Monday, August 13, 2007

My theological journey, so far

I posted this on my theology blog, Renewed Theology, but since many of my friends may read what I post here and probably not over there, it might be a good idea for you to be able to see where I have come from in my faith in the realm of theology, since it is (or at least was) what I was known for.

Theology has been something that I have had a natural inclination to pursue ever since I started actually reading the Bible. I am by nature a person who loves to figure out systems (I especially like to try to figure out what is going on inside the black box), so considering theology is often times a system (hence systematic theology), it was only natural for me to study theology.

My theological journey has been a long journey so far in the few years that I have pursued it. I didn't start actually reading Biblical passages with much habit until around the beginning of 2003. I was an intern with a youth group at the time and for the first 4 months of so I had neglected to reach much (that sure is a very reassuring thought...). However, eventually the conviction that I had not fulfilled my responsibility in studying the book that is the foundation of our faith led me to start reading. I started off with the Gospels and then I eventually read all my way through the letters of the New Testament, especially paying particular attention to the book of Hebrews. My first major theological crisis was at hand (and by major, I mean significant for the directions I will take down the road).

To give you a bit of context, I am from the state of Mississippi where the main denomination is Southern Baptist (United Methodist comes in second). My whole family came from the Southern Baptist tradition. A couple of my great uncles on my dad's side of the family were Southern Baptist preachers, and one of my ancestors helped found one of the first Baptist churches in the state of Kentucky. Both of my parents also as children went to a Southern Baptist church, and while they didn't attend much in my childhood, there was a natural inclination towards that direction. So when I started attending a youth group and later Sunday School and then the preaching service, I went to a Southern Baptist church. My church was not a typical ultra-conservative congregation, though by no means was it liberal.

One of the big tenets of Southern Baptist thinking is Eternal Security. It was something that I was taught to believe, although I never remember being taught much about the biblical passages in my time in youth group. And then one time I asked the youth minister I interned under if eternal security was true and he said yes but he didn't know what passages to refer to. So I was indoctrinated with the teaching but I was not taught how to read certain passages that seemed to be for or against the idea of Eternal Security. This proved especially important once I started reading the book of Hebrews.

Any person that has even skimmed through the book of Hebrews can not miss the numerous passages that warn believers from falling away or sinning. When I started reading through Hebrews, I made special note of Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:29. To any person that is not "trained" in how to read certain passages, these passages certainly seem to argue against an idea of Eternal Security. But having been taught it was true, I went through a time where I was trying to make sense of everything. On one hand, I had respect for the people who had taught me but on the other hand I was incapable of explaining those passages in my mind. The struggle was so great that one day I broke down in tears and asked a friend of mine what I was missing (she was Southern Baptist at the time also). In the end though after a few months, I ended up rejecting the idea of Eternal Security.

This rejection of Eternal Security (or as it is also termed by some "Once Saved, Always Saved") eventually led to my leaving the Southern Baptist denomination. In discussing the idea with a couple of my Southern Baptist friends, I was called corrupt because of my belief (although, looking back, I was not graceful at all in the discussion so I wasn't innocent). This led me to reconsider my "affiliation" with the Southern Baptist denomination. The nail on the coffin then came when I discussed the topic with the pastor of the church I interned at. In that time, he proceeded to fail to answer my questions about passages but claimed I was "proof-texting" (a favorite tactic of people who do not wish to discuss certain passages) and that there was no place in the south I could be a preacher at. This arrogance was the final straw with me. I felt I could not be a minister in the Southern Baptist church because of my belief, therefore I had to search for another denomination in which I could eventually serve.

