How can the church partner with the world while maintaining its identity? By imitating Jesus’ Changing Water into Wine. Lessons from Thomas Aquinas.

“All truth is God’s truth.”

I can’t tell you how many times I heard this while I was in seminary. And that was a good thing because I needed to hear it. I had spent the years leading up to seminary developing my understanding of truth that was pretty much limited to what the Bible (or at least my interpretation of the Bible) had to say. Any claims to truth outside of the Bible were suspect for me.

I even remember a time in a class I took at USask on Religious Perspectives on Death and Dying when I had to comment (in a test) on the validity of the fictional Death of Ivan Illich to my understanding of death and dying. My reply was that since it was fiction it wasn’t true! Wise Professor Robert Kennedy pointed out that truth can be found in a variety of areas of life including fictional accounts.

And it appears this debate isn’t all that new. The other day I took a look at Mitchell Atencio’s interview Why Nathan Cartagena Teaches Critical Race Theory to Evangelicals with Nathan Cartagena on Sojourners and saw a great idea from Thomas Aquinas.

In 1261, a few years before I went to seminary, Thomas Aquinas wrote a commentary on Boethius’ On The Trinity. Apparently some agreed with my early ideas — that blending God’s Truth with rational truths somehow muddies the mixture. Article 3 of Super Boethium De Trinitate by Thomas Aquinas answers this question in a very interesting way:

“5. It may be said: No conclusive argument can be drawn from figurative speech, as the Master (Peter Lombard) says. Dionysius also says in his letter to Titus that symbolic theology has no weight of proof, especially when such interprets no authority. Nevertheless it can be said that When one of two things passes into the nature of another, the product is not considered a mixture except when the nature of both is altered. Wherefore those who use philosophical doctrines in sacred Scripture in such a way as to subject them to the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but change water into wine.”

Part of the problem that I faced in the early years of my theological formation was that I somehow believed that the world was divided into two parts: Sacred and Secular. As as young Christian I was warned about the dangers of the world — the danger that I would become worldly. This came out in many areas, including concepts like Christian music, Christian schools and colleges, and Christian bookstores. There was also the idea that people needed to leave the world and join the church. Interestingly there was never an idea that through my influence the world would become holy.

How can we apply Aquinas’ concepts of changing water to wine to the whole sacred-secular debate? The sacred-secular debate keeps the two worlds apart because of fear of contamination — but a contamination that always goes from good to bad. Aquinas says that in order for two ideas to mix that they both need to change. When it comes to God’s truth however, the end result is not a mixture of good and bad but a transformation of the bad into good, much in the same way that Jesus changed water into wine.

So, that brings us to current issues where this can be applied. I can think of three examples. When I was younger the bad guy was psychotherapy. Psychotherapy was bad for reasons that I can’t remember. Fortunately today I have personally benefitted from people who have been successful in blending the truths of God that can be found in psychotherapy with the truths of God found in scripture and have applied those truths into my life.

Christians have also had a love-hate relationship with science throughout the years. Some have suggested that vaccine hesitancy among some Christians is a direct result of the religion-science debate. The argument seems to go along the lines of, “Science promotes evolution that directly goes against the creation accounts of the Bible. If then scientists tell us that vaccines are ok that must mean that they aren’t ok.” What we as Christians often forget, though, is that the early scientists were in fact men and women of faith who desired to know more about God’s creation and started an in-depth study of it.

There has been a lot of talk of late in the church about Critical Race Theory. And that is in fact with the Nathan Cartagena interview is about. The main objection appears to be something like, “CRT is bad because it is Marxism.” Once again the fear of the world influencing the church rather than the church influencing the world rears its ugly head. What we often forget is that justice is one of the key aspects of the Kingdom of God but since it has been neglected so much by the church we need the expertise of those who have thought about justice issues in depth.

Of course I am not advocating an uncritical approach to these issues. As Aquinas himself tells us to “subject [rational philosophies] to the service of faith.” But what I am advocating is that Christians tap every resource available as we seek to turn the water of the world into the wine of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, establishing the values of the kingdom of God, serving God and neighbour, and testifying to God’s truth.

After all, Jesus promises that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church. Why should we act as if it already has?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash.

One thought on “How can the church partner with the world while maintaining its identity? By imitating Jesus’ Changing Water into Wine. Lessons from Thomas Aquinas.

  1. Pingback: Emic vs Etic: Understanding how insider & outsider perspectives interact when doing theology. An example from the Philippines. | Michael J. Fast

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