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Theology of Ministry, Section 2: basic theological understandings

Here is the continuation of this project. Section 1 is here.

Original paper is in bold. Reflections follow.

theology of ministry: basic theological understandings

 II. Basic Theological Understandings

With the Scriptural foundation established, I can now begin making some assertions about what I believe to be the basics of Christian theology. At the heart of theology is our understanding of who God is. For reasons that I hope are obvious from my spiritual journey paper, my understanding of God as Father has been central to my spiritual development. To this day, with an absentee father and an abusive stepfather, the idea of God as the ideal father is rather compelling. Over the course of my theological education, however, I have adopted many additional metaphors for God the Creator (after all, the best we can do is speak of God in terms of metaphors and analogies). In addition to Father and Creator, I have become comfortable thinking of God as Mother, Artist, Rock, and Source. I believe that God is infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. As the author of I John proclaims, I believe that God is love. God is love that is freely given and unconditional. God acts in complete freedom, yet is also at times intentionally self-limiting and vulnerable. This aspect is best represented in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that the best way to know what God is like is to look at the incarnation of God revealed in Christ. 
I hold to an understanding of creation that states that God created all things ex nihilo. I find no reason for this view to conflict with what modern science tells us about the planet’s origin. With no actual witnesses present, the creation stories presented in Genesis have to be considered mythologies that help to form worldviews and develop priestly theology. I will say, however, that I also hold to the belief that God would be capable of creating the world in six days. I believe that creation was originally as God intended it to be and that humanity was originally created in the image of God. The fall of humanity has had far reaching effects on God’s good creation.
I believe that humanity is alienated from God by sin. Sin is not just a set of immoral actions that we commit. Sin is a state of being where creation is not as the Creator intended and the image of God has become distorted. At its heart, I believe that sin is when we turn from the Creator and begin to overvalue the creation. In his writing “Body, Soul, Will and the Image of God”, Augustine describes the state of sin as one abandoning “the goodness of the Creator in pursuit of some created good” (Hodgson, 150). Sin can also occur when another created thing is not given the value it deserves as part of God’s creation. Both of these modes of sin can occur on both individual and corporate/institutional levels. To better explain this I turn to process theologian Marjorie Suchocki’s chapter “Sin in a Relational World” from God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology:
Frequently Christians have personalized [the demonic] and projected them away from ourselves Process theology suggests as a nonhuman being, a devil, whose temptation of humanity in its very beginnings resulted in transgression and original sin. Process theology suggests a more tragic view, naming the cumulative acts of human beings in society as the source of the demonic. We are ourselves corporately responsible for the societies we create and the ill effects they engender. The demonic element is that we are each individually born into a society we did not create; insofar as it contains powers of destruction, these originate prior to our being. These powers can and do overwhelm us, involving us in the condition of alienation that is manifested in personal sin. In the grip of these powers, we continue to perpetuate them (15)The atoning work of Christ occurs in his life, death, and resurrection. It is atonement for the individual as well as for society. It is atonement that is initiated by God and seeking human response. It is also atonement with an endpoint in mind. I hesitate to make any definite eschatological statements. I do, however, find one particularly appealing vision of the coming reign of Christ in the writings of Miroslav Volf. Volf’s article “Love Your Heavenly Enemy” speaks to the necessity of reconciliation among individuals and people groups (races, ethnicities, classes, etc…) in order to realize our eschatological hopes for the Kingdom of God. Volf argues that for Heaven to truly be Heaven personal enmities need to be resolved to the point that “not-loved ones will have to be transformed into the loved ones and those who do not love will have to begin to do so” (94). Volf goes on to say that in order for those who have found each other as undesirables in this world to love each other in the next, they would in essence have to extend grace to each other and “justify” one another. The “last judgment”, in order to be completed, also needs to have the element of “Final Reconciliation”. “If the world to come is to be a world of love, then the transition from the present world to that world, which God will accomplish, must have an inter-human side” (Volf, 96)
Several elements have to exist in order for humans to repair their social relationships. According to Volf, the first is the giving and receiving of forgiveness. Though God can surely forgive our sins, it is essential that we receive the forgiveness of those we have wronged (and extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us) in order to live in a future world of peace. “…divine forgiveness cannot substitute for a victim’s giving and a perpetrator’s receiving of forgiveness” (Volf, 96). This, of course, echoes the emphasis placed on forgiveness throughout the gospels. The parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35, for example, emphasizes that God’s forgiveness of sin is to some extent conditional on our extending of grace to others in light of the grace we have received. The Lord’s Prayer, as presented in Matthew 6, draws a direct correlation between the degree that we forgive and the extent to which we will be forgiven. Luke echoes this sentiment with the phrase “Forgive and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Volf crystallizes the idea, saying “Reconciliation with one’s estranged neighbors is part and parcel of reconciliation with God” (96).
