Archive for June, 2009

Thinking about studying Theology at Uni? (2)

June 30, 2009

Continuing from my first post on choosing a university Theology course I’ve had some more thoughts on choosing a university course as a Christian student.

Theology or Religious Studies?

In my previous post I outlined some of the differences between a course focused on Theology and one focused on Religious Studies (or between modules with these respective approaches). I’d like to make a case for why Christian students should strongly consider choosing Theology-focused course over a Religious Studies course. I do this as someone who actually finds Religious Studies options sometimes quite attractive because they feel “safer” than doing Theology because it does not put my own beliefs under scrutiny or call for me to make a choice or moral judgement in the same way as Theology does. My assumption is that Christian students want to study Theology to serve the church in its broadest sense (not necessarily by becoming a minister, but with the intention of being equipped to think theologically, understand and explain and apply the Bible better, and deal with questions of doctrine and practise from more than a merely practical level… all in a way which builds up, corrects and encourages the Church in her mission). Because of this, there are several reasons why studying Theology may be preferable to Religious Studies:

  1. The church needs people who are familiar with the Christian Scriptures; who know them and have spent time coming to a deep understanding of them. The church needs people with a historical awareness of those who were in Christ before us; who can learn from their faithfulness and from their failures. The church needs people with a deep understanding of Christian doctrine and who can handle disagreements faithfully, fairly and sensitively. Theology is going to help you to begin to study these things and develop the necessary attitudes and depths of knowledge to do this for the church – Religious Studies is not.
  2. In terms of mission and evangelism, Religious Studies is often said to be a useful thing to study so as to be able to speak about the gospel to Muslims, Jews, Hindus etc. I would question this – not that it isn’t true that an understanding of someone else’s faith can help us to communicate the gospel, but rather that the best preparation for mission and evangelism is to know the Christian gospel really well. As John Piper says in another connexion:

    If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her.

    Theological study can better equip you to do mission by growing your understanding of the gospel.

  3. Linked with this, I would argue that the most helpful and most insightful Christian studies of other religions are done by those who deeply understand their own Christian faith. Studying Religious Studies before getting a sufficient grounding in Theology might reduce your ability to do Religious Studies effectively in a way that might be helpful to the church.
  4. Finally, there is a reason why the discipline of Religious Studies did not really exist before the Enlightenment… it grows out of an approach to reality which Christians really ought to critique. So while it might seem easier than doing a Theology module with a lecturer from a different Christian tradition, you might end up disagreeing with the Religious Studies approach from a much more foundational level!

Should swine flu close churches?

June 27, 2009

A large church here in Nottingham has taken the decision to suspend their Sunday meetings this week after a member of their office staff caught swine flu. There have been an increasing number of cases in the East Midlands over the past two weeks, though as far as I can gather there are still fewer than a hundred people in the region (population 4.2 million) affected. I have to say my initial reaction was disappointment – I don’t think that an outbreak of swine flu should close a church; though I can see why the church in question might have taken the decision they did.

At a stage where the health authorities are trying to quarantine cases of swine flu, as in the East Midlands (unlike in the West Midlands where containment is now impractical) it could be seen as selfish for Christians to put the community at risk by holding large public meetings when there is a known case of swine flu in the congregation. But I think it’s only really possible to see it as selfish if a church service is viewed as being a social gathering, like a social club meeting – but this is not what a church service is. A church service is somewhere where the word of God should be being preached and where people can worship him together in a visible expression of the Church’s unity in Christ. As such, the church service also serves the community by providing an opportunity for people to hear the gospel proclaimed. I don’t think this should be cancelled because of a comparatively mild virus. In fact, I don’t think it should be cancelled even in the case of an epidemic with a high mortality rate, because dying prematurely through disease is not the worst thing that can happen to people. Dying not right with God is the worst thing that can happen to people, and cancelling the most obvious public proclamation of Christ, who makes us right with God, would be perverse in a situation where mortality was increasing due to disease.

Perhaps suspending church services (even if done with the motive of appearing unselfish) gives the wrong impression to the community of what Christian priorities and attitudes to death are. Does it not say that spiritual health is less important than physical health; when this is not so? Does it not say that sin is a less serious illness than swine flu? And perhaps worst of all, does it not undermine the Christian claim that Jesus has defeated death and that those who trust in him have nothing to fear from it?


