January 9, 2010

Doctrine of God... or something.

When I submitted my candidacy papers, I had just finished Constructive Theology.  I was in a totally heady space, although I also had a lot of practical application involved. 

In my first round of papers, here is how I talked about God:
We have come to know and trust in God primarily through scripture – which holds the accounts of faithful witnesses to God’s work in history. There we learn that the God we worship is not a passive entity, but jealous, powerful, and always seeking relationship with creation. While some theologians begin with the via positiva or via negativa to describe God, Wesleyan theology begins with the scriptures and from that place, redefines the “natural characteristics” of God. We come to know God’s nature through the covenant made with the Hebrew people and the new covenant of Jesus Christ, as well as the continuing witness of the Holy Spirit. Above all, these actions tell us that God works in ways that invite human response and gives us the power to respond in faith. This is particularly true in regards to God’s power – which Randy Maddox argues must “not be defined or defended in any way that undercuts human responsibility.” God seeks to work in co-operative ways; ways that build, rather than destroy, relationship...
In his own time, Wesley was familiar with not only the Western notions of the divine, but also explored Eastern conceptions as well, which Maddox claims influenced his theology in subtle, though profound ways. Though he never directly claimed the Eastern Orthodox understanding of perichoresis as a description of the Trinity, it is not disconsonant with other of his claims, and in fact helps us to comprehend the relational nature of God. If our sources and the ways in which God is revealed are diverse (the economic Trinity) and yet always in need of one another, it would make sense to assume that God’s internal relations (the immanent Trinity) are likewise diverse and in need of a constant dance.
I still remember one of my Board of Ministry team members saying:  I was a little worried about you after I read the answers to your first question... but then you got more practical. 

Note to that team member:  I actually did teach perichoresis... in a children's sermon, nonetheless... we got up and danced in a circle and it was fabulous.

The ordination papers as I understand them are meant to be more practical and experiential.  So here is my answer to the question:

How has the practice of ministry affected your experience and understanding of God?

I have always firmly believed that God is relational and so it will come as no surprise that I have found and experienced God in the midst of the congregation. The lives of my parishioners carry on the story of God that was begun with the Hebrew people and we weave together our experience of God with the scriptures that have been passed on to us for future generations.

That understanding of God, however, has been most directly challenged and stretched in the practice of ministry through encountering over and over again the via positiva. So many in my congregation experience God as omnipotent, omni-present and omniscient and therefore see every minute detail of their lives as having been directly set into motion by the God of the universe. On the one hand, it gives me pause as I think about how various pieces of my own life have fallen into place by the grace of God. On the other hand, as a Wesleyan theologian, I also want to fight against determinism. I still hold firmly an understanding of God derived from scriptures – that God works in ways that invite human response and gives us the power to respond in faith, a god that allows it to rain on the just and unjust alike. I recoil when I hear a congregation member talk about how God caused something to happen in their life in order to bring them to faith. While it may be the result of such a time of tragedy that brought about their faith, I refuse to believe God causes pain and suffering in one person in order to reach another.

As I work with congregational members as their pastor and teacher, being able to talk about our Triune God, is immensely powerful. I can share with them my firm belief that in all situations, the Father of us all has always desired a relationship with each one of us. I can talk with them about the sacrificial love of Christ Jesus who died so that we might live… who died to bring us faith so that others do not have to die or suffer for that reason. I can talk about the Holy Comforter walking with each and every single one of us through the valley of the shadow of death. Our encounter with God in the scriptures is so much richer and deeper than any attribute we might postulate about our creator and redeemer and sanctifier.

Photo by: William Vermeulen


  1. I spent the last semester deeply studying the theology of reformed theologian T. F. Torrance. In many ways, Torrance develops the Christology and Trinitarian theology that Wesley's understanding of salvation/church/the christian life cries out for but he never developed. In any case, Torrance's radically Christocentric way of doing theology helps overcome a deterministic view of God and yet provides for an authentic doctrine of providence. Specifically, he talks about the cross as the primary example of the fact that God does not overcome evil by a wave of God's hand, but rather by bringing good out of evil (the cross being the most evil act of humanity is transformed into the means by which humanity is bound to God and united to Christ). Anyway, it's a thought.

  2. That's really helpful! I'm going to have to get my hands on one of his books =)