Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Roller Coaster Ride and Picking Flowers

Written by: on October 24, 2013

Ready! Set! Go! From the Patristic Period through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Hurry now, round the loop through the Age of Reformation and a lickety-split finish at the Modern Period and present day.  And that was just the first of three sections (97 pages) of the 464 page 5th edition of Alister E. McGrath’s work, Christian Theology an Introduction.

Feel the rush. Historically famous theologians, controversies, creeds, reformations, movements, doctrines, denominations, divisions, and key theological developments are all found in this mammoth work by McGrath.  It’s a Who’s Who in Theological history and a venerable smorgasbord of theology.  Moving and twisting as a roller coaster ride in an amusement park.  To be fair to my friend Alister, (I feel we are now on first name bases), warned us at the onset that his book was comprehensive and therefore included a lot of material and that we must not be frightened by the amount of material being presented, just pay the fare and buckle in for the ride.[1]

And what a ride it is.  Part one: Landmarks, Periods, Themes, and Personalities of Christian Theology gave way to part two: Sources and Methods.  It was in this section that the ride for me slowed down enough to gather and collect the flowers along the way.  Flowers of theology that is.  There was the organized peddles of systematic theology.   Topics of theology organized by either educational or presentational concerns. There is a clear order and overview of the main themes of Christian faith in this flower.[2]

Then there was the more intellectual color of Philosophical theology with my old friend Thomas Aquinas and his “Five Ways”[3] attempting to find the common ground between the philosophical questions of men in other academic fields and the answers found in Christian faith.[4]

There was the delicate flower of Historical theology that is often forgotten and overlooked by those so bent on only appreciating the geometric quantities and orderliness of the other flowers. By gazing upon this flower one can see the hand of God working in every period of history defusing his fragrance of salvific love. [5]

There was also the new flower of spirituality, or mystical theology.   Although this one defused the similar fragrance of academic odors as the others, it also had the sweet smell of spiritual dimensions of theology.  Dealing with the divine or supernatural experiences of God.  This spirituality refers to life in God and a life devoted to prayer and spiritual practices that resulted from encounters with God, yet there is still deep theological beliefs that undergird this type of theology and life.[6]

The most fragrant flower that I found was that of Pastoral Theology.  This is where the heady academic discussions move in a needed direction of social applicability.[7]  It is this flower that the common individual, living life apart from the ivory towers of academia, will smell the most.  More than just an exercise in theoretical reflection, pastoral theology offers models of transformation that can, well, actually transform an individual’s life.  My brother from another mother, Jonathan Edwards, agrees with me that theology finds true expression only in the pastoral care and nurture of souls.[8]   It is this theology, pastoral theology, that provides the theological foundation of both a framework and a resource for pastoral care.[9] Often referred to as practical theology it is theology at the practical level where the working man and woman can embrace their their true status as first and foremost children of God.

My flower gathering time was up and the ride continued pressing onto orthodoxy and heresy, discussions of culture and Christianity.  What to do? What to do, as to the culture where the Christian found himself?  Use, transform, engage, or not to?  That is the question.  Some fought for engagement and the full use of the classical culture to communicate the Gospel,  (Justin Martyr) while others such as Tertullian (What does Athens to do with Jerusalem?) argued that Christianity must maintain its distinctive identity by avoiding such secular influences found in the surrounding pagan culture.[10]  Here one of my heroes Augustine of Hippo comes once again to bring balance and focus. He likened the situation to the children of  Israel held captive in Egypt. Upon leaving Egypt they carried with them much of Egypt’s treasures and liberated them just as they were liberated to be used for a higher purpose than they were before. Thus the Christian should be able to appropriate things within their culture to advance the gospel and the  higher purposes of God.[11]

Oh, but the ride continued pressing forward on to the sources of theology,  the study of Scripture and another flower to collect, that of narrative theology. It is in this theology that the story of the Bible and the narrative that covers the redemptive achievements of Christ is exemplified and observed. It is in this biblical narrative that we see a way of conveying divine revelation.  Yet this flower is not so well defined as the others have been. It has even been said that this flower is not so much a movement or well defined school of thought, as it is simply a theological trend.[12]   We shall have to wait to pick this flower at a later time.

The “McGrath ride” continues to a great incline of tradition, reason, religious experience  and then a plunge into the Knowledge of God.   Onto the forest of philosophy and theology debates with all the leading players of historical significance.  Can God’s existence be proven?   On to analogy and metaphor, (one of Prof. Andy’s favorite discussions), and finally we arrive at part three.  Whew!

Here the ride moves to a slower pace.  From considering the historical developments of Christian theology along with the issues of source and methods to questions of theological substance.[13]  It is within the next few chapters that we encounter the theological understandings of such rich doctrines that the Christian church has believed for all time.  It is in these last chapters that Christian Theology puts all of what we have just run through to practice of defining and exhuming practical theology to a place of understanding and meaning.

Yes, Alister, it was a lot of material and the ride has left me spinning, but oh, what a ride!  I wish all Christians would pay the fee, buckle in, feel the rush, and pick the flowers as they enjoy the ride.

[1] Alistair McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2011), xxv.

[2] Ibid. p. 105.

[3] Ibid. p. 182

[4] Ibid. p. 106.

[5] Ibid. p. 107.

[6] Ibid. p. 109

[7] Ibid. p. 108.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 115

[11] Ibid. p. 116.

[12] Ibid. p. 129.

[13] Ibid. p. 197.

About the Author

Mitch Arbelaez

International Mission Mobilizers with Go To Nations Living and traveling the world from Jacksonville Florida

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