106. Theologizing Map

Theologizing is the personal rational exploration, development, and reflection of theological understanding. It is “faith seeking understanding” (Anslem of Canterbury).

  • We all do this because we are constantly making sense of our world. 
  • We all do this differently because we start in different contexts with a variety of experiences. There are many paths to choose from and questions to prioritize; a multitude of voices clamor for our attention and there are innumerable distractions. Moreover, we are limited in time, ability and interest.
  • Some do this better than others. Teachers of theology have spent considerable time exploring different areas of Christian doctrine and can provide important information like a tour guide in the holy land. Without a guide, all we see isa pile of bricks and dirt, but with a guide we are able to connect history with the Bible.
  • It is possible to get lost. Inadequate or inappropriate theology is a real danger. The danger cannot be avoided by ignoring theological development; that will only ensure a weak or misguided theological position. Instead, diligence and ongoing interaction with God’s word, other believers, and trusted teachers can keep us growing in our understanding of how God’s revelation of his will and nature can be expressed appropriately within our cultural context.

The following “theologizing map” of interlocking circles is a visual aid to understand some key interactions that influence people in the development of their theological perspective.


Explanation of circles:

  • Culture is “a way of life – everything that people say, do, have, make, and think – that is learned and shared of a particular society” (Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 2007). All of us live and perceive reality through cultural lenses; culture is the “language” through which we perceive, engage, and communicate reality.
  • My culture is, of course, just one of many cultural settings. The point is that all people begin their theologizing from within a particular orientation and evaluate all other cultures and teaching from that perspective.
  • Bible is located within the culture circle because it is a contextually shaped accommodation for the sake of communication. It is 100% human language and culture and 100% God’s word since it is the channel through which God has revealed his will and nature.
  • The four small circles (F, G, I, J) within Christian theology represent foundational doctrines that are formative for particular Christian traditions and they intersect with each other to some extent.
    • Doctrine is the “making sense” of faith. That is, it is the rational articulation of faith that categorizes and justifies, from a biblical basis, the questions and challenges of a cultural context. It is characterized by group support, historical longevity, and traditional affirmation, and provides the necessary foundational beliefs that define group identity.
  • Christian theology is the study of God rooted in God’s self-revelation found in theBible. This can be formal or informal, profound or simple, written or unarticulated, reasoned or assumed.
  • Non-Christian theology is all development of theology not based on biblical sources, including general revelation and the beliefs of non-Christian religious systems.

Explanation of the points on the map:

  • Theologizing path is a visual representation of key interactions that are possible in the development of a personal theology. 
  • The image of the person indicates that as we enter into a theologizing process, we do so located in our cultural context. All that we are taught is perspectival and the questions raised and challenges faced are contextual in origin.
  • A –initial theologizing consists of our enculturation in a social context. Like language, ideas about reality are absorbed, worldviews are learned and then assumed, feelings of identity or foreignness are adopted, questions and concerns are all acquired from others. The meanings of theological beliefs, such as heaven, hell, God, angels, demons, soul, and spirit, are assigned from cultural idioms, images and concepts.
  • B –indicates the way our initial theologizing is reshaped when we realize that our way of understanding is not absolute.
  • C –reflects the beginning of the development of true Christian theology as we engage God’s word.
  • D – occurs when there is a realization that the Bible has been influenced by cultural influences other than our own and we begin to explore how those contextual realities have shaped the message.
  • E –is the interaction with others who are also engaged in Christian theological development.
  • F,G,I,J –are the doctrinal stances of different Christian traditions that can be explored through the writings of those who represent those beliefs.
  • H –is the interaction and influence that comes from non-Christian sources or nature (general revelation). Questions, challenges and insights from these sources influence the way we see the world and thus how we describe and understand our theology.
  • K –is parallel to E, except that the interaction with other theologizers includes an exploration of their orientation to Christian traditions.
  • L –is parallel to D but with the added ability to evaluate how the Christian traditions have interpreted God’s word in light of our own exegetical study ofGod’s word.
  • M –is parallel to C but more robust since we have explored and evaluated the theology of others.
  • N –represents the need to express our theology verbally and through action in the context of life. Theology that does not shape faith and behavior is a futile exercise. Living out our theology provides further motivation to continue our theologizing as we are faced with more questions and deeper challenges.

