Sunday, 28 February 2016

Jesus the Theologian

In the next couple of blog posts, I am going to share material from a theology assignment I wrote for my 1st year at seminary and managed to secure the highest marks in the class! I hope you will find this series helpful.


“God had only one Son and he made that Son a missionary.” David Livingstone[1]
Although written in a missionary context, Livingstone’s quotation can be used in a discussion of theology as well. Hence, it would not be wrong to say:

“God had only one Son, and that Son was a Theologian.”

The purpose of these blog posts is to learn and understand how Jesus Christ used theology (with all its nuances) in His teachings. Through this study, we can also better understand the different factors of theology.

Theology: A Brief Definition

Theology simply means ‘the study of God’ or the ‘science of God’. In the past, theology (like philosophy) was considered an all-encompassing discipline in which all sciences merged together. Not many people know this, but some of the most prestigious Western education institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Oxford were established for the study of the Bible. The motto at Oxford was “The Lord is my Light” (Dominus illuminatio mea) [2].

That is why theology was called the Queen of the Sciences. With the passage of time, other branches of knowledge became independent from theology, but this discipline is quite extensive in its own right.

The study of theology can be further divided into various branches such as, natural theology, apologetics, missiology, systematic theology etc.  We can see these various divisions of theology in the teachings of Christ as written in the New Testament.

Factors of Theology

There are 5 major ‘ingredients’ of theology:

1.      Scripture
2.      Tradition
3.      Reason
4.      Culture
5.      Experience

Theology is a system of belief, and different parts coordinate to form a whole, like different pieces of a puzzle. For example, we cannot separate the doctrine of the Trinity from the doctrine of atonement.

Let us now (briefly) analyze each of these factors so we can identify them in the Gospel discourses.

  •   Scripture

The fact that theology is derived from scripture (the Holy Bible) is easy to understand for any Christian. However, it is debatable whether scripture alone is the foundation of Christian theology. 

Sola Scriptura is the idea that scripture alone dictates all matters of theology, or at least it has the final say in matters of theology. The central passage for this concept is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says that all scripture equips the man of God for every good work.

Against this notion, some argue that we should also adhere to sacred tradition. Sacred tradition, they say, is what gave us the canon of scripture. This chicken-egg dichotomy is not going to be resolved anytime soon. But we have to agree that in any case, theology precedes scripture[3].

·         Tradition

Many denominations give considerable (if not equal) importance to sacred tradition along with scripture, e.g. the Roman Catholic Church.

The Bible does endorse the traditions received from the apostles in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15, although the Greek word “παραδόσεις” (paradoseis) used for ‘traditions’ can also mean ‘teachings’. 

In any case, traditions are integral to theology, regardless of the denomination. Theology is always historical and it also develops in a community setting. Hence, a Christian who attends a specific parish is bound to have his beliefs influenced by the historic teaching (i.e. the tradition) of that denomination.

·         Reason

Theology in its essence is conceptual and abstract, and that is why we need to use our God-given faculties and think about these matters carefully. Simply saying ‘God exists’ or ‘Jesus is Savior’ is not enough; we have to genuinely understand what these claims mean. 

Some branches of theology, like natural theology and apologetics, place high emphasis on reason. The Bible also talks of reason as a means of knowing God (Romans 1:19-20). According to these verses, everything about God can be known through reason. The Greek word καθορᾶται ‘kathoratai’ used in these verses means “clearly understood”. That is why no one is ‘without excuse’ when it comes to knowing God. 

However, since humans are sinful beings, they suppress their God-given reasoning faculties by acting in opposition to what is plainly revealed in nature and scripture (Romans 1:21).

·         Culture

Our external factors can impact our understanding of theology, if not the theology itself. In fact, the purpose of studying theology depends on, among other things, the culture that we live in. Before the counter-culture movements of the 1960s in the West, it was OK to assume a Judeo-Christian worldview, but now Christianity has to argue its case and fight for its acceptance. 

We can also see tensions between theology and culture in the Bible. For example, can Christians eat meat offered to deities other than the LORD? This question troubled the Corinthian church, and still haunts the ecclesia in Pakistan.

·         Experience

While scripture maybe considered the main source of theology, we cannot disregard the value of the human experience, both individual and collective. Knowing God is (or it should be) first an experiential process, and then an academic activity. Experience is how people in the Bible knew God in the absence of any traditions or written revelation. John Hick writes:

God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine . . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives[4]

This process continued in the New Testament, as people believed in Jesus because of the miracles He performed, and ultimately because of His Resurrection from the dead. According to Luke 25:24-27 and John 20:9, the disciples did not understand scripture till they experienced the Risen Lord. This is a profound reality.

More on these issues in the next blog. Stay posted!

[1] Mark Struck, “World Missionary Quotes.” ,compiler, Desiring God, (accessed 3rd December 2015)
[2] “The Arms of the University: origin and significance”, Oxford University Archives, (accessed 1 December 2015)
[3] Pervaiz Sultan, “Systematic Theology 1: Class Notes”, St. Thomas Theological Seminary, September-December 2015.
[4] John Hick, "Introduction," in The Existence of God, ed. with an Introduction by John Hick, Problems of Philosophy Series (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1964), 13-14.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Jesus Way of Reading the Bible

Jesus' temptation in  the wilderness is one famous Biblical episode that Christians contemplate on during the Lent Season. We know that Jesus overcame the devil, and he did so by quoting Scripture. However, what is often overlooked is the way in which Jesus quoted from the Old Testament. 

This becomes even more interesting when we compare this episode with the one in Genesis 3, of how the serpent tempted Eve, which resulted in the Fall. Adam and Christ have of course been compared in the New Testament (Paul calls Jesus the "The Second Adam").

Adam and Eve represent the ideal human condition. An intimate fellowship with God, nature, and each other, with all their needs being met. Indeed, Eden is a symbol not only of the household but also of everlasting life in heaven. 

Adam and Eve met God everyday and had fellowship with Him. But it all got ruined just because they could not quote Scripture accurately!

Here is what happened.

1) God warned them about eating the forbidden fruit. He said: "but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17)

2)The serpent directly challenged this statement "“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1)

3) Eve stumbled: "but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ (Gen 3:3)

And this is where it all went wrong. Mother Eve went beyond what God had said. She fumbled, and even added her own words to God's one simple command. She treated Scripture casually, and it got the better of her.

Now let's jump forward to the New Testament. Here is how the story goes:

1) Jesus receives divine confirmation when the Father says:
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

2) Satan directly challenges this statement:
If you are the Son of God.............." (Matthew 4:3)

3) Jesus doesn't fumble. He retains His ground, and quotes accurately from the Book of Deuteronomy thrice (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10)
4) The devil flees.

And this is the Jesus Way of Reading the Bible!

He knows His scripture well enough not only to quote it accurately, but also to catch and expose misinterpretations of it. As a Jew, Jesus would have memorized the Torah in his teens. Luckily for us, we are far ahead from the time of Adam and Jesus. We have printed Bibles and electronic ones as well available readily, plentifully, and cheaply. Start reading!

For those who preach and teach the Bible, if you can't memorize it, at least carry it around with you. This is what I try to do. That way you wouldn't have to paraphrase verses like Eve did.

One more thing. Simply quoting the Bible doesn't make your theology true. Even the devil can quote the Bible (quite accurately I must say). To quote from the late Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: 

"Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)"
Hence, there is no I-rest-my-case with so and so verse in genuine theological discourse. 

We need deep reading, to wrestle with the text, ask critical questions, and the willingness (and humility) to learn from the experts.