This is especially a significant point in my theological journey because this rejection of Eternal Security is responsible for many other crises and theological reflections that I would have later on, hence I have spent so much time talking abut it. However, it is important to note that I was never really dogmatic in my belief at the time, but it was simply the one that seem to make a bit more sense than the alternative. I at times really wondered if I had been wrong and that Eternal Security was correct as I looked at some of the passages that seemed to favor it that I could not explain. Also, I had never really been exposed to the idea of Perseverance of the Saints in all this time, but I was fighting the idea that a Christian could stop believing but they are still saved. This crisis was especially significant also as I felt like my mom had believed at one time but still hadn't. However, at the time, I read Hebrews 6:4-6 to say a person could never regain their salvation. And had I been presented with Perseverance of the Saints, it might have been possible that I would have gone in that direction in my theological journey.

It was around this time of struggle regarding Eternal Security that I started to participate on a message board called Bible Forums, a growing conservative Christian forum. As I participated there I began to become solidified in my belief. However, I then came into contact with my first theological system, of which I had already rejected a tenet of it: Calvinism. The two Baptist churches I attended had not really talked much, if any, about it so I was relatively unexposed to the idea except in history classes when we discussed the formulation of predestination by John Calvin in the context of the Reformation (although in fact Augustine was the first major proponent of it). I had passed it off beforehand as being held to by lunatics and people who didn't actually read the Bible much. However, what I found were the people who held to the teachings of Calvinism were not as I had imagined them. They were relatively average people, though perhaps a bit extreme at times in my opinions. They also had passages that seemed to support their ideas, especially Romans 9 and Ephesians 1:3-14. So I began to debate the idea and had to reflect upon the Biblical passages for and against. This is my second major theological crisis.

In my time debating, in my own mind I was losing the war, so to speak, to Calvinism. I could not adequately respond to the passages presented to me at the time. My lack of acceptance of it was rooted in only three arguments. First off, philosophically I couldn't image how a God who loved the world would predestine only some to salvation but not allow it to be possible for the others to be saved. Secondly, 1 Timothy 2:4 seemed to speak against the idea of Calvinism. However, these two things where not very strong influences in my mind, even though they did guide me a little bit. My big objection of Calvinism was my rejection of Eternal Security. I rejected the P of the TULIP. Since P is the logical conclusion of TULI, by rejecting the conclusion I was rejecting the "beginnings" of the system.

Eventually though, I gradually began to be able to explain the passages used to support Calvinism and the philosophical arguments. However, the one doctrine that I didn't reject was the T, Total Depravity (because I was taking somewhat of a middle ground stance between free will and Calvinism and I thought there were passages that supported it). But I was left wondering how it could be possible to accept Total Depravity while rejecting the rest of the TULIP. This led to my discovery of prevenient grace and Wesleyan theology. I had finally come upon that first theological system that I believed. This would prove to be very important in my finding a denomination to work within.

But all the meanwhile, while I was battling the idea of Calvinism, I began to wrestle with another classical Protestant belief, justification by faith alone. It was something that I naturally believed since I had come from a Southern Baptist tradition. Also I was not a Catholic in the least bit and I was actually very wary of Catholicism at this time (no doubt during to my Baptist beginnings), so it was not something I influenced me. Instead, my questioning of the teaching was rooted in believing that a person could lose their salvation. Initially I had simply stated a person would lose their salvation by losing their belief. However, I began to focus on passages that seemed to state that by sin a person could lose their salvation, like Hebrews 10:29 (I had early on explained that passage by saying a person who stops believing would willfully practice sin). This caused me to question sola fide and then James 2:14-26 caused me to start down the path of possibly rejecting it (initially I had explained that passage in the typical "faith that saves is faith that works" fashion). This was my third major theological crisis.

