verses to get into it, but try reading it (out loud) with all the passion and gusto that the God who created the universe might have if he was trying to very clearly get his point across. It’ll be fun (unless you’re reading this in a coffee shop or public transit, then it might be a little creepy, or maybe fun, I guess it depends on your personality).
Monotheism, the belief that there is one God, is a cornerstone of the Christian faith and a consistent message throughout the Bible. Some religions are atheistic (do not believe in any gods), others polytheistic (believe in many gods), and a few are monotheistic like us (Judaism and Islam, for example). Writing this from a North American context feels funny because, while there is growing religious diversity in the United States, our cultural default is that if you believe in any god, you believe in one God so saying that there is only one true God feels like I’m stating something as obvious as, “The sun provides warmth to the earth,” or “the sky is blue.” But belief in one true God is not obvious to the majority of the people we share the earth with and there are some significant implications to belief in one God.
Implications of Christian Monotheism:
We believe there is a God (as opposed to no God). More than that, we believe this God rewards those who seek him. “…because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6).
We believe this God has no equal. There is no yin to his yang or yang to his yin. He is more powerful than anything he created. God’s enemies are not on a level playing field with him and we do not need to worry that they will conquer him (or us).
We believe this unequaled God is the only one worthy of our worship. He is worthy of the worship we declare with our words and the worship we demonstrate by the way we live our lives.
We believe all other gods are false gods. These false gods, often represented in biblical times by statues and idols, are dangerous distractions from the one true God. Conversely, anything that is a distraction from our relationship may become, for us, an idol or false god. Often these distractions are good things that become bad when they are honored too highly. My biggest distraction tends to be ministry; I have friends who get distracted by relationships, their kids’ sports, the accumulation of wealth, security, food. Anything can become a false god.
The one true God’s unique status is why we should worship him but his character is what will make us want to worship him. Toward the end of Isaiah 45, we see a God who is right and does right, a God who reaches out to save those who are lost and perishing, a God who does not leave us in the filth we create for ourselves, a God of love who sacrifices to be with us. This is the one, living and true God that we will continue to explore next week.
“…And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me.”
BONUS MATERIAL: because there is so much stuff that I want to share but doesn’t fit in the post…
WORD MATH (or combining Greek words to make fancy sounding theological words)
-ism=indicates a belief in…
-ist indicates one who believes in…
mono + theos + ism = Monotheism or belief in one God
poly + theos + ism = polytheism or the belief in many gods
a+gnosis = agnostic or don’t know
a+theos+ ism = atheism or belief in no God
heno+theos+ism= henotheism or belief that one of the many gods should be worshiped above the other gods
To Capitalize or not to capitalize?
We capitalize “God” when we are talking about the one true God and leave it lowercase when we are talking about false gods or many gods. At least in English. I’d be interested in learning how other languages, especially languages that are part of largely polytheistic or atheistic cultures, handle capitalization.
The shema refers to the statement in Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one…” a clear declaration of the monotheistic nature of the God. It tends to be the go-to verse for indicating monotheism in the Old Testament.
Other implications of Christian Monotheism:
Christians should have some level of unity. This doesn’t mean we all need to believe exactly the same things or act the same ways but it means that we are willing to work together on the same team. Ephesians 4:3 says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” John Wesley is famous for saying, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
I have lots of opinions about our current political situation in the United States and when I get frustrated with the people who are wrong (a.k.a. the people who disagree with me) I need to step back and remember that we’re on the same team. This doesn’t mean I don’t speak up or try to win them over but it does mean that I do it while viewing them as a teammate and not as an enemy.
Acknowledging the truth that there is one God is a good place to start but it is not a good place to end. James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Mere assent to truth isn’t sufficient; what you believe about this one God has to change your life. If you believe this one true living God is the God that he reveals himself to be in the Bible you’ll seek justice and care for widows, orphans, and aliens; you’ll act in humility toward those who don’t deserve it; you’ll be transformed into the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is good to question what you believe.
It might freak your friends out. It might freak your pastor out. It might freak you out. But questioning what you believe is a good and necessary part of a maturing faith. A lot of our theology is absorbed uncritically from the world around us and not all of it is good.
The process of questioning our theology can be disconcerting because we don’t just question the things that we ultimately determine are bad or false; we also question the the things that we ultimately determine are good and true. It’s the questioning (doubting) process that allows us to figure out what is good and what is bad. It’s how we determine what we carry forward with confidence and what we need to leave behind.
The refining process includes exploring what we believe along with why we believe it and where it comes from. Today we’re looking at the where, in coming weeks we’ll explore the what and why.
Wesleyans acknowledge that theology comes from many sources; our favorites are the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience. These four sources make up the “Wesleyan Quadrialteral.” Wesleyans aren’t the only people that acknowledge these sources but somehow we won the naming rights.
The Bible is listed first because the Bible always wins. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God. In its pages God reveals who he is, who we are, and his plan for creation and redemption. It contains the truth that he wanted to make sure everyone had access to. The truth contained in its pages applies to all people, everywhere, for all time. God speaks outside of the Bible (in nature, through the Holy Spirit, in dreams and visions, and other ways) but he will not contradict what he has already said in the Bible. The Bible is the final authority for our theology.
