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TH 302 Lecture 1

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TH 302 Lecture 1


1.1 What is Theology?  What is Systematic Theology?



"More consequences for thought and action follow the affirmation or denial of God than from answering any other basic question."  ~ Mortimer J. Adler, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1994) vol. 2, p. 561.




At its most basic level, the word 'Theology' simply means a way of "talking about God" (literally theo - logia, or "God-talk"). Talking, however, can imply a number of activities.  Talking can mean a monologue, or a lecture (like the one to which you are currently listening), where information is given in a one-way fashion.  Talking can also indicate a converstaion between two or more parties, where there is give-and-take of information and positions.   Each of these possibilites, and others we might imagine, has its own rules, vocabulary, grammar, and interests.


Theology is often referred to as a "second order" discourse, which means that it comments and fills in the gaps of a more "primary" discourse (such as Scripture).


As an example (I do not mean this disrespectfully of sacreligiously): we know from Scripture that Jesus ate food - but can we say that Jesus went to the bathroom? Scripture does not answer this question, but depending on how we answer this question, there might be tremendous consequences for other parts of our faith.


By "consequences" I mean following the chain of effects of saying one thing or another, like dominoes falling one after the other. For example: if Jesus did not have normal human functions, then Jesus was perhaps not human. If he were not human, what was nailed to the cross? If what was nailed to the cross was not human, then can the cross affect human sin...? You can follow these chains of consequences in many directions from seemingly simple and minor decisions. To the extent that we insist that Jesus did (or did not) do this or that thing that is not specifically referenced in Scripture, we have moved to the realm of Theology. This is true as well for many matters not specifically related to the person of Jesus. Theology related to all areas of understanding the Christian life.


One of the key things to learn in this course is that Theology has to pay attention to consequences- the theologian pays attention to what is said casually about belief, because the consequences of these casual statements for the coherence of Christian faith may be unforeseen and huge, for good or for ill.


There are many jobs in the Church - pastor, deacon, usher, parishioner, custodial staff... each of these jobs has specific tasks and responsibilities. We might ask, "What is the role of the theologian in the church?" One answer (the one I prefer) is that a theologian "defends the faith." This means that the theologian and the pastor are not enemies. When the pastor is speaking from the pulpit in the power of the Gospel and the spirit of truth the theologian is cheering. It is only when the pastor (or others in the church) step away from the historical traditions of the faith that the theologian feels compelled to cause a stir. (Bear in mind that there are many pastors and theologians both who would disagree with me on this point!)

What we will be examining in this class together is systematic theology. What does this mean?


If we imagine a car, we can see that it is made up of a great deal of systems: the air conditioning, tires, brakes, radiator, fuel injectors and many more each go into making a functioning car that you would want to ride in. Now some of these systems are not vital (you might be able to ride comfortably in a car without air conditioning) and some are absolutely necessary (one cannot ride in a car safely that has no brakes). Some are interchangeable (like a car stereo) and some are specific to the model and make of car you are driving.


Systematic theology works in much the same way. Just like, when you ride in a car, you aren't thinking of all the different components, you often don't notice all the different pieces that make up what you believe. When you really begin to notice them is when one part stops working like it should. Your beliefs are complex and have many aspects you don't always see or consider. Systematic theology helps us understand the relationships among all the parts of our faith, and "fix" our beliefs when something stops working like it should. There are many reasons why we believe what we believe. We have our families, and our experience, and Scripture, and many other voices from our teachers and authorities to choose from.


In theology, we call these various voices by the techincal term sources.Plainly put, a source is just one of the many reasons that go into justifying what you believe. Now, as we can imagine, there will come times when two of the sources we are using might come into conflict. In those cases it often happens that one source becomes more important than the others. For example, in a conversation with a person who took both science and Scripture seriously, that person might choose one source (science or Scripture) over the other when discussing the origin of life on Earth. When this happens we call this more powerful source a norm. Sources and norms interact and interchange, but you always have them when you believe, or know, something.


1.2 Historical backgrounds


Israel and Hellenism


We must look at the events described in the New Testament as being a part of a much larger fabric. Jerusalem in the first century AD was at the center of many layers of cultures and conflicts. The chief among these layers were those of Judaism and Hellenism.


Jewish culture ranged back some 3000 years, from the earliest myths of a group of "wandering Arameans" [Deut. 26:5], through the enslavement and exodus to the construction of Solomon's temple. The culture of Israel (by which we mean the identity of the people, as the kingdom of Israel had split into Israel/Judea by the time of the New Testament events) was characterized by radical monotheism, the absolute belief that there was only one true God. The Israelites believed this so strongly that the would often riot and revolt if made to worship idols or other gods. This monotheism was in stark contrast to other cultures around them.


But Israel was just one island in a much larger culture - the culture of Hellenism.This culture was centered in the city-states of Greece and was exported by a series of wars and empires throughout Asia Minor and beyond. While this was not the "birth of civilization", as some writers of the past have put it (to call it that would be to discount the important contributions of the African and far-Eastern societies of the day), Hellenism still factors greatly in the discussion of the rise of what is now called "Western thought".


The Hellenistic culture was polytheistic (worshipping many gods) and focused on many philosophical questions. It also made great advances in areas of art, architecture, urban planning, and (in some cases, to a limited degree) democracy. When we use the term "pagan", the word technically refers to the religious culture of Hellenism.


When we remember the story of Paul at Mars Hill (see the Book of Acts) we see him encountering a group of thinkers in the marketplace. The religious dialogue he takes part in (and the way the others seem to "play" with him without taking him too seriously) is typical of the philosophical climate of Hellenism at the time of Christ. There is a keen interest in "big questions" (how should we live? What is Good? What is Truth?) but there is also a certain amount of distance from definitive answers.


Hellenism was taken on by the dominant empire of Christ's time - the Roman Empire. It modeled itself on many of the Greek's ideals and adopted the Greek gods as its own (though it changed their names).


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