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.

Of Governments and Hope: Where should I look for hope?

The Bible doesn’t really have all that great a view of governments. Certainly we are to obey governments but that’s not what i mean. The bible’s best option for human governance is always presented as being God.

We see this throughout the story of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel is freed from Egypt because Egypt’s government had enslaved them. God then led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

We see this in the story of Israel’s first king — Saul — a move that God saw as being a rejection of his rule, and even the most cursory of reads of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles shows us the failure of this system.

We also see this in the choice of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to use the term “gospel” when identifying their story type; gospel or good news being the term Roman Emperors used to describe their own ascension to the throne. The four are in essence saying, “Jesus is a better emperor than Rome’s!”

That’s why government in the Bible is often referred to as an animal (most translations maintain the archaic expression “beast,” but as I’ve said here and here that that leads to strange interpretations). What this means is that we shouldn’t be surprised when the government tears us to pieces. The example in Canada at the moment is the whole Indian Residential School system (which I have written about here, here, and here) but I am sure we can come up with countless other ways governments around the world mess things up. Some organisations —such as Transparency International, Amnesty International, and Wikileaks — exist merely to evaluate the level of mess that governments make. Of course in the Biblical examples we also see some animals that have fatal wounds but don’t die, perhaps indicating domesticated governments who aren’t as powerfully bestial.

This is of course the danger of identifying any human political theory or system with God’s way. One recent Facebook conversation I had highlighted this. My friend pointed out the abuses that more leftist firms of government were guilty of, including the top echelons becoming rich while the rest remained poor. Of course the same could be said for rightist governments and their billionaires. Apart from this there are the similarities between parties on a vast range of issues — their differences are often highlighted but their end policies often end up being the same.

Regardless of the level of wildness in government, it is clear that something else is needed. So what’s the solution? I see at least two:

Lamb of God. The Bible describes Jesus as being more like a lamb than an animal. Certainly He is also the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, but in the context of the animal or beast language used in some parts of the Bible, Jesus as lamb is contrasted. No one in the created world — animals included — is found worthy to get God’s plan rolling: “” Eventually it is the lamb who was slain who is able to open the seals.

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will rule as king forever and ever.” It’s the phrase “has become” that I would like to focus on. How does this process happen? There are some that view eschatology as something God does at the end of time. Our only tole as humans is to be the cause of the end because of our unbridled wickedness.

But I wonder if that is indeed the way things are meant to happen? If our wickedness brings about the end, is it possible for us to work together with God in the transformation of the kingdom?

Certainly God has included humans in his plans. Jesus did after all commission his human disciples (including us) to make disciples of all nations. Whose disciples are these to be? Jesus’ disciples of course. What will these disciples do?

Disciples are filled with the spirit, whether that means being empowered to do the work of God, to a way to cope with the troubles of the world without using addictions.

Disciples reconcile people to God and to each other. Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation that we have on earth. This reconcilition imitates what God through Jesus began. He then says that “has given us this ministry of restoring relationships” as well.

Disciples bear fruit. We often interpret this to mean make disciples but fruit in the Bible more often than not refers to a personal transformation. This is best exemplified in lists of comparisons, most famously enumerated in Galatians 5, but also found elsewhere.

Disciples continue Jesus’ Isaiah 61/Luke 4 tasks of proclaiming Good News, forgiving others, giving sight to the blind, and freeing the captives.

Unfortunately the church hasn’t always been successful at fulfilling these tasks. What’s also unfortunate is that I have not always been successful at fulfilling these tasks. We have a lot to work on, both corporately and as individuals, in the process of working together with God for the transformation of our societies.

I wonder what we should work on first?

Feedback is always appreciated.

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Image by Bill Fairs on Unsplash.

“Why are you kicking against the goads?”: How do I know when God is trying to get me to change?

A few weeks ago we needed to vaccinate some calves against black leg. It was quite the process. First we had to round up the cows and calves in the pasture and gather them in a temporary corral. Then we had to move them through the farm yard and across the road into another corral — this one with three sections. We then had to separate the cows from the calves. The final step was to run the calves through a chute four at a time (a process that involved a lot of shoving). At the end of the chute they were locked into a smaller space so that they could be vaccinated. Eventually they were all released into another pasture to continue on with their lives.

