Posts Tagged ‘studying theology’

Trinity Sermon

December 10, 2009

As part of my course this semester on the Trinity, we had the opportunity to give a ten-minute presentation in the format of either a sermon on the Trinity or a diatribe against the Trinity. In our class we had 15 sermons and 1 diatribe. The sermons were quite varied and it was fascinating to hear sermons from people who come from very different Christian backgrounds, (one of the great things about studying theology at Nottingham!) and to receive written feedback from other students. One student thought my sermon was “a bit fundamentalist” – by which I can only assume he meant “Evangelical Protestant” (the two, incidentally, are not synonymous!) since I took out the bits about gun ownership and stoning adulterers. Or something.

The idea of doing a sermon was (according to our lecturer) because there were so many really bad sermons on the Trinity. According to a vicar I know, a certain famous Anglican bishop regularly used to  “pull a sickie” on Trinity Sunday to avoid having to preach on the doctrine. Which is a shame, since it’s not really that hard to get the basics of what Christians mean when they say God is Trinity (though, to balance that claim, it’s not possible to comprehend God’s trinitarian nature in entirety) and, importantly, it’s not a doctrine we need to be embarrassed about, but actually something that is good news. Here’s what I said:

Trinity Sermon – 1/12/2009

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Merciful and Mighty,
God in three persons, blessèd Trinity.”

Thus reads the well-loved hymn. But what do we mean by the word “Trinity”, and why is it important? It has a bit of a reputation for being hard to understand. Sometimes people even give the impression that the Trinity is a bit of an embarrassing doctrine, and that Christianity would be a lot easier to understand if we got rid of it.

In the short amount of time we have here, I’d like briefly to make three points, which I hope will shed some light on the Trinity and why it’s important. We can’t comprehend the mystery of the Trinity in the sense of knowing everything there is to know, but I hope that we might at least be able to understand what God wants us to know about his Triune identity.

 First, I want to say that the Trinity is a distinctively Christian doctrine – it is specific to Christianity. Second, that Christianity is distinctively Trinitarian – that you can’t have Christian faith without the God who is Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Third, that believing in the Triune God isn’t something we should be embarrassed about, but rather something we should be joyful about, and something to celebrate.

So, first – the Trinity is important because it is distinctively Christian. It is about what kind of God we worship. You don’t have to talk to too many people or read too many newspapers before you encounter the very fashionable idea that all religions are essentially the same, or really all have the same God. Have you heard that opinion recently? It’s quite a common one, and quite an attractive one in terms of playing down religious conflict. But whenever I hear someone say that all religions lead to God, or serve the same God, I want to ask, Which God is that? It’s not a small question – perhaps one of the most impassioned cries of the Old Testament is not to serve false Gods. We do not want to be idolaters. So we need to be sure what kind of God we worship.

When we look at the Nicene Creed we find that it begins with “We believe in one God” and then immediately goes on to speak of ‘the Father Almighty’, ‘one Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.  The one God Christians believe in, worship and praise isn’t a simple numerical “one” but is, in fact, these Three.  As the noted theologian Gregory of Nazianzus would say a few decades after Nicea, “when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Let’s look at what Paul says in 1Corinthians 8:6

“For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Here Paul is quite happy to affirm there is one God, but implies that one God is multipersonal. In fact, what Paul is doing is very radical. He is taking the “Shema” formula from Deuteronomy 6 – the prayer said by pious Jews every day – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One” and reworking it as “There is One God, the Father, One Lord, Jesus Christ”. As Bishop Tom Wright comments:

“The whole argument of the chapter hinges precisely on [Paul] being a Jewish-style monotheist, over against pagan polytheism; and, as the lynchpin of the argument, he has quoted the most central and holy confession of that monotheism and has placed Jesus firmly in the middle of it … This verse is one of the mostly genuinely revolutionary bits of theology ever written.”

The one God and the one Lord are the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). This is the kind of God Christians worship – radically different both from  polytheism (that is, many Gods) and from strict, numerical monotheism (that God is not only one essence, but also one-personal).

This brings us to the second point I’d like to make. Christianity is distinctively Trinitarian. You can’t have Christianity without it. The so-called Athanasian Creed is very firm on this point:

WHOSOEVER WILL BE SAVED,
before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled,
without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity,
neither confounding the Persons,
nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father,
another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.

That is, we must believe in the Triune God if we are to be saved.  Notice, too, the warnings against “confounding the persons” – which means collapsing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into just three ways of looking at the same thing – and against “dividing the substance” – that is, saying that there are three Gods. The first error is called Modalism and throws up huge problems – if God appears some times as Father and other times as Son or Spirit, then he isn’t really three – but then, who was Jesus praying to when he prayed to the Father? The second error is called Tritheism – from the Greek for Three Gods. This, as we have seen, is not what the Bible teaches. There is one God, in three persons, not three Gods. But if all this is seeming complicated – and it is a divinely revealed mystery – we need to realise why it is so important that this creed can say there is no Christianity without it. There cannot be salvation unless God is Trinitarian – at least not as the New Testament sees it.

Take as an example Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4-6:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

Here we discover all three persons of the Trinity at work in our salvation. See how they relate to each other – the Father sends his Son to redeem us – and also sends his Spirit (who is also linked to the Son) to us. The three are all at work together and intertwined… though definitely distinct. The Father isn’t the Son and the Son isn’t the Spirit and the Spirit isn’t the Father.  And yet there is one God who saves us.

So, finally, the Trinity is good news. Look back at Galatians 4:6. Our salvation is a work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father has sent the Son to redeem us – to rescue us from our sins, which Paul unpacks at length in this letter. But here Paul gives us an insight into what God’s purpose for that rescue is. The Father has sent the Son – Jesus Christ – to rescue us that we might receive adoption as children. In Jesus Christ, we are adopted by his Father and brought into the life of the Trinity. Likewise, through the Spirit we are able to call the Father that intimate term of “Abba!”, which Jesus himself uses in praying to the Father. When we pray the “Our Father”, we really, really mean it. God the Father is our Father not in the sense that he is the father and creator of all humanity, but in the special stronger sense that he has adopted us as children in Jesus Christ. We are caught up together in the life of the Trinity as we are united with God and are being made into the image of this community of unity and love. We can call God “Father” and mean it!

So we should not be embarrassed about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not something we can completely comprehend, but it is a mystery which God has shown us enough of that we can know him truly as the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – three persons in unity. This makes Christianity unique, and it makes Christianity good news because this God can save us, bring us into relationship with himself, adopt us and give us hope.

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!

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.