I had one thing that held my belief in sola fide intact, the letter to the Romans (and my implication the letter to the Galatians). However, I couldn't at that time explain James 2:14-26 in light of a sola fide reading of Romans 3-4. Since I believed in Biblical inerrancy whole heartedly at the time, I was left trying to figure out which passage should be translated differently. And since the book of Romans is such a difficult read (2 Peter agrees with this assessment), I began to develop a love and passion for exegesis in order to understand the book of Romans. As a result, eventually I began to reject the standard Protestant reading of Romans 3-4 and I had finally rejected the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Now, at this point, I was in a weird place. I wasn't a classic Protestant. However, neither was I anywhere near Catholic even though I had rejected justification by faith alone (no doubt still due to my previous dislike for Catholicism. Around this point, I began to have a decent amount of discussions with a Greek Orthodox on the Bibleforums message board. While I was neither Protestant or Catholic, I was still very Western (Christianity) in my thought. I still saw theology with a very legal mindset. Additionally, by my acceptance of Total Depravity (though I had some questions about whether it was Biblical or not at this point) I held to a form of original sin similar to that in Western thought where we all inherited a sinful nature from Adam and Eve (though I never believed we were held guilty for their disobedience). Greek Orthodoxy, for the most part doesn't accept those two ideas because they are rooted in the theology of two Western theologians, Anselm and Augustine. While it wasn't really a struggle for me and nor was it one issue or issues that were related to each other, this could be termed as my fourth major theological crisis.

In the end as a result, I began to lose the legal mindset when looking at Christianity, especially salvation. As a result, I began to reject penal substitution as a valid atonement theory along with every other form of satisfaction theory. While I don't have an atonement theory per se, I have came to think Christ's death primarily set us free from sin (similar to redemption theory) and forgiveness was secondary and the result of being set free from sin. This aligns with the Orthodox view as salvation being a remedy for an illness. Additionally, I began to reject a sinful nature inherited from Adam or from our parents (though I would say there are genetics we inherit that predispose us to certain sinful things more). Instead I say that we inherited an environment of death and pain and suffering from Adam and these negative consequences make us choose between ourself to avoid pain or be selfish and face pain (and we mostly choose to serve ourselves without any guidance not to) and this process slowly develops a selfish and amoral center that is roughly equivalent to the Protestant view of a sinful nature. This also fits in well with Orthodoxy from what I know. However, I have many objections to Greek Orthodoxy that would not permit me to be Orthodox.

As a result of my changing of my way of viewing the Christian religion as a whole, I began to get suspicious (though not in a negative way) of other assumptions I might make in my theology. As a result, this places me in what will perhaps be another major theological crisis, the doctrine of inerrancy. I am still figuring things out, but as I stand now I am a little bit on the side of errancy, but closer to neutral than anything. It is hard to explain where I stand now in only a couple of paragraphs, but essentially I don't require inerrancy to read the Bible as I believe it is all faithful, nor am I prone to striking out certain passages as errant (especially none of a more theological nature) but instead give Scripture the benefit for the doubt. Practically speaking, with a couple exceptions here or there, I will work better with people who believe the Bible is perfectly inerrant instead of those who believe it is errant (because many are prone to striking out many passages based on whims or purely circumstantial evidence). Most people would probably not even be able to tell I reject the doctrine of inerrancy since I have only a mild rejection of it as of now.

While all of this has occured, I have certainly changed my stance on many other issues, though they do not have as tremendous of an effect. I view the nature of sacraments and rituals differently (I will perhaps explain my view on that). As a result I do not reject infant baptism, though nor do I demand it either as I have come to believe that it is neither mandated nor forbidden (something else I might expound upon). Also, a result of my crises, I have developed a philosophy on knowledge that influences how I develop my theological beliefs. Last to mention, this whole process got me to go from being a theologian only in my head to feeling my theology in my heart. I began to apply my theology and it slowly ceased to be a mere intellectual exercise.

As a result of my drastic change and essentially being on the fringes of Protestant theology (if not already out of it), I had a continuous search for where I could do ministry. It would require a place that was open theologically, but the problem is that I staunchly hold to my conservative moral values (if not become a bit more conservative with them). Most open denominations though are lukewarm, if not accepting, towards homosexuality. So that ruled out a good bit of denominations. However, one that is in the middle but it is for the most part in my experience conservative is the United Methodist church. And my earlier inclination towards Wesleyan theology (which I have since come to believe differently) led me to more Wesleyan denominations, which Methodism is. Initially though I attended a Nazarene church, but eventually I came to the point that I would join the United Methodist church.