It would be nice if you could just equate your theology with whatever the Bible says, but it isn’t that simple. Anytime you read anything, including the Bible, you interpret it. And it’s likely that you’ll interpret it differently than the person sitting next to you, because you are both viewing it through your own unique lenses. Your lens is shaped by your age, gender, culture, experiences, language, etc. Because the Bible is relatively clear most of the time, but is definitely able to be interpreted a variety of ways, we use the other sources–tradition, reason, and experience–to shape our theology in a way that (we hope) is inline with what God intended.
Tradition can be very helpful…most of the time. It’s unlikely that you’ll discover something in the Bible that hasn’t already be researched, discussed and debated by others of the last two thousand years of Christianity. There are a lot of things that the Church has ruled as heresy*…and a few things it’s reversed its stance on over time. But this general consensus on core topics over hundreds and thousands of years is helpful for informing our theology.
Reason is using our brain to process what we read in the Bible, what we hear from tradition, and what we experience. It’s reason that tells us that God doesn’t really have wings and he’s not really a bird despite the many references in Psalms that talk about God protecting us with his wings because reason tells us that the Psalms are poetry and should be interpreted as poetry, not like a narrative, or science book, or news story. John Wesley studied philosophy and science along with other disciplines that helped shape his theology and inform his faith. When studying theology both our heads and our hearts are important.
Our theology is shaped and informed by our experience. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that God is gracious and compassionate when they experience grace and compassion from those who bear his name. It’s also not uncommon for people to believe that God is angry and judgmental when the are attacked and judged by Christians. Experience, of course, is incredibly subjective and needs to be submitted to the Bible but we shouldn’t be afraid to explore our experience and allow it to shape our theology. It is good to know that God is love because we read it in the Bible. It is better to know God is love because we have felt his touch and experienced his unconditional love and grace.
Our experience can shape our theology when something tragic happens that our belief system isn’t prepared for. A divorce, death, or diagnosis can shake us to our core and cause us to question God’s goodness, his power, or his very existence.
There’s a thing in the Bible called “the barren woman motif.” Infertility is a challenge that comes up over and over again throughout the Old and New Testaments. Anytime a barren woman shows up you know God is about to do something amazing; I can’t think of a barren woman we meet in the Bible who doesn’t eventually become a mother. For those of us who have struggled with infertility and loss, in any of its forms, this motif is not merely an academic category, it is an emotionally engaging reality. Sarah who is barren well into her 90’s gives birth to Isaac, the son of promise through whom the covenant God made with Abraham passes. When Hannah is barren and cries out to God, he hears her and gives her a son who will faithfully lead Israel in their transition to monarchy. Elizabeth is barren until she receives word that her son will be the one who prepares the way for the Messiah. It is clear in all of these stories that God cared about these women, not just their wombs or their children. When I read their stories, I experience both longing and joy with these women and I am deeply moved by a God who is involved in the intimate details of our lives, including our ability to become pregnant and carry a child to term. I haven’t heard a lot of men hone in on the depth of the impact of infertility and how God relates to it. I think this is, in part, because their experience doesn’t cause them to linger on these topics. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way it is. My experience with infertility causes me to view these passages and, as a result, God differently than I would otherwise. Our experiences shape our theology.
The Bible, tradition, reason, experience. Four sources of theology, but not equally authoritative sources of theology. When there is a clash between the Bible and tradition, reason, or experience, the Bible always wins.
As you become more aware of what you believe and ask more questions about why you believe it, also take the time to ask, “Where did I pick this up?” Begin to figure out where your theology is shaped by the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience and ask yourself which source(s) are most important to you.
When I’m writing I always struggle with what to leave out…so the things below this line our things that didn’t fit in the main post but I couldn’t not share. I hope you enjoy them!
I just watched this fun video podcast (is that a thing?) of Tripp Fuller interviewing Tom Oord regarding the question, “Why go Wesleyan?” There’s a lot of great stuff in here about what it means to be Wesleyan, but I’ve linked it to the section where they’er talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral https://youtu.be/tyF0zXHoUzQ?t=16m
Also, as an added bonus for parents (and/or teachers, pastors, youth group leaders, basically anyone with religious authority who influences kids and teens and adults), I’m getting on a soapbox and talking to you, right here: If you provide a safe space for your kids to question theology and authority when they’re younger I’m convinced that you can provide a safe place for them to do this as their doubts and questions get bigger and I’m also convinced this will make it more likely that they’ll learn to walk through these refining seasons with their faith in tact on the other side. But when they’re afraid that you’re going to freak out on them if they ask questions they’ll either stuff it until they explode or find somewhere else they feel safe to process…but it might not be a good place. My advice? Be honest about your doubts and questions and engage in theirs without freaking out…it’s good for both of you. This comes not from my years of parenting experience (my daughter is only six) but from my years of working with high school and college students.
*heresy =wrong theology