103. Religious Preciseness and Baptism

In the article Baptism and Jesus’ orientation to the law I cited Luke 11.39-42 as evidence that Jesus’ concern is with the purpose or heart of God’s commands that can often be fulfilled without word for word compliance. A reader responded that such an understanding ignores the final phrase of the last verse: “it is these [justice and the love of God] you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others [tithing mint and rue and herbs of all kinds].” The person understood this last phrase (“without neglecting the others”) as a commendation of the Pharisees’ carefulness in following the literal instructions of the law and derivatively as an indication of how Jesus would like us to follow God’s commands. In other words, Jesus is advocating full and radical obedience by following BOTH the heart of the command AND by being precise about the literal wording.

This comment is helpful in illustrating how my interpretation of Scripture contrasts with that of the Immersionists. If Jesus’ point is that we are intended to follow a both / and scenario in obeying biblical commands, then the Immersionists are correct in their insistence that baptism means BOTH full and radical commitment to Jesus AND being fully immersed in water. Leaving out either would be disobedience and invalidate the act, just as the Pharisees would be disobedient even if they practiced justice and the love of God and yet failed to “tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds.” Following this line of reasoning Jesus’ commendation to the Pharisees for their carefulness in fulfilling the literal description of the law in the smallest detail would then be a critical guide for how we should interpret and apply God’s laws. This is a powerful argument because Jesus is our Lord and Master whom we follow radically and without reservation. If this was indeed Jesus’ concern and message then, like Jesus indicates with the Pharisees, we too need to be religiously precise in following all of God’s laws.

I would like to argue that this understanding is not consistent with Jesus’ concerns and does not appropriately appreciate Jesus’ and Paul’s message about how believers are to follow biblical commands. I suggest that Jesus was not commending the Pharisees for their preciseness in following the law, but for their concern to obey God’s law. Jesus’ actions and message throughout his ministry do not point to a precise following of the words of God’s commands, but to a hunger for the complete fulfillment of the will of God. Fulfilling the will of God is such a weighty notion that, in comparison, a ritual fulfillment of any symbolism has little significance. Thus through the rebuke to the Pharisees Jesus was not communicating to his disciples, “Make sure that you practice justice and the love of God AND also be sure to tithe any mint and rue and herbs of all kinds.” Instead he was saying, “Make sure that you practice justice and the love of God AND also be sure to follow God’s will in every command he gives, whether large or small.” In this latter interpretation the focus is not on the preciseness of the wording but on the intent of God’s concern and purposes.

The difference can be illustrated by contrasting an artist’s painting with those who seek to replicate a great artist’s work by following a paint-by-number kit. In the original the artist is immersed in the light, colors and message of the painting. In the kit colors and numbers are matched as the person attempts to paint within the lines. Such a stilted process does not do justice to the artwork and a true artist can break commonly understood rules (such as what constitutes proper perspective) in order to fulfill the purpose of the painting. Similarly, a “word for word” approach to God’s law can miss the point of the commands and this becomes evident when the obedience of those who have been less precise, yet have fulfilled the purpose of the commands, is not recognized and valued.

Sometimes unions call upon their members to “work to rule” when they are not to do any work beyond the precise instructions of their contract. As a result, even though they do their job and technically fulfill their responsibilities, they do not fulfill the heart and purpose of their position. However, when a person’s heart is in their profession, they are capable of judging when a precise reading of the rules is unnecessary based on the accomplishment of the intent.