So that explains my journey up to this point right now. I still have a lot of "traveling" to do, so to speak, but by God's grace hopefully I will continue to mature. I pray that I am following the right path as I do occasionally question whether I am merely compromising my beliefs or if I am turning more towards truth.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Political Compass

Your political compass

Economic Left/Right: -1.25
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: 1.49



And for comparison's sake

Geez, this marks me as liberal. But call me morally conservative liberal. But this validates the fact that on facebook, I mark my political affiliation as other. I am truly a centrist on the grand political scale.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

And now it begins...

Sixteen. A small number if one is thinking in a large scale, but such a voluminous number in certain instances. Specifically, if the instance is textbooks for my first seminary classes. So, for your enjoyment, here is the list of books I got for this semester:

Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (Revised Edition) by W. Randolph Tate
A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman III
Introduction to the Old Testament by Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman III
From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew by Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.
A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament edited by William L. Holladay
A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax by Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi
A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Revised Edition) by C.L. Seow
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia
A Simplified Guide to BHS by William R. Scott
Conversion in the Wesleyan Tradition by Kenneth J. Collins and John H. Tyson
The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace by Kenneth J. Collins
John Wesley by Kenneth J. Collins
Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons... as he approved them
The Heritage of American Methodism by Kenneth Cain Kinghorn
The Story of American Methodism by Frederick A. Norwood
United Methodist Studies - Basic Bibliographies edited by Kenneth E. Rowe

Tack on the fact that I am trying to read other books (like currently, I am reading A History of Christian Thought: From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism by Paul Tillich), I am trying to learn to actually read Greek (instead of just knowing some of the grammar of it like I do now), and trying to read Jewish and Early Christian literature (which I have not done a great job here recently), I am going to be reading non-stop. On top of this, my Bible reading and performing my duties as a pastor (which at the moment is only preaching on Sundays and the occasional visit). In addition to that, maintaining my blogs (although this is last on the list).

This should be very interesting. I am not naturally an avid reader, so I have to develop the habit. I tend to lose focus while reading, but I have slowly tried to develop the habit this summer and have noticed that I can read for longer and longer periods of time before zoning out, so thats a good thing. The other concern is that I get lost in a world of intellectualism and I cease to be growing in my actual Christian life. But on the other hand, this is a chance for this to be the beginning of some very enriching and edifying years of my life if I learn to stay focused and maintain my own personal and Christian life. So I look forward to it. Pray for me though, as I will need God's grace to enable me to work through all this.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

This summer I won't forget

Most summers are usually kind of slow with nothing memorable happening for me. This summer, it has been the exact opposite.

I have seen and faced a lot this summer. Nothing itself that was traumatic (though dealing with my grandfather was close to it), but it was just a big pile of small and medium sized things. And I had nothing to distract me from things this summer. Usually, when things get tough, after I go through an initial introverted state, I go find something to do to distract, for better or worse. I really haven't had that this summer. With only a few people being in town, I really didn't have anywhere to go to just forget about things. But, while it did suck that I had no distractions, in the end it was the best thing for me.

It feels like God was organizing this the whole time, and through everything, God worked on me. For the past few years, whether I was happy or sad, there always seemed to be some type of "cloud" (for lack of any word at all to describe it) that always followed me. Even when I was cheerful, it was there to dampen things even though it didn't make me sad itself.

But through everything, it just went away. I feel like a different person than I was at the beginning of the summer, though I can't put a finger on it. And pretty much all of the questions I had for God about my past were answered.

Maybe this is just a temporary thing, or maybe its a permanent change. Regardless, I've seen God's hand in it this summer.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

I don't want to be just another preacher...

that goes up on Sunday morning, preaches merely feel good sermons and then steps down without challenging people to change, to be a more loving, serving, humble Christian.