None of this would have been possible without a goad.

I actually had to take a look at my Oxford Thesaurus of English to get an equivalent modern word for “goad.” Here are a few: Stimulus, incentive, encouragement, stimulant, stimulation, inducement, fillip, impetus, impulse, spur, prod, prompt; incitement; motive, motivation.

Basically, a goad is a tool used to get cows to move.

We had a variety of goads. Some were long thin whip-like instruments made of fibreglass. Others were old hockey sticks with the blades broken off. The most scary of the bunch, for the cows that is, was a plastic shaker that made noise when moved. All of these tools are used to make sure the cows go where you want them to go.

Jesus used the word “goad” in his encounter with Paul on the Damascus Road when he asked, “Why are you kicking against the goads?” (Acts 26:14). It was him saying, “I have been trying to get your attention for so long. Why are you not listening?” The way the question is asked implies that God had been trying to get Paul’s attention for quite some time.

What were the goads that Jesus used to convince Paul? While the list is not explicit in scripture, I could think of these possibilities:

  1. Paul knew the scriptures and the scriptures point to Christ — road to Emmaus. yet Paul didn’t see this yet. 
  2. Paul heard Stephen’s testimony about Jesus, but still approved of his death. 
  3. Paul knew the teachings of the Jesus followers, which is why he persecuted them. 
  4. Now Jesus takes matters into his own hands and personally appears to Paul in a very dramatic way!

We can be grateful that Paul finally yielded to the goads and chose to follow Jesus but the real question is, “What goads am I kicking against?” And perhaps, “How do I know when God is trying to convince me of something?”

[I thought about including a list here but then that might be goads you are kicking against and not ones that I am kicking against!]

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Ekrulila on Pexels.

3 Types of Evil

The years leading up to the pandemic have exposed a variety of bad things in the world — things that perhaps in the past were not as noticed by people not directly affected. These issues include the #metoo movement, racism including Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, Asian Hate, and Residential Schools, and violence such as the militarisation of the police.

One area of dispute is the extent of evil in the world. Some people simply say things like, “I am not racist so racism isn’t real” or “I have an indigenous/black/person of colour friend who hasn’t experienced racism so it isn’t really an issue” or the kicker “Once people accept Jesus they are no longer sinners so things like the mistreatment of others will just disappear.”

These various approaches view evil as being something personal and so provide personal solutions to it. And this isn’t all that surprising given that the default message of the evangelical church over the years has been, “Invite Jesus into your heart and your sins will be forgiven.”

Evil, however, is much more complex than simply being personal. In fact there are three types of evil, or sin, that are discussed in the Bible: Personal evil, natural evil, and structural evil.

In this post we will take an introductory look at each of these types of evil with the hope that a renewed understanding of these will lead to justice and change in society.

Personal Evil.

Personal evil has been the central way that people in recent times have understood evil. There are three ways to approach how the Bible understands personal evil, each one from a different cultural perspective.

Guilt to Innocence is the most common understanding of personal evil, largely due to the predominance of western Bible interpretations. It uses a courtroom as its motif. This understanding has led to popular gospel presentations such as the Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion, and the Roman Road to salvation. The emphasis to this approach is that all are guilty of sin and are thus in need of righteousness. This perspective is common among individualistic societies.

Shame to Honour is another perspective on personal evil. In recent years, students of culture have seen that many peoples on the earth do not see things in light of guilt and innocence. Some people better understand a proper relationship with God through concepts of honour and shame.[1] Shame to Honour emphasises relationships and how they can be restored. This perspective is common in communal societies.

A third approach to understanding personal evil is Fear to Power. In recent years, students of culture have seen that many peoples on the earth do not see things in light of guilt and innocence. Some people better understand a proper relationship with God through concepts of Power and Fear. Jesus overcame the power of Satan and death on the cross and gives power to those who are afraid.

Natural Evil.

Natural evil includes things like famine, drought, disease, wild animals, floods, storms, and disease.

Floods: God brought “a flood of waters on the earth” (Genesis 6:17).

