A while back, I offered you a full review of Gerald Bray’s God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. In the interim, I decided to make it the textbook for my 11th grade Bible class which is a theology class. This week, we’re starting our formal trek through it. Students are highlighting 3 or more paragraphs per chapter for discussion, and I’m doing some highlighting myself as well.
Though I might not always post analysis and discussion of my own, I’m going to try to post my highlights as we work our way through this book. I’m not sure if my overall opinion of the book will change with a closer extended reading, but you never know, it might.
As a preface, the first section of Bray’s book is called “The Language of Love” and is essentially his chapters on prolegomena and bibliology. Since he uses neither of those words, I knew this would be perfect for high schoolers. 1 His first chapter in that section is titled “The Christian Experience of God.” Below are some of my highlights, separated under the appropriate headings that appear in that chapter.
We know God because we are the sheep who have responded to our Shepherd’s voice and have experienced his love at work in us. He has rescued us from our folly and reintegrated us into the world that he made for our enjoyment. People who are not Christians also benefit from God’s great love for the human race, but they are not his sheep, and so they do not understand God’s love or appreciate it as they should.
But it can also be found in and on the fringes of the church, where there are people who think of themselves as Christians but who lack any clear form of belief that would give that claim some meaning. These are the goats, whom we must distinguish from the sheep, however similar they may appear on the surface.
These people embrace the traditions of the church but their beliefs and behavior are a simulation of true Christian faith and not the real thing. This becomes clear when they come up against the sheep. When that happens, the goats often react by mocking the sheep and deriding what they see as the sheep’s naivete. In extreme cases the goats may even try to drive the sheep out of the church because the presence of people who listen to the voice of the Shepherd and follow his teaching is a standing rebuke to their inadequate and superficial piety.
Our faith in God is not just a philosophical belief in a supreme being; it is a life-changing experience of the one who has made us what we are. Everything we think, say, and do bears witness to this, and there is no aspect of our lives that is not affected by it. Other people need to understand the all-embracing depth of our convictions, even if they do not share them.
Having said that, we cannot force our knowledge of God onto others, however much we want them to share it. No one has ever been argued into faith in Christ. Some people have been scared into a kind of belief, perhaps by unexpectedly escaping death in an accident, but such “conversions” usually turn out to be temporary.
Both types of people are wide of the mark because a true Christian is not a sheep who has gone looking for the Good Shepherd and found a man who seems to fit the bill, but someone who has been looked for and found by God.
Communicating This Knowledge to Others
Dying to self and rising again with Christ is the heart of the Christian faith, and the new life we receive is common to all who believe in him. We work out this new life in different ways, but the heart of the matter remains the same, and when we talk about it, what we say resonates with what Paul wrote to the Christians of Galatia.
It takes careful reflection in order to speak comprehensively, accurately, and convincingly about an experience of something that goes beyond what is merely rational. To guide us in understanding and expressing such deep things, God has raised up teachers and guides, so that we may learn, as Saul learned from Ananias, how to communicate what we have experienced.
We must be able to tell the world how we understand the universe, our place in it, and the purpose of our existence. Others may disagree with us and offer alternative proposals, but we must put our case as clearly and as coherently as possible, so that they know what they are disagreeing with.
Christians who are vague about these things or who cannot articulate their beliefs in a comprehensible manner will never communicate their faith to anyone. God has called us to give a reason for the hope that is within us and to proclaim the message of salvation to all mankind, whether or not they listen to what we are saying.
But just as some will be called to devote their lives to itinerant evangelism and others will be called to minister to settled congregations, so there will be those who are set apart for the study of the faith itself. These are the theologians, teachers whose primary responsibility is to examine our experience of God and express it in a coherent way. The result of their labors is the body of knowledge that we call theology.
The Scope and Limitations of Theology
Some people think of theology in terms of a “system” while others shy away from that word because it seems to reduce the complexities of a living relationship to an abstract formula that can be logically dissected and pieced together in the classroom.
No one knows why God permits evil to exist in spite of his own goodness, or why believers who are destined for happiness in the next life have to suffer in this one. Of course, we can suggest possible reasons for some of these things, and occasionally we can make logical deductions about what must be the case.
Frustrating though it may be to our impatient human minds, God has not revealed everything to us. He has given us what we need for the tasks he has assigned to us, and has assured us that what we do for him will be rewarded, but he has not burdened us with knowledge that is too much for us to bear or irrelevant to what we are called to do. The good theologian must know how to recognize the boundaries of our understanding, and must remind curious souls not to stray beyond the limits that God has imposed on our learning.
In the same way, God reveals only a part of his being and plan for us until we are ready to enter into the fullness of eternal life. When that happens, we shall see him face-to-face and be able to understand it all.
The solution to this problem is not to be found in an “either/or” dichotomy but in a “both/and” combination, with each aspect of the question being given its due weight within the framework of the whole.
Before passing judgment on their ignorance, though, we have to remember that we probably have equally odd ideas about some things but do not recognize what they are because our horizons are too limited. These ideas seem obvious to us, but future generations will see things differently and may criticize us for being blind to matters that will seem perfectly clear to them.
When dealing with matters pertaining to God, humility is essential. If our attempts to discover his ways are dissociated from a spirit of reverent worship, what we are seeking will remain hidden from us and the task to which we have been assigned will be left for others to accomplish. In doing theology, we are talking about someone with whom we live in relationship, with all the complexities that any relationship involves.
Finally, we must remember that the Christian experience of God can never be fully captured in words. Love cannot be reduced to a formula, and there are many ways of expressing it, none of which is exhaustive. The task of the true theologian is to discern which of these ways best reflect the spiritual reality revealed to us in Jesus, and which must be abandoned because they do not express it adequately.
In the end, we may be forced to accept that there is no fully satisfactory way of reconciling these things in our minds, but what to us is an unresolvable paradox is merely another indication that God’s thoughts are higher than ours can ever be.
What we call “theology” is a work in progress. It is not a fixed body of knowledge that can never grow or develop; it continues to expand as our relationship with God deepens. At the same time, it does not change, because God does not change.
Many theologians are goats, who relish these opportunities and use them to take the church away from its foundations. This has given theology a bad name in many circles. But these are false teachers who must be exposed and avoided. True theologians are sheep who hear their Shepherd’s voice and interpret his words for the benefit of the rest of the flock. In this task, theology will continue until the time comes when it will no longer be needed. When that happens we shall know all things, and be enfolded forever in the unchanging and all-encompassing love of God.