So today I preached a sermon that was a step on your toes type sermon. And the comments I got after the first service were the "I enjoyed it" type (BTW, if you are ever at one of my sermons, I would prefer you not complimenting me afterwards as it just feels weird). While sermons should grab our attention, if you merely enjoyed my sermon, like you enjoy a movie, why shouldn't I just put a movie up there with Christian themes up during preaching time instead? Its not bad for it to be enjoyed per se, but I don't want to be up there to be enjoyed but to guide us to be better Christians.

The second service, afterwards I received the response of "you were stepping on some toes there," which seems like a response I would hope if it persuades people to change something, but I was just left feeling like it was a "Yeah, you preach it brother" type of a response instead of a "Wow, I gotta change" type of response.

In all this, I am not left doubting my calling. I have seen too many things to doubt that. But I am left to wonder, is it that I am not dedicating myself enough in prayer and study? Or is it something that the two churches really don't have a struggle with? Am I being faithful on my part, but it just isn't something that is meant to happen?

I know I am learning to preach, but I don't want to be learning at the price of not teaching others anything. So the question I ask is if I am actually doing the job a preacher is supposed to, motivating us to change to become more like Jesus? And maybe it is something I can't see in the short time I have preached week to week (only about 3 1/2 months). But I just wonder if it is a lack of a full faithfulness, or if it is something that is beyond my control.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


What is Courage?

Courage is to face the situations of the world in which the outcome is unsure and one could very well face negative results as a result of participation. Courage can not be had in a situation where we know for certain the result will lead to a negative outcome for oneself. This might be termed a sacrifice if we act knowing we will suffer and a form of confidence, but this is not courage itself. Courage is to walk into the fog, not knowing whether there is a cliff to fall off or not. To walk off a cliff unobscured by fog and knowing that it is there is not a courage to risk ones life because at that point ones life is not a concern anymore. There is no fear for the consequence of one's own death (though it might be courage to face what comes after).

Courage is necessary to reach for an ideal for something better, even if it means the possibility of worse for our own well-being, it is even inspired by that ideal. But the greatest amount of courage is formed when we believe the outcome will turn out good, even if we should suffer. But this trust can not be had in worldly thoughts, because the world and the universe itself appears cold and callous and is apathetic to our plights of suffering. Such a faith can only be had in a personal Being over creation, one whom can control the world and the universe and loves. With faith in such a Being, God, comes greatest pinnacle of courage, when it is a trust in God for the good to be good and the bad to be turned into good.

But then as our trust in God to bring about the ultimate good grows so as to be a certainty in God's promises and not a mere bet, courage ceases to be courage as we know it. It becomes paradoxically both courage and not courage. It isn't courage because one knows the result will be good in the end, but yet it is courage in knowing that bad may be a temporary result. And so, this courage is the greatest courage of all. While it is yet courage, it is unmovable because it does not accept pain and suffering as the real or ultimate consequence but only an obstacle in the way of facing the greatest good. It both accepts the possibility of a negative outcome and disregards it entirely.

This is why we must live by faith (or rather trust) and not by sight. Living by sight, there is so much uncertainty. We can only see so much and can not see all that is being done. It is impossible for us to get rid of uncertainty. It requires such a great amount of personal courage that is based upon ones own self to act. But to trust God does not require a great personal courage, but only a simple courage to face the "obstacles" that come along with a certainty that all will be well.

But this is not to say that courage is minor to the Christian. It takes a major role in the faith. It takes courage to trust in an unseen God whose actions we do not directly see. It is to step into the fog of not knowing for certain that there is a God, with the result that if there is no God at all, what we do is for naught. In addition, we may suffer more so than we would have if we had not trusted in God. So it does take courage to trust God. As God vindicates our trust in Him, we no longer need a simple courage to trust God as we currently do, but our trust becomes closer and closer to certainty in our minds. In turn, this trust in God that turns to certainty begets a greater, more stable courage (if indeed it can be called merely courage) that is unmoved.