Thunder, hail, lightning: God “sent thunder and hail, and fire came down” (Exodus 9:23).

Destructive Wind: God sent a “great wind” that destroyed Job’s house and killed his family (Job 1:19). Earthquake: By the Lord “the earth will be shaken” (Isaiah 13:13).

Drought and Famine: God will shut off rains, so neither land nor trees yield produce (Leviticus 26:19–20).

Forest fires: God says, “Say to the southern forest, ‘I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree’” (Ezekiel 20:47).

These events affect people all over the world and the results are often not good. A super typhoon went through the Philippines a number of years ago. In a small coastal town many lives were lost as logs from the mountains were washed through the town. Those logs were seen as a curse. About a week later, a small island community was awakened by cries of, “Thanks be to God. He has provided these logs for us. Now I can build a house/boat/business.” Those same logs cursed a week earlier in another place were now seen as a blessing.

It’s important to point out that these natural evils started with the curse in the garden of Eden, where, because of Adam’s sin, the ground was also cursed. It is this curse that leads to the examples listed above.

Structural Evil.

Structural evil is a system or pattern of beliefs or activities in an organization or culture that hinders or opposes the advance of God’s kingdom in this world. There are structured evils rooted in society’s prevailing religious, social, economic or political systems. The key element of structural evil is that it is organizational, a pattern or network that opposes the Kingdom.

Examples of structural evil include things like tax evasion, caste systems, dowry, sexual mutilation, slavery, racism and apartheid, colonialism, and bribery or governmental corruption.

Key elements of structural evil include the existence of a wicked power or spirit. Structural evil is also corporate, either organizational or institutional. It is systemic, with patterns, networks of activities or parts. It has a multiple nature including laws, law enforcements, culture, taboos, attitudes, beliefs, lack of alternatives, and repressive rule. It can be social, political, economic, or religious. It aims to create chaos, division, injustice, human suffering or natural damage. It opposes advance of Kingdom of God.

The good news for structural evil is that at the cross Christ defeated sin, death, and Satan. These now have no hold on believers. All authority is given to Christ … He is far above all and every other name. The Church as His Body shares this authority over Satan & evil spirits. In Christ the believer is given the authority to disciple nations.

Conclusion.

The church needs to further develop its theologies of evil so that we can both acknowledge the extent of evil in the world, and also find better ways to deal with it. Emphasis needs to continue, of course, on repentance from personal evil, but we also need to incorporate ways to repent from both societal and natural evils.

What do you think of this 3-part framework?

Feedback is always welcome!

Notes:

1 Other great sources of Honour-Shame based theologies include works by Jackson Wu, Jayson Georges, and Werner Mischke.

Image by Paulette Vautour on Unsplash.

What should be my place in the church’s pecking order?

My wife and I have spent the past week on a farm and one incident reminded me of the common saying, “Pecking order.” There were a bunch of eggs in the incubator waiting to be hatched and our arrival at the farm was the due date. One by one the little chicks pecked their way out of their shells and began the next phase of their lives. Which is when we noticed an interesting occurrence. Those chicks who hatched first began to peck at the chicks born later. This is the famous pecking order that determines who gets to peck whom?

It’s the most basic form of relationship and while I can’t begin to try to understand the way a chick’s mind works it does illustrate the way some relationships are oriented around power and domination.

Sometimes the same thing happens when people come to faith. Those who come to faith first set the rules for the next who come to faith. There are countless examples in the Bible, perhaps the most famous being the Pharisees and the prodigal son’s older brother.

Acts 15 is a great example of how the pecking order was challenged and a new way of relationship was hatched. Apparently some of the early Jesus followers decided that non-Jews also needed Jesus and so they began to proclaim Jesus to others. The first stage was Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, who was a Jewish proselyte. Others, however, went further and began to talk about Jesus with people with an entirely different worldview. This of course created turmoil in the early church as people accused both Peter and these other Jesus followers — now called “Christians” — of violating God’s laws.

Peter’s rebuttal is simple: The same Holy Spirit that guides us also guides these new Jesus followers.

