On Meeting Joe Frazier: The Missing Element of Modern Theology
As an avid boxing fan, as soon as I knew that I was moving to
I was reminded of this incident last year when talking to a former student about recent developments in the understanding of Paul's theology. Not my field, of course, and thus my reading in the area is somewhat limited; but at the time I was struck by apparent similarities between some of the claims being made by these `New Perspective' academics and certain theological patterns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There, certain reconstructions of the doctrine of justification had been advocated by men like the Puritan, Richard Baxter. What interested me was not so much any positive connection which could be drawn between these two movements so much as the pastoral implications of what they were saying. Both Baxter and the NPP seem to offer views of justification which, at least in the categories of classical confessional Protestantism, place a higher accent on the significance good works than said Protestantism would normally do. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this led to a serious pastoral problem with assurance: where Baxter's theology was preached, people struggled with knowing whether they stood acquitted before God.
This was my question to the former student: will this New Perspective stuff lead to a crisis of assurance like that caused by Baxterianism? The students answer was emphatic and enlightening: absolutely not, because these NPP people have no concept of the holiness of God.
Now, that may well be a caricature; but it points to an important structural element of theology, especially as it connects to our mindset and experience: only those who have an overwhelming grasp of the transcendent holiness of God will ever struggle with lack of assurance. For those who think of God as, well, pretty much like themselves, or like some other common or garden god, or simply as a projection of their own sentimentality, there is no problem with assurance. If God is not that holy, then sin isn't that awful, and I'm just not that bad. Thus, if your view of God's holiness is shaped by the standards of your own mediocrity, then you are unlikely to worry too much about whether you're going to be acceptable to him. If I had not known who Joe Frazier was that day, my approach to him would have been very different; I may even have ignored. Only because I knew who he was and what he had done did I take him so seriously and did I treat him with awed respect.
I don't want to sound too melodramatic at this point, but I am increasingly convinced that this loss of a burning sense of God's holiness is the problem of modern theology, modern biblical scholarship, and modern church life. The loss of the sense of awe at God's holiness is the thing which separates modern liberal theology from premodern theology, and which is part of the tragedy of the modern academy
Let's start with theology. Now, `theology' as an intellectual discipline in the modern academy is today virtually impossible to define, so fragmented has it become. The old idea of systems or summae, coherent summaries and syntheses of biblical teaching, has been sacrificed for a cacophony of competing sub-disciplines: feminist theology; eco-theology; various ethnic theologies; theologies of animal rights; theologies of liberation etc etc. In part this is an aesthetic thing: the world in which we live in, dazzled by its all-consuming consumerism, loves the eclectic, the kaleidoscopic, the vibrantly chaotic. Further, the whole notion of tolerance, conceived of in a way that demands that nothing but received wisdom be given the status of an absolute, makes those traditional claims to classical theological truth seem obnoxious and oppressive - such things inhibit our social and intellectual consumerism, after all. Yet there is also a deeper reason for the loss of this disciplinary unity: the loss of a high view of the Bible as the word of God, spoken by the one God through human authors, and thus possessing an inherent, personal, theological unity and authority. Once we have turned away from the notion of the one divine, holy author of an authoritative and ultimately unified biblical revelation, we have lost the foundation upon which we can build our theology in any coherent, unified way; and that move is a profoundly profane one. Once God has, in effect, been prevented from speaking to us, we lose our ability to speak about him. Thus, this loss of a doctrine of scripture involves the downplaying, if not the ignoring, of the voice of the awesome and holy God; and such a move can only be made when we lose sight of God himself. In other words, the persistent way in which modern theologians allow context to determine content and the kaleidoscopic nature of human existence to drive a theology committed to an aesthetic of creative chaos, is itself both symbolic and constitutive of human rebellion.
It plays out similarly in the liberal academy in biblical scholarship, where too often diversity drowns unity - but it's not a problem, we're told. Of course, it's not a problem because we have bought in to the random incoherence of postmodernity, judge the Bible by the standards of our own cultural expectations, and rejoice in the problem as if it were the solution. Further, the liberal Bible scholar has no problem with handling the biblical text in a casual way, as if it were just another human artefact, subject to the same profane dissection and analysis as any other piece of literature. To study the biblical text is a high calling indeed; but if you attend a classroom lecture on the biblical text, or read a book on the same, and come away without feeling awe in your heart at the amazing nature of God's gracious revelation in and through his perfect word, then either the lecturer or author has failed to treat the text with appropriate reverence, or your heart is so hardened that you failed to sense what they were doing. We must as Christians approach the text with awe and reverence, as the words of a holy, transcendent, speaking God. To do otherwise may be scholarship in the most profane sense of the word but it is not, in the true sense of the word, biblical. After all, it clearly takes no account of the Bible's own teaching about God's terrifying holiness.
Finally, and perhaps most tragically of all, we see the loss of a sense of God's holiness in church. When prayers become the equivalent of `Yo, how you doing?!' then something has gone awry. Public prayer should lead people into the presence of God, and that should be a humbling, if not crushing experience. When was the last time a pulpit prayer left you in awe of the God who humbles himself so that you might worship him? What about sermons? How many of us sit in judgment on the sermon, grading it for quality, length, clarity, interest, as the minister brings to us the word of God? If we have any grasp of God's holiness, and any inkling of the importance of the prophetic task of preaching, we won't be giving the minister a grade; rather, we will be sitting and listening to what he has to say, acutely conscious of our own unworthiness to hear God as he speaks to us. Then, when the songs we sing can be summarized by the phrase `Jesus is my best boyfriend,' we can be sure that something is seriously out of joint. The words we sing to God should reflect the gravity of the words God first speaks to us. Then, when church itself becomes a take-it-or-leave-it venture that we can turn up for at a time that suits us, perhaps even sipping a latte from Starbucks as we take our seat, something is seriously missing. What is it? Well, the answer isn't rocket science: a sense of the deep holiness of God. The casual nature of the postmodern world, where all hierarchies are oppressive and the consumer is king, cannot even begin to understand the void that lies at the heart of such slapdash Christianity. Your doctrine can be as correct and confessional as possible; but if it is all just so much of a game, then it is no theology at all.
Helmut Thielicke put it well when he said that God is never the object of theology, he is always the subject. In his awesome holiness, he speaks, he sets the agenda, and we are simply to respond in reverence and awe. Gregory Nazianzus said something similar in his Theological Oration 27 where he even raised the bar to a high level for those merely listening to theological discussion, because of the holy God whose speech made such discussion possible:
Who should listen to discussions of theology? Those for whom it is a serious undertaking, not just another subject like any other for entertaining small-talk, after the races, the theater, songs, food, and sex: for there are people who count chatter on theology and clever deployment of arguments as one of their amusements.1
Theology, whether that of the high-powered scholar or the average church member, is to be shot through with holiness. The trivial way in which theology is pursued in church, but especially in the evangelical academy, is a sign that hard times are ahead. Indeed, it is a sign that the God with whom we have to do in these places is certainly not the God of the Bible. Woe to those who treat the word of God as a light thing; woe to those who argue theology as if it were merely one more area of academic interest where scholars can disagree; woe to those whose books and articles on God or his Bible leave give no sense of his awesome holiness. We who aspire to be teachers and yet who tread on the holiness of God as if it were a light thing: beware, for we stand in danger of leading little ones astray and it would be better for us if we had never been born. Pray that God grant us all an overwhelming sense of who he is.
 Gregory Nazianzus, On God and Christ (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002), 27.
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