The sociologist of religion, Rodney Clark, put forward the view in his book The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: 1996) that Christianity flourished in the second and third centuriesAD partly because of the difference in the Christians’ response to the plagues of their day, as witnessed to in a letter of Dionysius, quoted by Eusebius here:

The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ ‘offscouring’.

This response was due to the difference in the Christians’ theology, not any socio-economic factors. Stark writes (pp.79-81):

… let us imagine ourselves in their places, faced with one of these terrible epidemics. Here we are in a city stinking of death. All around us, our family and friends are dropping. We can never be sure if and when we will fall sick too. In the midst of such appalling circumstances, human beings are driven to ask Why? Why is this happening? Why them and not me? Will we all die? Why does the world exist anyway? What is going to happen next? What can we do?
If we are pagans, we probably already know that our priests profess ignorance. They do not know why the gods have sent such misery – or if, in fact, the gods are involved or even care. Worse yet, many of our priests have fled the city, as have the highest civil authorities and the wealthiest families, which adds to the disorder and suffering.
Suppose that instead of being pagans we are philosophers. Even if we reject the gods and profess one or another school of Greek philosophy, we still have no answers. Natural law is no help in saying why suffering abounds, at least not if we try to find
meaning in the reasons. […]
But if we are Christians, our faith does claim to have answers. McNeill summed them up this way:

Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death … [E]ven a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate and healing consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends … Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, seems almost to have welcomed the great epidemic of his time. Writing in 251 he claimed that only non-Christians had anything to fear from the plague. Moreover, he noted that although

the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture … How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted … Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.

This kind of attitude is the one that the gospel fosters in Christians. Disease and death are not to be feared, but constitute an opportunity to prove both the genuineness of our faith and that the Christian way works. In response to the swine flu pandemic, we modern Christians have a choice of whether to “flee the city” and cancel church meetings as Roman pagans would have done, or to be as transformed by the gospel as these early Christians were, and to remain fearless of disease, knowing that our inheritance in heaven is secure and that God is in control – and to continue to proclaim the gospel to the community around us, and minister in Christ to the sick, even if it means we ourselves suffer as a result. May God grant us all the strength to witness faithfully to the gospel if swine flu does get severe, and may his perfect love cast out all fear.

Thinking about studying Theology at Uni?

June 26, 2009

Today and tomorrow are Open Days at the University of Nottingham – as I found out when I went in to the library this morning and found little gazebos up everywhere and applicants and student helpers. I was briefly roped in by a friend who was being a student helper to “demonstrate” the self-service library loans, which are hardly unique to Nottingham! If I were trying to sell convince people to come to Nottingham, I’d probably take them round through the campus, past some of the nicer halls of residence, and by the lake and Trent Building, especially in this weather. Across the Downs, too, if none of them had hayfever! But then I figure that a lot of people coming on the open day might never have seen any university before – so as well as the unique features of Nottingham, they want to see what it would be like to study at a university.

And I suppose some of those students might be thinking about studying theology at university; a subject with its own special things to think about and particular dimensions. I’ve been studying Theology at Nottingham for two years, and know a bit about some other Theology departments from friends and acquaintances. My experience of choosing to study Theology is pretty atypical as I transferred from German and History, so I will try not to generalise from my own experience too much. This post is going to be part one of a couple of posts, some of which will be more specific to Christian  prospective students. This one’s for everyone. Anyway, without further ado…


What kind of course?

Perhaps the biggest difference in courses and experiences of studying theology are to do with whether the course is primarily a Theology course or a Religious Studies course. The two are not the same thing. To oversimplify, Theology at a university department will usually (unless explicitly stated) focus on Christian theology; Religious Studies on a variety of different religions. Theology, while not necessarily done from an orthodox position, invites a position to be taken on issues, and requires engagement with whether things are true or not; Religious Studies is done from a very detached perspective, allows agnosticism as to the truth or falsity of the things studied, and (although it can be analytical) feels a lot more descriptive – almost sociological rather than theological. Finally, theology engages more with texts and doctrines; Religious Studies more with the phenomena of religion(s) and practises.