The result was the order issued by the early church leaders that is recorded in Acts 15 that outlines how these new Jesus followers could be folded into the church.

This was a reversal of the pecking order concept where the old timers get to set the rules. Now the newcomers could create their own rules. In fact, it was the very rules themselves that lost their ability to shape culture. Rather, the Holy Spirit would somehow intervene in the lives of these others and help them to reshape their own cultures for Jesus.

Jesus says, “Be the one who gets pecked. It’s ok to be pecked because I have been pecked, too.”

So what other pecking orders exist within the church? What does the Bible have to say about these pecking orders?

Intergenerational pecking orders. But Jesus said in Matthew 19, “Don’t stop children from coming to me!” and also a few verses earlier in Matthew 18, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.” What does this mean? Sometimes people whose faith is fresher have a better approach to faith.

Favourite Bible Translation pecking orders. It is interesting that most of these debates are about English translations of the Bible, even though English is not one of the original languages. It doesn’t make sense if we are happy accepting other language translations but are only happy with one English one. What is important is that God says in Isaiah 55, “My word … will not come back to me without results.” What does this mean? God’s word works.

Favourite preacher pecking orders. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 — “some of you say, ‘I follow Paul’ and others say, ‘I follow Apollos,'” — talks about the teamwork involved in church ministry. What does this mean? Be a team player when it comes to church. Listen to a variety of voices. Engage in conversations rather than monologues.

Theological pecking orders. People love to fight about theology. I can remember to this day some of the theological arguments that I had more than 30 years ago — and I loved debating because I knew that I was right! That is the problem with theological debates because the goal is to find out who is right and who is wrong. The bible advises us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). What does this mean? Be prepared for the reality that you may not always be right!

Hermeneutical pecking orders. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation and for many years one hermeneutical system has reigned supreme: the grammatical-historical method. The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the default hermeneutical system used either in the Bible (eg. take a look at how Peter interprets scripture in at the end of 1 Peter 3) nor in various parts of the world. What does this mean? Sometimes other people know how to make sense of things too. It’s best to dialogue with them rather than condemn them.

Where is your place in the pecking order? How can I embrace being pecked rather than pecking others?

Note: A few days later I happened to see all the chicks huddled together because it was cold. I guess a common problem is more important than pecking each other! Is that why persecution sometimes makes the church stronger?

How can we move our way towards a lamb-like government rather than a wild-animal one?

“In my visions at night I, Daniel, saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the Mediterranean Sea. Four large animals, each one different from the others, came out of the sea.”

Daniel‬ ‭7:2-3‬ ‭God’s Word‬‬

Sometimes we are disappointed with the political leaders we have trusted. We suddenly discover that they don’t entirely embody the values we thought they did. People lauded Justin Trudeau when he first got elected Prime Minister of Canada but then the SNC-Lavalin affair, Aga Khan, and WE charity scandals came out and we realised that he was not all that different from other politicians. Or take the the whole Democrat-Republican divide in the USA. Regardless of where a party is on the political spectrum there are still a variety of issues that face leaders of all stripes that are more nationalistic rather than political, ala this tweet by Mark Charles:

I have been reflecting on a video I saw a few weeks ago from the Bible Project on Daniel. We just finished a study in Daniel where there is a series of visions that feature animals. Some animals have small horns and others large horns, representing presumably their varying levels of animal nature. These themes continue on in Revelation as well. One idea they had that has stuck with me until today is that governments tend to be animals and the only way that these beastly governments are defeated is by the “lamb who was slain.” Note that the difference between “wild animal” and “lamb” is significant.

It got me thinking about the “mark of the animal” and I wondered if having the mark on your forehead and right hand is in essence having faith in government as gospel rather than Jesus as gospel? The gospel genre in the Bible is, after all, a political genre developed by the Roman Emperors to show how great they were. Ratzinger, in his Jesus of Nazareth, pgs. 46-47, has this to say about “gospel:”

“This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, & redeemers of the world…. The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message … a changing of the world for the better.

“When the Evangelists adopt this word … what they mean to tell us is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk but reality…. the Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech – not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save & transform.