One of my greatest fears...

One of my greatest fear has always been that someone I know and care about would threaten to end their own life. Today, that fear was realized, though the person did not end up doing it.

When I was 12 years old, my older brother committed suicide. And then throughout high school and my first year of college, I suffered through depression and thoughts of suicide. And those of you who know me know about this, and those of you have read my blog have read this a few times. I focus on it, fearing it happening in others, so much and the thought is a theme in my worries for others.

Today started out a bit differently as it was. I couldn't sleep last night, but instead of just saying I was going to sleep in, I decided to set a couple alarms to wake up me up by 9 AM. This is not normally something I do other than for Sundays. And while it was a struggle with only a few hours of sleep, I got up and started to mill around. After a few minutes, I get a phone call from my mother. I am not very social when I don't get a lot of sleep so I don't answer it and figure I will address it later, but for some reason, I felt it necessary to check the voice mail she left. She had the sound of concern in her voice and asked me to call back, so I do, and I am thinking and praying that it isn't a death in my family (I had a feeling of concern I don't generally get with most phone calls).

My mother tells me that it is time for me to be a 23 year old. My grandfather, who lives 30 minutes away in Eupora, had called my aunt and threatened suicide. My parents were going to be on the way, but I needed to head over there to talk to them. So I immediately get dressed and speed my way to Eupora, going 15-20 over with my hazard lights on (thankfully a highway patrolman saw me but didn't pull me over).

I remember thinking through so many things. I remember wondering why in the world this was happening to me. I lost my brother to suicide, I struggled with it for a while, and I had friends who I was concerned about recently (though I feel like they are doing a lot better), only to have a relative threaten suicide. I also worried that I wouldn't be able to be of much help at all and that I prayed to God to give me the words to say. I was also a bit emotional on the way, rotating between shedding a few tears and being resolute and strong.

When I was only a few minutes away, I saw an ambulance going the opposite way and my first through was that it was for my grandfather. I had called the Eupora police department about 15 minutes earlier telling them to get there, and I thought it was him, and I remember just praying that it was not my grandfather (although, that meant it would have been someone else). So, when I drove up, I was worried to see police there and that they would tell me that my grandfather was transported to the hospital.

When I drove up, I didn't see any police (they had probably been by and left). Instead, I saw my grandmother and another relative of mine. And my grandfather was on the steps smoking and cigarette and talking. My heart was relieved when I saw him safe.

We began to talk, but initially I didn't know what to say. But then he started to speak a bit, though he wouldn't reveal much. But he spoke of himself as a failure, and then all of the sudden a light went off in my head. I knew exactly what to say, and we had a conversation for a while and I began to get him to reveal some things. And the whole time, I wasn't very emotional, nor have I gotten so since (although I was tired when I got back and just had to take a nap). There was a sense of being at home in doing this (though it was not a pleasurable situation), and a peace at knowing what to do.

My parents got there and I needed to leave to get some work done (only to be too tired to when I got back to Starkville). A lot of thanks went through my head. The first thing was to thank my friend who was God's mean of grace to me when I had threatened to commit suicide. But then I began to think about the whole situation.

I have been obsessed with the idea of suicide. Not obsessed in thinking of doing it myself, but thinking of others suffering and thinking about it. I had often wondered if there was anything I could have done for my brother Evan. This was sort of a round-about way of getting closure with that situation. And I am confident that God called me to be here for this situation, given the circumstances I described above. And it validated my calling even more as a minister, especially in the light of the past few days where a lot of other things about my future have been coming together.

I paradoxically am both a bit chaotic, but also in a state of peace. God is doing things in me and for me, that while they may be a struggle in the moment, is showing me my future more and more. And He gave me the words to say when I didn't know what to say and the strength to stand up when I could have fallen.