As may have come across in my lopsided analysis… I’m much more inclined to the Theology side of things. But I think it is fair to point out that Theology and Religious Studies are not the same, and that university courses with the same title (V600 Theology or whatever it is) may be entirely different depending on whether the focus is on Theology or Religious Studies. Ask about it when you visit the department!

Some universities have a modular system (Nottingham included) where you choose several modules per semester (or per year). Some will be compulsory, so ask about them, and some will be options you can choose – allowing you to weight a degree more to one or the other at Nottingham. For instance, in my next semester I could take the following (very different) combinations of options: (or indeed a lot of other permutations from around 12 choices, or, with permission, a module outside my department!)

Theology bias Religious Studies bias Mixed
New Testament Greek Readings in the Gospel of Mark Money, Sex and Power: Religion and Critical Theory Religion, War and Peace
The Trinity The Hindu Tradition Hermeneutics
The Gospel and Epistles of John Religion, War and Peace The Trinity
Dissertation Dissertation Dissertation

As you can see, a modular system allows some choice. However, in my first year, there were 10 out of 120 credits which were compulsory Religious Studies modules, and 60 out of 120 credits which were compulsory Theology modules – weighting Nottingham’s course more towards the Theology side of things. At universities with modular courses, it is worth asking about this kind of detail! For what it’s worth, I think the modular system has a lot going for it, but, by creating a “market” for modules as unpopular options get cancelled, relies on students choosing modules on good criteria rather than on whether the lecturer has a reputation for being a generous marker!

Is it like A-Level?

I’ll level with you – I didn’t do A-Level Religious Studies, Divinity or Theology… I did Philosophy (cue boos and hisses from the Theologians) at AS-Level. From what I’ve gathered from the two-thirds of my year who did do A-Level RS or RE, it is different both in content and in depth (University = broader, deeper). I think it also differs in approach and the value placed on your own views. Apparently at A-Level the way to write an essay is to gather as many different peoples’ views as you can, list them all, and (if you want an A) play them off against each other (“Schleiermacher thought that … but Barth disagreed with him, saying that … which has some strengths, but invites the objection that … as Brunner noted, by his claim that … In conclusion, different scholars have said different things about this topic.”) At degree level, it is OK to present what you think as the main argument of your essay. Of course you will want to interact with what other people have said, but your lecturer will already know about this… what (s)he wants to read is what conclusion you have come to based on your reading and thinking about the essay question.

Wait, I’m allowed to write what I believe… in an essay?

Yes.

Does that mean I’ll get marked down if I disagree with the lecturer?

Hopefully not. I’ve got firsts on essays where I disagreed with the lecturer a lot, about methodology as well as the topic being discussed. I have heard other students express that they feel they have been marked down for disagreeing with lecturers… though I’m not sure this is what has actually happened. I think, however, it is fair to say that disagreement with the lecturer (or the lecturer’s favourite theologian!) requires some extra work on your part to justify what you think. It may also need you to undertake reading beyond the bibliography your lecturer gave to you. But that’s OK, because you have reasons for thinking what you think, and it is a good exercise for you to try and phrase those reasons in the most robust and convincing way you can.

Will I get to learn Biblical languages?

Some universities (Cambridge, St. Andrews, Durham(?)) will make you study at least one out of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin. Other universities will teach one or more Biblical Language, but make it optional – most universities offer Greek and Hebrew; not all of them offer Aramaic or Latin, which are less useful at undergraduate level. If you go to a university that offers a choice, my strong advice is to learn at least Greek if not both Hebrew and Greek. It will provide you with one of the best resources you can have in biblical studies… access to the Bible in its original languages. If the university you’re looking at doesn’t teach Greek or Hebrew, or only teaches it at an elementary level with no opportunity to go further… go somewhere else. I’ll be as blunt as that.

Won’t I be unemployable?

Probably, but less so than Philosophers. Theology graduates can do a surprising range of things when they leave university – some of course do the stereotype thing and become vicars or RE teachers, but this isn’t the only option. There’s postgraduate study, for a start. Further away from “Theology-specific” careers, there are the usual generic humanities-type jobs in business, or in the civil service. Theology graduates are particularly employable by the Home Office and the Police, so I’m told, because of their ability to read texts carefully, critically and sympathetically, and to understand religious motivations and concerns. Or something. Think DS Hathaway from Lewis – obviously identifiable as a theologian from the trendy shirt and skinny tie combo. Theology is as employable as the most employable humanities degrees – I’m not going to lie and say it’s better than Medicine and Law Joint Honours, but it is both versatile and no less employable than, say, History.