“Mark speaks of the ‘Gospel of God,’ the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word & deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here it is the real Lord of the world – the Living God – who goes into action.

“The core of the Gospel is this: The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

This is why Mark begins his account of Jesus’ life with “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Another place we see this is in Mark’s account of Jesus temptation in the wilderness:

“At once the Spirit brought him into the desert, where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. He was there with the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.”

Mark 1:12-13 God’s Word

If Pope Benedict is right and Mark chose to call his account a “gospel” based upon the political meaning of the word, then it is not unreasonable for him to use the terms “animals” in the context of Jesus’ temptation.

If the gospel is performative and not just informative, how can I daily perform Jesus as gospel in a world where most place their trust in wild animals?

If the gospel is performative and not just informative, how can I daily perform Jesus as gospel in a world where most place their trust in wild animals?

A good start in performing the gospel is to focus on four areas: Kerygma, Koinonia, Diakonia, and Marturia. In other words, we should focus on proclaiming Jesus as Lord of the Universe, on developing the values of Jesus’ Kingdom, on serving God & serving others, and on bearing witness to the Truth.

A good start in performing the gospel is to focus on on proclaiming Jesus as Lord of the Universe, on developing the values of Jesus’ Kingdom, on serving God & serving others, and on bearing witness to the Truth.

Only then will our desire for the wild become a love for the Lamb.

Image from https://unsplash.com/@quinten149

What does the Bible say about Gathering?

Many times during the pandemic, especially when church gatherings are being restricted, people resisting restrictions quote Hebrews 10:25, that reads, “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing,” as a defense that church gatherings should not be restricted. 

An initial appropriate counter to this argument is Matthew 18:20, that reads, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst.” This is the only verse in the Bible that sets a number to the assembly.[1] While this verse does apply a number to the concept of gathering, it does lead to several questions. What if you are alone? Does that mean that God isn’t “in your midst”? Not at all. The Bible also has examples of God meeting people who are alone, including Hagar in the desert (Genesis 21), Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28), Moses in the desert (Exodus 3:1-4:17) and on the mountain (Deuteronomy 34), and Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19).

It does raise the question however of what exactly the gathering is. Has gathering always been the same? Is there a mandated “biblical gathering model” that can be universally applied to all settings and situations? Can the Bible help us in understanding what exactly gathering is?

What follows is my rather lengthy attempt to answer these questions. I approach it from the perspective of how the Bible conceptualises religious or holy space. I will then talk a little bit about some post-biblical historical conceptualisations of the same. For those who have neither time nor desire to read such a long approach, here is the TL;DR version: Both the Bible and church history describe multiple examples of religious or holy space, some good and some bad, none of which are prescribed for us today.

The Worship of God and Holy Space.

One important aspect of understanding church gathered and scattered is to look at how people in the past have used space to meet God. Perhaps the strongest resistance to change is seen in the simple statement, “We haven’t done it that way before.” It implies that our own experience represents the whole of knowledge. This of course isn’t true but does lead us to ask how this relates to issues of church gathered and church scattered? How does history prove or disprove what we have or have not done before? Holy spaces have changed over the course of the history of the world. As described in the Bible, we see varying forms of what holy space is, depending on the situation or the time.

Positive examples of Holy Space.

There is a wide variety of positive holy spaces in the Bible. These are places where people approach God through means the Bible approves of. 

Garden of Eden. At the very beginning of the Bible, sacred space was in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve lived.[2] God would come down in the cool of the day, and they would talk together. So, there was direct conversation with God in this holy space, in this sacred space of the garden, which represented the entire world. And so, there is no need to have any special place where that would happen. In the age of innocence, the space and the time were the same. The cool of the day in the space of the Garden of Eden, God would talk to his people. 