My argument is that when a believer has received baptism through another mode it is as legitimate as full immersion baptism, as long as the purpose of baptism as commitment to Christ is fulfilled. The greater consideration of the meaning of baptism makes the preciseness of the word “immerse” insignificant. To put it another way, the Immersionists’ dismissal of the legitimacy of baptism where immersion is not practiced is a form of setting aside the weightier aspects of God’s concerns. There is a vast difference between being religiously precise and following the heart of God, and I believe that Jesus teaches us that the weightier matters do fulfill the command completely, even if the preciseness of the wording has not been followed. In fact, I would go so far to suggest that the religious preciseness of any command needs to be constantly revisited and questioned in order to determine whether or not we are actually following the heart of Christ in the way God desires.

Once when Jesus was asked about the greatest command and he gave his famous answer (Lu 10.25-37), the response came back, “Who is my neighbor?” This was a request for preciseness; in order to fulfill the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the man needed to identify his “neighbor.” Jesus transcended his thinking and answered a different question. He taught the man what it meant to BE a neighbor. The hero of the story is not a mint and cumin tithing Pharisee, but a rejected Samaritan. Jesus was not commending someone focused on being precise about God’s laws but someone who believed and lived out the heart of God despite a lack of religious preciseness.

My conclusion about Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in Luke 11 is that Jesus is not advocating for literal preciseness in following God’s laws, but he is advocating the posture of attending to all of the laws. As Christians we do not attend the Bible in order find commands that we can obey with religious preciseness, as if the center of our lives is about obeying the laws of God. Instead we study the commands of God in order to grasp the heart and character of God so that we can be true image bearers and children of our Father. Jesus is not advocating that we be BOTH precise AND understand the heart of God. Rather it is by following God’s heart that the purpose of the law is fulfilled, whether or not we are religiously precise. In baptism, this principle should also hold. The precise word is “immerse,” but the heart of the command is turning from self and committing to Christ. To deny the fulfillment of the heart of the command in someone’s life because of strict adherence to the literal wording places us on the side of the Pharisees and undermines the concerns of Christ. Such a posture sets aside the weightier aspects of the law for the sake of the symbolism that only serves as a means to embrace the significant purpose of baptism.

94. God as Artist: Expressions of Goodness

In the Beginning: the Word

When I was a young boy, one of the mysterious verses in the Bible was John 1:1, “In the beginning was the word.”  I remember puzzling over this phrase and thinking it must mean the Bible, because that was “God’s word.”  But when I realized that the Bible was written long after “the beginning,” I began to wonder if it referring to one special “word” (maybe “Jesus”?) that God spoke.  Of course, most people just looked ahead in the passage and said, “The answer is in verse 14: ‘The word became a human being.’  It’s Jesus!”  But that won’t do; we cannot substitute “Jesus” for “word” in verse 1 because that undermines John’s message. He wants us to first think about “word” before we get to the incarnation. We are not intended to equate the “word” with Jesus until we get to that verse.  The amazing revelation is that this “word” – whatever it is – actually becomes a human being. But in order to appreciate why this is astounding, we first need to understand John’s use of “word” as something other than Jesus in verse 1.

Translating the “Word”

In order to translate, we must first understand

When casually reading the Bible, we can skip over phrases that are puzzling.  However, that is not true for Bible translation. In order to translate, we must first understand.  Currently our Bible translation team is engaged in a review of the Sindhi New Testament1 and is partway through the book of John. So when we read, “In the beginning was the Word,” we had to think through what “word” referred to.

John does not begin his book with Jesus, a man who was born and lived in Israel 2000 years ago.  He doesn’t start with the Messiah, the chosen one of God to bring salvation to the nations, which is where Matthew starts. He does not commence with the title “Son of God,” which is Mark’s preference.  Instead, John describes something other than the man Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.  He turns our attention to the “word.”  But what is it that we are to understand?

It is surprisingly difficult to obtain a clear meaning of this term.  Commentaries and theological dictionaries tend to provide English equivalents of the Greek word, logos, such as wisdom, teaching, speech, reflection, knowledge, truth, the fundamental law and order of the universe, understanding, comprehension, and rationality.2 But while these are all legitimate terms, they are not sufficient to allow us to grasp the significance and impact of John’s phrase.