Dissertation

June 23, 2009

As part of the impending third year of my degree, I can do a 12,000 word dissertation on pretty much anything theological. I’m quite a Biblical Studies-orientated person, but hopefully the topic I’ve chosen can bring in some historical and systematic stuff as well. I’m choosing to look at Paul’s thought on the relationship of the Christian to government in Romans 13 with a look particularly at the history of interpretation in 20th century German scholarship vis-à-vis the Nazi state. I’ll be looking at the Greek of Romans 13, and various commentaries, but particularly at some of the German scholarship. I’ve been reading the excursus on the history of interpretation in Ulrich Wilckens’ Der Brief an die Römer (Zurich: 1982) 3:43-66 which, although focussed mainly on the Reformation, covers the 20th century well. I’ve also read Stephen Ozment’s paperback history of Germany, A Mighty Fortress, which traces some currents relevant to the discussion of the Nazi state back to the Reformation and Martin Luther, so it will be interesting to see how this affects the history of interpretation of Romans 13.

I came across some of the basic discussion concerning the theological responses to Nazism when I was studying German and History, funnily enough – and this topic does manage to bring together a lot of things I’m interested in. I expect to find that it will be quite challenging for me to study, though – my default setting is not towards a positive view of the “state”, though neither is it towards political activism in the name of Christ. In fact, as I have remarked at different times to many people, one of the hardest examples I find to follow in the New Testament is that of Paul in Acts 23, where he applies the commandment “do not speak evil of a ruler of your people” to prohibit him from talking back to the High Priest who was ordeing him to be beaten and opposing the gospel. I hope studying Romans 13 (and other things Paul has to say about government and the “state”) will help me to see which of my attitudes need to change.

Charles Wesley’s Christology

June 16, 2009

I’ve heard it said that the early Methodists learned their theology through hymns, and particularly those of Charles Wesley. There’s a lot of theology to be learnt from his hymns, and I noticed this in my module on Christology and Atonement this semester. Almost every point of orthodox Christology is expressed in one hymn or another – a mark both of Wesley’s theological learning and tremendous poetic skill.

One of the favourite Christmas hymns of my pastor at my “home” church is Let Earth and Heaven Combine, with the line “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man”. As well as major bonus points for getting a six-syllable word into a metrical hymn, I think this is a brilliant and lyrical way of describing the incarnation. The same hymn goes on to summarise the theology of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation in a verse:

He deigns in flesh to appear
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

The theologians of the early Church, particularly Irenaeus of Lyon and Athanasius, rejoiced in the parallelism of Christology – “God became man that men might become god (θεοποιηθῶμεν)” (Athanasius, On The Incarnation 54.3 – modern Western Christians might prefer to say “godly” or “Christlike” for the last word; in context this is what Athanasius means) and Wesley expresses this neatly and devotionally here. “We the life of God shall know, for God is manifest below” is (whether deliberately or not, I don’t know) exactly the thought of Origen in Against Celsus 3.28.

But perhaps better-known, the great-granddaddy of all Christmas carols, is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

I’ve heard it claimed (and indeed askeda few people myself!) if “Veiled in flesh” is a bad choice of wording and possibly docetic. Giles Fraser calls it “heretical“, but the following lines “pleased as man with man to dwell” essentially rule out doceticism. What I think Wesley is trying to do with “veiled” is to emphasise the hiddenness of the divine nature in Jesus (that glory which is manifested for a second in the transfiguration [Matthew 17]).

Many of Wesley’s hymns have too many verses to fit comfortably into a carol service or worship “sesh” so we usually pick three or four. Hark! the herald has some extra verses, one of which picks up on Paul’s image of Christ as the Second Adam (1Corinthians 15:45-49):

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
stamp thine image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Love it.

Of course, nobody is perfect, not even Charles Wesley – and unfortunately one of his best hymns (and my favourite Wesley hymn) does have an unfortunate Christological line in it. I refer, of course, to And Can It Be?