Sacrifices and Altars. As humans became slaves to sin, we see that there was a new way of interacting with God, we see the story of Cain and Abel, and were they brought “offerings” to the LORD.[3] And so, it seems that these sacrifices were offerings of the produce of the land, whether it was flora or fauna, to God. It would appear that at this point there’s some kind of burning involved. These happened on altars, but it wasn’t simply the use of an altar, it seems that there is also the proper use of an altar because God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. This implies that is seems to be more than simply the place where the offering is given – there seems to be some kind of an attitude that gets developed through the offering of sacrifice.[4] Prior to the flood, the process of “offering” isn’t clearly explained, but after the flood we are introduced to the word “altar” and this word is used 338 times in the Old Testament. As the story progresses, you see these sacrifices happen on altars as the key ways that humans interact with God. In fact, The Bible tells us that only some of the animals came to Noah’s ark two-by-two. The rest came in sevens – and these were the clean animals that Noah and his family would subsequently use in sacrifices and offerings after they were saved. Abraham interacted with God through altars. Wherever he and his descendants Isaac and Jacob went they would set up an altar to God. That makes altars a kind of a very specific religious space. 

“You are standing on holy ground.” Moses is in the wilderness herding sheep, he sees a burning bush that isn’t consumed by fire. When he approaches, God says to him, “Take your sandals off because you’re standing on his holy ground.” Perhaps this is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden where the ground the earth and everything God created was holy. This event, however, appears to be a one off – there are no further accounts of encountering God at burning bushes. 

The Land of Goshen. When the children of Israel first arrive in Egypt, they are given the Land of Goshen, which becomes their religious space (Genesis 46:3-4; 47:27). Eventually during the Egyptian captivity, the people call out to God and God hears their voice, and he answers their plea for help. And he comes down and frees them from the land of slavery, and brings them into the land of promise. And while they’re on the journey, they go to several other holy spaces. 

Holy Mountains. Mountains are also key religious spaces in the Bible. There’s Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb, which is a holy space.[5] Moses had several encounters with God on this mountain including the burning bush[6] and receiving the decalogue.[7] It was on Mount Carmel that Elijah and the people of Israel had their encounter with Yahweh and the prophets of Baal were defeated.[8] The ultimate example of a holy mountain is talked about in both the story of Abraham and the story of Jesus. Richardson (2005) notes that Moriah, the mountain where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac,[9] as the same mountain where both Solomon’s Temple was constructed[10] and where Jesus was crucified.[11]Mount Zion is also a key mountain especially with regard to God’s kingdom extending to all peoples of the earth. Mount Zion is in many ways a virtual space, sometimes identified with Jerusalem,[12] sometimes with heaven,[13] and sometimes with the place where God encounters the nations.[14]

The Tabernacle. The tabernacle is a portable holy space that the children of Israel carry with them wherever they go. Within this holy space we see a variety of spaces each with a reducing number of authorized users. In addition to the tent spaces there was also a special place between the cherubim on top of the ark of the convent. This was called the mercy seat and was where there was an interaction where people were reconciled to God, through the blood of the sacrifice. 

The Temple. The Temple was the permanent dwelling place for God, planned by David and built by Solomon on the Temple Mount. And this, this becomes a place of connection between the Jewish people and God. There were in fact a series of temples, each rebuilt after the destruction of the previous temple. There were also a series of tools and implements that were used inside the Temple.  

Jesus and Holy Space. Jesus does some of his teaching in the temple, but he also teaches in other holy spaces. He preaches on a mountain, he preaches in people’s homes, and he teaches in a new place called the synagogue. Eventually Jesus returns to heaven. The people of God continue to worship in the temple, they gather in the temple for prayer, even as they live in community together outside of the Temple. Ultimately the Romans attack and the temple is destroyed so that it is no longer a place of worship for Jews nor for Christians. 

Synagogue and ekklesia. The Jews focus their space on synagogues, and Christians focus their space on the church. Synagogues appear to be gatherings of God followers, in small communities, that are apparently spread throughout the Roman world. The diaspora of Jews throughout the Roman world meant that they couldn’t bring the temple with them so, the synagogue is created as a way for them to connect to God in an appropriate way. In many ways churches are the same. Both of these terms mean basically the same thing in Greek, it’s just that there is this agreed upon idea that Jews call their gathering a space “synagogue” and Christians call theirs a “church,” but in Greek the meaning for both words is essentially the same. Related to church and synagogue are “The Church that meets in their home.”[15]

Negative examples of Holy Space.