Another approach is to explore the equivalent Hebrew words used for logos in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – after all, that was Jesus’ and John’s Bible at that time.  In the Old Testament, God’s “word” refers to a revelation of his character and will, a declaration of truth, or a command.

These insights are the basis for the Sindhi translation of “kalam” – that which God declares, the message that God speaks – used for a Muslim audience. The Scriptures are commonly referred to among Muslims as God’s kalam.  For a Hindu audience, on the other hand, we used the word “vachan,” which refers to a promise, God’s declaration that cannot be broken, his covenant. However, these legitimate translations still do not bring us much closer to understanding John’s purpose in using this phrase to set the stage for the climatic declaration that “the word became a human being.”

pay close attention to the context

Fortunately, there is a way to discover John’s meaning. An important translation principle is to pay close attention to the context.  The primary context used by John is the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.  The meaning of “word” in John 1 is drawn directly from the image of God’s creative activity. In the first verses of Genesis, God’s Spirit is “moving” over the chaos, a reference to the formless, empty, dark ocean. It is as if God is studying a blank canvas and since God is a God of order, not of chaos, and of light, not of darkness, something magnificent happens.

God as Artist

Creation is God’s artwork that reflects his character and nature. When he speaks, he expresses himself and light appears. God reveals himself in the form of light – and it is good. God then separates that light from the darkness because light, as an expression of his goodness, reflects his holy and pure nature: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5).

As God continues to speak, he expresses his goodness in visible, tangible forms, and the world comes into being.  He separates the waters (chaos) and brings land (order).  Again he says, “This is good.”  Finally, he creates human beings.  We become expressions of God, little icons created to reveal the goodness and character of God. This time God says, “This is very good.”

CS Lewis plays on the picture of God as artist in the Narnia series.  In the founding of Narnia, Aslan brings the world into being through a song.  It is an art form that expresses Aslan’s heart, passion, will, and desire.  A deep singing voice brings out the stars; the grass grows through the sound of gentle, rippling music, while lighter notes produce primroses. All this beauty comes out of the lion’s mouth – the word, the expression of Aslan.3

The Word: God expresses himself

With that image in mind, consider this rephrasing of the first verses of John’s gospel:

In the beginning God expressed himself,
He revealed his nature and his goodness.
And that expression which resulted in light and goodness, truth, order and beauty was with God,
It surrounded him, was part of him, because it showed who God was,
It was God’s nature and character overflowing into revelation.
God’s act of expressing his goodness was from the beginning.
In fact, everything was made by God as he revealed his nature.
Nothing was made that did not make him known in some way.
Everything has the stamp of God on it.
All creation says, “This is what God is like.”
In addition, when God expresses himself, when he speaks, when he reveals who he truly is, the result is life.

The “word” shows us God, is God; and God is good.

What does it look like in real life?  How can we grasp this grand picture of God expressing his glory and goodness and beauty so that it means something to us personally?  God answered that question for us:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish (John 1:14 msg).

God shows us what he is like in a language we can understand

God shows us what he is like in a language we can understand.  He expresses himself in a way that makes sense to us, in a way that can be heard, and seen, and touched (1 Jn 1:1).  Jesus is “God with skin on,” a living, walking, breathing, talking human being who reveals God. We look at Jesus and see God.  When Philip said, “Just show us the Father, that will be enough,”  Jesus replied, “Philip, open your eyes. When you look at me, you see God” (Jn 14:8-9, paraphrased).


  • 1 As a Pakistan Bible Society project, a translation of the Sindhi New Testament is being prepared for a Hindu audience, while simultaneously reviewing the version for a Muslim audience completed over 25 years ago.
  • 2 Brown, C 1971. The Occurrence and Significance of logos and legō in the NT in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol 3. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1106-1119.
  • 3 Lewis, CS 1955. The Magician’s Nephew. Harmandsworth: Puffin books, 93-99.