Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Basis of Theology

In the Psalms there is an emphasis on "recounting the deeds of the Lord." The Psalmist, whomever the individual writer happens to be (if that is even ascertainable or important), recounts or retells the mighty saving works of YHWH to remember them. However, this remembrance is not a mere wistful reminiscence, but rather a double call to action: we act certain ways because God has acted such-and-such in the past and we call on God to act in the ways that He has acted in the past; ways that are "just, true, and right always." This is the genius of the Psalms: they are not idyllic poetry, nor are they the syrupy language of modern praise songs, rather they are like Moses' intercession before God, they not only remind us and spur us to faithfulness, but call on God to act faithfully in a situation, especially where He seems not to care or to have 'forgotten' His covenant (the Psalms are replete with such language, what some might think of as "unbelief" but it rather serves this essential liturgical -- and psychological -- purpose). This is one of the reasons (and maybe the best) for a church to use the Psalms -- in some way, shape, or form -- in their worship: they are dialogical between the God who is there in Christ and us in Christ.

We see the same double act of remembrance (or 'memorial') elsewhere in the Scriptures: in Leviticus, one of the offerings -- the mincha or tribute (badly translated as "grain offering") -- is given "as a memorial." That is, it calls the worshipper to remember God's faithfulness, but also calls God to remember the offerer and act in his favor. The same language is used by both Jesus and Paul in regards to the Eucharist: "do this in remembrance of me." We both remember the sacrifice of the Lord Christ, but also call God to remember in also and bless us who are joined covenantally (by faith through baptism) to that same Lord who is now risen and rules over all as King.

These liturgical moments, repeated (hopefully at least) weekly in Christian assembly, are the basis of theology: the double memorial of the great works of God on behalf of His people for the sake of His whole creation. This is a decidely non-philosophical theology, in that philosophical speculation (whether about the one and the many or substance ontology or satisfaction and merit or whatever) is not the basis of Christian thought and praxis, but rather the historical (both Historie and Geschicte for those who have ears to hear) work of God in creation, redemption, and consummation. This realigns philosophy, however, to its proper place: the understanding of God's world and how properly to live in it. This also connects what has often been sundered: philosophy and the biblical Wisdom traditions.

An example, albeit brief, of how this might look comes from I John. Many people know the verse, "God is love" (4:8) from this book. Taken by itself, it can lead to a picture of God as abstract (and therefore irrelevant) as any scholastic theory. However, John thoroughly connects it to the economy of salvation a chapter earlier when he says: "This is how we know love: Christ laid down his life for us." In other words, if you want to know what it means for God to be love, you must look at the cross: all our understanding of God flows from His works in our history and are made present to us in worship.

2 comments:

Mike Rad said...

Then the basis of theology is in response to an event--a conviction from God that the news of the cross and empty tomb is true?

Russ said...

That might be a good way to start. This, of course, puts theology not in the reified air of "objective" thought, but firmly places it as a human endeavor. We speak both truly and untruly about God -- the key is whether or not our speaking is faithful. The reality of the Scripture is the real reality that we are approaching via worship and theology.