He left his Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite his grace!
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race

The offending line “Emptied himself of all but love” isn’t great – as one of my lecturers says, “I don’t believe that!” Kenotic Christology has its devotees, who take the self-emptying of Philippians 2:5-11 to mean precisely this – that Jesus gave up the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence …) in the incarnation. I don’t believe that – and I don’t think the Bible teaches that (topic for another post, I think!). I thought it would be unfair to have a post on Wesley’s Christology without dealing with this anyway. Any suggestions for emending the verse? Use the comment box!

All in all, however, I think Wesley’s hymns show a great Christology and are jam-packed with theological truths, expressed in a way I find compelling and memorable – and that is why it’s great to sing them and learn some (biblically faithful!) theology from our hymns.

How does God feel about you?

June 13, 2009

Today Rico Tice came to Beeston Free Church to talk to us (and other East Mids church people!) about the “Passion For Life” mission initiative and posed a great question to us to illustrate the gospel:

“Write down one word which sums up how God feels about you this week”

What do you think people might have written? Rico didn’t get us to read them out, but instead told us what we should have written in response to it. If we really believe the gospel, we would know that the word that sums up how God feels about us is delighted – because he delights in his Son, Jesus Christ, and because we are united to him we relate to God on the basis of Jesus’ merits and righteousness, not on the basis of our good works.

This is great news – in the gospel we have the promise of Christ’s own righteousness given to us, so that God genuinely delights in us. If you know Christ as your saviour, God is not disappointed or angry with the idolatrous and  half-hearted life you’ve lived this week: he looks at you and sees Christ’s merits. This is bold stuff to say; and easily forgotten, but it is what it means to be saved by grace alone.

Really great stuff to be reminded of as we try and get the church behind the mission, and share this amazing, life-giving message with those around us.

*****************

As an update to this, I found myself at the NUCU Grill-a-Christian event last night after the Ropewalk quiz was “rained off” (not sure how that works, either!) and somebody (I think a non-Christian student) asked the question: “If God can forgive all our sins, why don’t you just do whatever you want and enjoy yourself, then ask for forgiveness?”. I have to say that I think this is exactly the question you ask when you have begun to understand the gospel – forgiveness really is free and salvation really is by grace alone, through faith alone. This kind of question should be met, at least initially, with commendation for having understood what the gospel’s offer of grace really means.

Of course, it is more than that – and I’m glad that the Christians who were being “grilled” pointed out both the moral perversity of such an approach, and that, in the words of one of them, “I can’t think of a single sin from which I would gain a lasting benefit.” Obedience and Christlikeness are essential to the Christian life, and so there is more to Christianity than what I’ve posted above. But there is more than, not less than that. I think if we preach the biblical gospel, the “but that means you can do anything you want and then be forgiven” objection is one we will hear a lot.

I’m going to Greece!

June 10, 2009

This July I will be joining a mission team going to Paros in Greece for two weeks. There are nine of us going from the UK (students and UCCF workers), and we will be joined by some members of the Greek CU movement out there. The aim is to get to know Greek students and introduce them to Jesus – through “first-contact” style evangelism and evangelistic bible studies.

I’m pretty excited about it all! I hope to be able to post more about it before we go, and potentially also some updates from when I’m in Greece. Any prayers would be appreciated, particularly as this is the first mission team I have been on outside of the UK.

More about the trip over on another team member, Ben’s blog here.

CT: Speak the Gospel… use deeds if necessary

June 2, 2009

There’s an excellent article from Christianity Today in relation to the oft-quoted phrase “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary” attributed to Francis of Assisi.

The writer, Mark Galli, who has written a biography of  St. Francis, raises serious doubts as to whether he would have ever actually said such a thing – and what the contemporary popularity of this phrase says about our attitude to truth and the gospel. I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion that the good news can no more be communicated by deeds than can the evening news. Shame this is only in the web-edition of CT rather than also in the hugely-circulated print edition…

NUCU-ers and anyone else who has ever heard Roger Carswell preach may know of his (only half-joking) comment that, when he gets to heaven, he plans to punch St. Francis for saying that. Perhaps he won’t have to!