The Dilemma of a Right Theology

“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”  I Corinthians 1:22-24

We face a dilemma in theology that has been with the Church throughout its history.  It relates to how the Church is to define and practice true religion in this world, and thus express a “right” theology of its spirituality.  The dilemma is this.  Theology seems to exist within the historic Church on two levels as hinted at by the Apostle Paul.  The first is what we might call the Biblical level where the revelation of God is received and lived in as fully as is possible by the human will.  On this level, Biblical truth is most often presented prophetically, God bearing witness in His own words to His Person and will.  The second is what we might call the theological level, where the revelation of God is received and understood as fully as is possible by the human mind.  On this level, theological truth is most often presented catechetically, with the Church bearing witness in its words to the person of God and His truth.  We might liken the former to “heart” religion and the latter to “head” religion.  I know this falls short of portraying either side accurately, but it serves to show where the emphasis of each type of theology usually lies.  It might be more accurate to say that the orthodoxy of Biblically-based religion is judged by what you do, and the orthodoxy of theologically-based religion is judged by what you believe.  The former revolves around the concept of relationship, the latter around the concept of doctrine.

The two strands of our religion are the result of Christianity growing from a predominantly Jewish root planted in an especially fertile Grecian field.  The Jews were a people of the book.  For them the Torah, God’s law, was both the study of a lifetime, and the full expression of the life resulting.  There was little difference for the Jew between life and religion.  The Greeks, on the other hand, were a people of scientific bent, with a mind that worked best in abstracting particular reality into universal ideas.  They felt the need to construct an intellectual working model of the universe into which both life and religion fit; but for them biology and theology remained only differing branches of science formulated to characterize facts and relationships.

The dilemma was aggravated by the fact that the earliest Church was predominantly Jewish in heritage.  This early Christianity was the expression of the fulfillment of the eternal covenant of Yahweh through the sending of His Messiah.  But such concepts as covenant and Messiah were foreign to the Greeks and suffered loss of their true meaning, both by being translated into a new language with inadequate corresponding words, and by being transplanted into a culture that had no context by which to relate to them.  The destruction of the Jewish nation in the late first century A.D. with the dispersal of the Jews throughout the word helped to hasten the eventual Hellenization (Greeking) of Christian thought and developed theology.  Here again, the dilemma strained the Church.  For though its theology was framed by the decisions of the Church councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Constantinople, its liturgy had been established in Jerusalem by the direct command of the Jesus Himself.  And while the theology stress correct belief, the sacraments and worship demanded correct action (“Do this in remembrance of Me”).

How then do we deal with this age-old struggle of tendencies in our own time and setting?  Do we dare to continue thinking “Greek” or western thoughts in our religion and continue to allow our catechisms and systematic theologies to be the precise definition of our spirituality?  Or do we dare to live “Jewish”, rejecting philosophic certainty in argument in favor of the pure word and law of God and thereby allow our life to become the expression of our spirituality? Or is there a compromise lying somewhere in between?  I don’t have a final answer; I only recognize that while Christianity has been shaped by Jewish and Greek influences, it is yet something entirely different from either.  It is that divine good news that can find the scope and breadth of its life in the Hebrew word Emmanuel (God with us), and the preciseness of its witness to the manifestation of that life in the Western word Incarnate; and yet the news that it proclaims is more than the simple consolidation of the two together.

This was the struggle I faced on a more limited scale when I tried to pass on my “religion” to my children.  I tried to be precise enough to guard them from error, but broad enough to show them the fullness of the liberty to live that God alone can give.  Their young minds were not content with a religion based on proof texts or catechism answers; they wanted a religion that could be seen and touched and handled (I John 1:1-4).  It is hard to reduce such religion to convenient or precise words.  How do you express what the Jewish high priest felt when he parted the veil and walked into the Holy of Holies to minister before the presence of God?  How can you chronicle the response in a human heart when it is washed by the blood of the Lamb and the Holy Spirit enters in to sanctify and hallow it?  What needs and fears does a person sense deep within himself as he lies along in his bed at night?  These are the sorts of things the practice of our religion must address if it is to restore to theology the power to save men’s souls.  Somewhere in the Person of Jesus, Who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God, the answer is to be found.  In the end of the matter, that is the only answer worth knowing.

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