A historical/theological glance

This essay has two parts:  background musings and a brief excerpt from a paper I presented at a small conference on July 26, 2017.

Musings on Theology
People’s thoughts can develop as time passes.  I suppose it is a truism that the thought paradigms and thought patterns of groups develop more slowly than those of individuals, but shifts may be observed across both spectra.  Speaking only of philosophy and theology, I’d say some shifts, refinements, or developments seem neutral; a few seem positive.

I have some use for both theology and philosophy, but I can easily drown in their thought-maelstroms, and I find only faint possibilities for clarity or growth in understanding.  I’m sure some of the fault lies with me:  if I had more brain cells and more energy for theology, I could cover more ground and make sense out of it.  But (try this on for size) the nature of the theological beast is that it is doomed to deep chasms of disagreement.  Here, think of such weighty (and disputable!) doctrines as original sin, regeneration, irresistible grace, election, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

In the past few months, I have come to be relatively well acquainted with a few men, in that I trust their integrity and their commitment to God.  However, we have deep differences in approach:  theirs, I would say, is theologically and devotionally based, whereas mine is more objectively textually based.  I might observe that theirs can seem more attractive in that it is brimming with faith and the desire to honor God, whereas mine might at points appear pedestrian and even pedantic.  Still, I champion a text-based approach, because it aids in focusing attention on what was taught by specially inspired men.  It matters little how many different frameworks/vantage points exist within a given group—or even whether integrity and intellect are found to be roughly on the same plane.  Very little agreement is likely to be reached, or headway made, in the course of theologically based wrangling.  “Agree to disagree” is about all that can be hoped for if theological postures are paramount.  Theological alignments breed group-affiliation more than they lead to truth or even “doctrinal correctness.”

There is a far more solid place in my own schema for granular scripture study, taking each text on its own, without attempting to conflate discrete texts and invent theologies.  Most theology seems superimposed on scripture, as though to provide a glass through which to see things overall.  Could “Systematic Theology” be more a matter of anthropology and sociology than of God, His Kingdom, or His people?

From One Year Ago
The following is an excerpt from a paper I presented at the Coffee With Paul conference in Indiana on July 26, 2017.  Admittedly, the paper overall is more a commentary on historical theology than it is on scripture, but it does make a few justified observations about texts.  In other words, when I theologized, I did so with bona fide textual basis.  Here in this excerpt, no scripture text is dealt with directly, and I rely on one who is far more learned and articulate than I for most of the theology and historical insight.

Lee Camp has advanced the label “Constantinian cataract” to describe the lens through which an institutionalized, state-allied Christianity has been seen since Constantine’s military victory in 312 CE.  Paradoxically, that conquest—declared a “Christian” one—actually began to inhibit Christian discipleship.[1]  During the fourth century, the Roman Empire came to be supposed Christian; that alliance has caused varying degrees of blurry, clouded, or glare-affected vision ever since.  Seeing through this cataract, Christians may easily begin to idolize a powerful nation-state—praising it, promising obedience to it, killing for it . . . and sincerely believing that all of that must be done in order to continue Christian life.  As Camp has it:

[T]he logic proceeds to an idolatrous civil religion at its best:  we must revere the nation-state, we must exalt the nation-state, and we must kill for the nation-state, so that we may worship as we please. [2]

The worldview that allows for those courses of action is not a worldview that places God on the throne.  Hear Camp again:

While biblically informed discipleship requires us to give ourselves in absolute allegiance to the kingdom of God, the Constantinian cataract threatens the purity of that allegiance by mixing it with an allegiance to the empire or nation-state.  Or, perhaps more accurately, we begin to believe that the pursuit of the agenda of the empire or nation-state may be placed comfortably alongside our pursuit of the kingdom of God, even though the ends and goals of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are clearly different, and clearly at odds with one another.[3]

Let there be no ambiguity here:  the Constantinian and Theodosian historical chapters conferred a disabling blindness that has never been broadly corrected.  Historical reviews may be hazy, prejudiced, or even reconstructionist.  I am persuaded that Camp’s vision is acute, but whatever the reader’s take on Camp, any lucid view will acknowledge some measure of antagonism between the kingdoms of the world and the rule of Christ.  The disagreement comes in how to see the Christian’s responsibility toward the former.

Full-bore political nationalism ends up inverting the rightful relationship between the Christian and the two kingdoms (human government and God’s), and this inversion was first starkly seen, and then codified, in the fourth century CE.  Aspects of Constantinianism may then be traced for centuries, through the Middle Ages and beyond.

[1] Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship, 21-23.

[2] Ibid., 42, 146.

[3] Ibid., 43-44.


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