We also need to point out some other religious spaces that are not good examples. There are times where people seek God through means that the Bible disapproves of.

The Tower of Babel.[16] The Tower of Babel introduces a different kind of sacred space, one that wants to usurp God’s position as the ruler of the universe, almost as if to say if the tower is built then humans be able to reach to the heavens, the dwelling place of God, and then become like God. Even God himself says, “What can these people not do?” So, then he talks about messing with their language, and that’s where the different languages come out.

Under every spreading tree and on every hilltop.[17] Even though the people of Israel had the tabernacle as a center for worship, we discover that the people are constantly trying to create their own holy spaces for themselves. “Under every spreading tree, and on every high Hill” becomes a way to describe holy spaces where people worship God in inappropriate ways. We also see Gideon and Micah and the idols that they set up, complete with Levites to oversee the proper use of worship. 

Jeroboam’s Golden Calves. Jeroboam sets up two golden calves in Israel, after Israel seceded from Judah during Rehoboam’s reign. Jeroboam doesn’t want to maintain any connection with worship at Jerusalem because that would undermine his authority. Ultimately two events happen to destroy this second holy place: Assyria comes and carries the 10 tribes off into permanent captivity and Josiah destroys the two calves. 

Historical Religious Spaces.

Now we move on from biblical understandings of holy space and move into other historical expressions of the same. 

Christendom. The time of Constantine saw a change in Christian religious space. Whereas before the church was in a largely persecuted state and had to hide out in places such as the catacombs in Rome, now the church experienced official sanction. This allowed for the construction of church buildings, perhaps the most famous of which is the Hagia Sophia. Throughout this time the church transitioned from a group that met in homes to what we have today where churches largely meet in specially constructed facilities called churches. This has resulted in a theology where our worship is largely centered on a building; we’re used to “going to church.” In the Philippine context, you have churches that were also built as a kind of fortress, to protect the priests and members from harm.

The persecuted church. Christendom is not always the norm for how churches gather. There are vast areas of the Christian world where Jesus’ followers are not allowed to gather. In Iran, for example, you have Christians who have never met with another Christians because of the danger of doing so. If they haven’t experienced any sense of corporate worship at all does that mean they’re not church? Does that mean not a part of the family of God? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. 

A theology of Church Scattered.

We have seen that from the beginning of time that people have been able to approach God in a wide variety of ways – there is no universal system for doing so. That directly addresses present-day concerns about churches have to forego face-to-face gatherings because of the pandemic. We need to develop an alternative theology of church that will assist us in moving forward into the new normal. We will begin with defining the concept of church and then move into a discussion of the functions that the church is designed to perform. 


[1]  Some see this verse as applying only to situations of church discipline. However, I would argue that the proximity of the word ekklesia in the surrounding verses also allows its application to other church activities as well. What is interesting is that at least one church that is opposed to the restrictions bases their argument partially on the fact that they need to practice church discipline. 

[2] This story is found in Genesis 2-3. 

[3] Genesis 4:3-16. 

[4] It should be pointed out that there are no clear reasons given in the biblical account for why Abel’s offering was accepted while Cain’s was not. 

[5] See for example, John Calvin (1847-50) Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc03/cc03006.htm (retrieved Feb 11, 2021). 

[6] See Exodus 3. 

[7] See Deuteronomy 4:10, 4:15, 5:2, 9:8, 18:16, 28:69; Psalms 106:19; Malachi 4:4. 

[8] See 1 Kings 18:16-45. 

[9] See Genesis 22:2. 

[10] See 2 Chronicles 3:1

[11] Richardson says, “Where was Golgotha—The Place of the Skull—located? Just outside the wall of Jerusalem and within, at the most, 1,600 meters of the tip of Mount Moriah. King Solomon, centuries earlier, had erected the first Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah, probably to commemorate the exact spot where Abraham stretched Isaac upon that pile of wood (see Gen. 22:1-19). It was there that Yahweh placed Himself under oath to fulfill both lines of the Abrahamic Covenant” (p. 147).

[12] See 1 Kings 8:1-2; 2 Chronicles 5:2. 

[13] See Hebrews 12:22-23; Revelation 14:1. 