To move into a future world of love, not only must the sins of the present be forgiven, but also the misdeeds of the past. As Volf explains, the future kingdom of God has to be more than just a “fresh start”, but it must also be “redemption of yesterday, today, and tomorrow… Heaven is having had your messy pages made clean and right again” (96-97). This goes beyond a reconciliation of the lives of those who are currently living and active in the world. It requires that old social ills be made right and that the sins of the past be forgiven and resolved. This involves more than the healing of past interpersonal sins, but also of past corporate sins as well. “Hence the final reconciliation of those who died unreconciled must be part of the transition from the present world to the world to come” (Volf, 97). 
The final piece of Volf’s argument may be the most difficult. It is a move from continual attempts at self-justification to full acknowledgement of sin. In the final judgment, all will have to give up their right to be right and admit that they have fallen short. Volf’s final argument on this is most compelling:
The divine judgment will reach its goal when, by the power of the spirit, each person eschews attempts at self-justification, acknowledges personal sin in its full magnitude, experiences liberation from guilt and the power of sin, and recognizes that all others have done precisely that – given up on self justification, acknowledged their sin, and experienced liberation. Having recognized that others have changed… one will no longer condemn others but offer them the grace of forgiveness (97)The call of the gospel to deny oneself includes giving up on being right in one’s own eyes in order to be reunited with others in love. Volf adds that this extension of grace is only fully consummated in the embrace of former enemies. “Reconciliation will take place only when former enemies have moved toward each other and embraced each other as belonging to the same communion of love” (Volf, 97) It is this final communion of love, communion among humans and between humanity and the triune God, that is the hope of Christians which moves us to seek reconciliation with our neighbors in the here and now. The point of Volf’s article is not to say that we should wait until we reach the fulfilled Kingdom of God to begin the work of restoring relationships. On the contrary, our offering and receiving forgiveness is a glimpse of the Kingdom in the present day. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that Volf is arguing that we cannot be ushered into the future world of love without extending grace and mercy to our contemporaries. This brings us into a discussion on the nature and purpose of Christian Life.
3 quick things before I dive in:
1. It’s interesting that I did not put I John into the scriptural section, but then open this section with it. Silly!
2. If I were to re-write this paper, I would tear this section apart. Not that I completely disagree with what I wrote here before, but because the organization is poor. I would have done more to connect theological points directly to the scripture that I referenced in section 1. A poor systematic on my part. I may have also renamed this section. It seems to be more about God, sin, and eschatology, which is a pretty unusual threesome.
3. I haven’t read much serious theology since I finished seminary. I am embarrassed by that.
Looking at the first paragraph, I’m not sure that I would use the “omnis” anymore when talking about God. What does it mean for God to be all knowing, all powerful, and all present? It’s not that I no longer believe those things, it’s just that I no longer find that language helpful. “God is love” suffices for many things. Love is powerful, but love is disciplined in the use of its power. Again, if I were to rewrite this, I would highlight the passage I used from Philippians 2 in the explanation of God’s kenotic (self-emptying/limiting) love. Love is power restrained and used appropriately. It is not coercive power, it is persuasive.
To say that God is love requires an expanded definition of love. For that I turn to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In an article entitled ” An Experiments in Love”, Dr. King defines agape (the greek word for love that is used in I John 4) through 4 properties. Love is “disinterested” “It is love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor”  2) it is need-oriented. “… it springs from the need of the other person” 3) Agape seeks to “preserve and create community” and 4) Love “recognizes that all life is interrelated”. To assert then that God is all of these things gives focus to what I would say is the thesis of my theology of ministry: which is that I feel called to ministry that creates and nurtures community. This thesis, which I’ll explore in subsequent sections of the paper, comes directly from my understanding of who God is.
To the extent that my theology has developed, even without extensive reading, it has developed along the lines of process thought. I highlight a process thinker when talking about sin, but it can be used for much of our theological understanding. A relational God is at the heart of process thought. It is not required that God be all knowing to be in relationship with us. In fact process thought suggests that God is moved and shaped by events as much as we are. (think of Hebrew scriptures where God’s mind is changed).
Without a specific quotation, I highlight the work of Bruce Epperly, who for the last five years has greatly effected my preaching through his reflections on the lectionary at processandfaith.org.
I continue to love Volf’s article “Love Your Heavenly Enemy”. His eschatology in that piece fascinates me. To imagine “heaven” as a series of reconciliations is a powerful image for me. It could easily be said that it is an argument for universalism. I have no problem with universalism though I am not a universalist myself. I believe there are some who will languish in unforgiveness, being unforgiven to the degree to which they will not themselves forgive. I would tie the conversation on Volf’s article to the passage in 2 Corinthians. The ministry of reconciliation is and will always be the mission of the church.
Absent from my original paper is any discussion of creation. I would argue that my theology is still largely anthropocentric. Colossians 1 speaks of the reconciliation of ALL things to God. I think this is key. The creation, which was originally declared to be good, must then fall under the umbrella of that which finds itself in need of the reconciling work of God in the world. This becomes an important theological assertion to understand the work of the church.

About derricklweston

Father of two. I co-host God Complex Radio, a show highlighting progressive voices in the faith community. (godcomplexradio.com) I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. I like lots of stuff. Sometimes I write about that stuff.


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