[14] See Psalm 9:11; Isaiah 2:3, 14:32; Micah 4:2. 

[15] References to churches meeting in homes can be found in Acts 1:13; Romans 16:3,5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15. 

[16] This story can be found in Genesis 11:1-9. 

[17] References to these places can be found in passages such as Deuteronomy 12:1–4; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:2-4, 20, 17:10; Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20, 3:2, 17:2. 

Image by @vladhilitanu

Is it beast or animal? Is there a difference?

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I have been prepping for a sermon on the church post-Easter celebration. Some have been asking questions like, “What is God doing during the pandemic? Why isn’t he answering our prayers?” and saying things like, “I am sharing this fake news because I want people to have hope that there is life post-COVID.” These are certainly important and serious issues. Since some of the comments talked about government and its role in the pandemic, my study (naturally) brought me to the word “beast” as used in the Bible.

Theology is sometimes based on archaic words and untranslated words. The problem with both is that it is possible to give them meanings that are different from what they really mean.

Transliterations are the words in the Bible that aren’t translated. Rather the Greek letters are switched into english letters and that new word is put into the Bible. I can think of two examples, angel and baptism.

Angel is a word that really means messenger but because it is not translated we have come up with a white-robed, halo-wearing, person with wings that has no connection to reality.

Baptism is a word that really means immersed or submerged but because it is merely transliterated we can take it to mean anything we want, whether that is sprinkling, pouring, or dunking. Of course what really messes us up is when this word is connected to the Holy Spirit 😉

Translations are words where the same meaning from the original language is found in another language. I think it was Andrew Walls who said, “All translation is betrayal.” This is partly because concepts between languages often don’t precisely overlap. It is also partly because often translations don’t change as quickly as language itself changes.

For example, the Tagalog word ulam is often translated as viand in English. Put up your hand if you know what viand means 🙂 It may be an accurate translation but it isn’t a very helpful one. (Having said that, what is a modern English word for viand I wonder?)

There are also biblical examples of the same thing.

Tongues. This is a old way of saying “languages.” Speaking in languages. The gift of languages.

Beast. This word can also mean animal, which is the most common way this word is said in today’s usage. But see what happens when we use it instead of beast? Mark of the animal. The Animals of Revelation.

Can you think of any other biblical words that could be replaced by more normal words?

Cultural Dependency & Systematic Theology: At Odds in the Search for Emancipation?

A lot of my work involves finding solutions for economic problems. Quite often I am that solution (at least on a short-term basis). But we haven’t found a long-term solution yet. We do teach on Capacity Building at SEATS but some things I have been reading lately have made me wonder if we are on the wrong track. Recently I have been thinking about the following questions and ideas:

If cultural & economic dependency are linked (as per Ali Mazrui), what does that say for teaching systematic theology cross-culturally? Since theology defines church culture, must it then be developed by those within the culture so as to not contribute to cultural dependency? Is it just adding to the problem? Is developing Asian Theology then the key to eliminating economic dependency in Asian churches?

These questions came as a result of reading my Dad’s Master of Education thesis from 1990. Kind of makes me wish I had read it earlier. Referencing Mazrui, Dad makes the statement “that cultural autonomy can be achieved through a strategy of domestication, diversification, and counter-penetration.”

Examples of this strategy (with comments) as applied to my cultural setting might include:

1. Use local language. SEATS training is conducted in a blending of English and Tagalog so perhaps we are going in the right direction here.

2. Connect to other Asian churches/cultures. SEATS itself is cross0-cultural but we haven’t been able to really link up Filipinos with other Asian church groups at this level. This will allow Asians to have more voices in the conversation than simply westerners.

3. Diffuse Filipino values into the mission. This, as pointed out in the thesis, is already on the way to being accomplished since there are a large number of Filipinos in Canada and Filipino churches working with the BGC Canada. Early in our career we even had a Filipino director of Global Ministries. His influence was definitely felt in our movement, even though he later moved on to other things. SEATS itself has a completely Filipino board. One idea would be to allow other Asian board members to help fill out the conversation and bring balance.

In your opinion, what is the best answer to this problem?