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Ask a Theologian II

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, May 9, 2008.

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  1. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Super Moderator

    Nov 14, 2003
    This thread is a continuation of the original. If you have a question it might be a good idea to look through that thread or this one to see if it's already been addressed. In the next post I shall give some links to sections of the threads where various things have been discussed. The rest of this post is a copy of the OP of the original thread.

    I should make it clear that there are basically two meanings of “theologian”. The first is someone who thinks or speculates about God etc and writes what they think. Such a person is actually religious and tries to describe God (or whatever) as they think he really is. It was in this sense that Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century theologian, commented that theologians pray truly and that, if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

    The second meaning of “theologian” is the academic sense and it basically means someone who studies theologians in the former sense. For example, my old tutor is an expert in Duns Scotus, which means he studies Scotus, writes about him, and tries to establish what he believed and why – exactly as a historical philosopher might study Plato or Descartes. But that doesn’t mean he actually agrees with Scotus on anything. Theology in this sense has considerable overlap with history, literary criticism, anthropology, and so on, especially since the people or groups under consideration could be contemporary as well as historical. Clearly you don’t need to have any religious faith at all to do this, any more than you have to be French to study Balzac. In fact I think that modern academic theologians probably divide roughly equally between those who are religious and those who are not. Perhaps there are more of the former than of the latter, but it would probably depend to a great extent on where you are.

    So I’m a theologian in the latter sense. I’m not religious and I don’t expect to become religious, at least not through studying theology.

    Credentials: I have a BA in Philosophy and Theology and an M Phil in Theology. I’m currently doing a PhD in Philosophy and am writing my thesis on Leibniz. I’m also trying to finish writing my sixth book. My books are all on church history, historical theology, and philosophy of religion. The one I’m on now is a biographical encyclopaedia of ancient and medieval Christian theologians. The research on that alone has been like doing another degree.

    So I’m fairly well versed in the history of Christianity, especially as it relates to the history of philosophy, and the development of doctrines and spiritual movements in the church. Since these days I’m technically a philosopher rather than a theologian, I’m also fairly up on philosophy of religion, which is when you apply philosophical methods to subjects raised by religion (such as the existence or nature of God, life after death, etc).

    I should also specify that I mostly know about Christianity. I don’t know much about other religions.

    So feel free to ask anything that relates to any of this. If I don’t know the answer I might at least know where you should go to find it...
  2. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Super Moderator

    Nov 14, 2003
    This is my attempt to provide a guide to what has already been discussed in the original thread and in this one. Click on the links to find the discussion. I have tried to organise them roughly by topic, but obviously there is a lot of overlap. Within each topic, they are listed in the order that they were asked. I have linked to the original questions rather than to my answers because often there was interesting discussion before I got a chance to reply. Sometimes there might be a bit of a gap between the original question and my answer or the discussion, so you might have to scroll on a bit. In some cases, the discussion goes on for quite a while, and often overlaps with other discussions, so you might have to browse through several pages to follow it to the end. Also, I've paraphrased most of the questions. Some of them weren't questions at all, but posts that nevertheless sparked a discussion, so I have paraphrased those as questions here for the sake of consistency.

    If you have a question or want to discuss something here, please have a look through this index to see if the question has already been asked. Of course you might have a question about an earlier discussion on the same subject, so feel free to link to those if it will help.

    Theology as a discipline

    Isn't theology all pointless and irrational?

    Can there be theology without metaphysics?

    What can you do with a degree in theology?

    Which theology is the oddest?

    Is it better for a theologian to be agnostic, to be more objective?

    How does one become a theologian, and what job prospects are there?

    What proportion of theologians are religious?

    Is theology basically about deriving conclusions from arbitrary presuppositions?

    What are the dangers of reading earlier authors in the light of later ones?

    What’s the difference between philosophy of religion and theology?

    Is theology just the study of fantasy?

    Is theology really just about competing opinions, or are there solid arguments as well?

    Theology and other areas of life

    Are there big differences between the ways that philosophers, theologians, and historians deal with religion?

    Has the relevance of theology to humanity changed over time?

    Has theology ever been a common topic of normal conversation, and why isn’t it now?

    Beliefs about God

    Why should the Christian God be worshipped at all?

    Is Christianity really monotheistic at all?

    What does it mean to say that God is outside time?

    Can God create a rock he can’t lift?

    Why did God create anything at all?

    Why is God “he”?

    If God is omniscient, what is the point of prayer?

    What’s the weirdest conception of God?

    What’s the definition of a god?

    How can Christians reconcile faith in God’s goodness with his behaviour in the Bible?

    Why do most monotheists think God must be omnipotent?


    What's the history of atheism?

    How did atheism come to be such an anti-religious movement?

    Proofs of God’s existence/non-existence

    Has anyone tried to show that no proof of God’s existence is possible?

    If God revealed himself to everyone, would that count as a “proof” of his existence?

    The problem of evil

    What different responses to the problem of evil are there?

    Is evil an inevitable consequence of free will?

    What’s the history of the free will defence?

    Free will, determinism, and divine foreknowledge

    Could God create a universe where everyone has free will but never does evil?

    What is determinism?

    Which makes more sense, predestination or free will, and what is the history of these doctrines?

    Is belief in free will incompatible with Christianity, and where did this belief come from?

    Can anyone believe in a loving God, determinism, and hell?

    If determinism were true, would it mean we have no choice about anything – and what is the difference between determinism and fatalism?

    Is free will compatible with divine omniscience?

    If someone believes in predestination, do they have any motive to try not to sin?

    The Bible

    Why did some books not get included in the Bible?

    Who really wrote the Gospels?

    Are the prophecies in the Bible reliable?

    What is the most accurate version of the Bible?

    Is it true that the books of the Bible were chosen at the Council of Nicaea?

    What criteria might we use to tell if the Bible is true or not?

    What is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 6:9?

    Where did the stories in Genesis come from?

    Was Paul a bad writer?

    Which is the best version of the Bible?

    Why are the Ten Commandments considered more important than all the other commandments in the Old Testament?

    Should the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts have been included in the Bible?

    What about the distinction between the civil, the moral, and the ritual parts of the Old Testament law?

    What did Spinoza say about biblical interpretation?

    Does the Old Testament forbid murder, or just killing?

    Are the laws in Leviticus given by God directly or by people inspired by him?


    Was Jesus a Jew or a Christian, and what is the definition of Christianity and Judaism anyway?

    What about the Messianic Secret?

    Are there other Jews in history who claimed to be the son of God?

    What evidence is there that Jesus existed?

    Did Jesus teach that everyone is equal?

    What’s the relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus’ teachings?

    Are there any sources for the historical Jesus outside the New Testament?

    Church history

    Are quodlibets zen?

    Where did anchorites come from?

    What was the justification for the practice of indulgences?

    What have been the most important points of influence between the church and secular politics?

    If religion is about peace, why has it caused so many wars?

    What were the political factors involved in the rise of Christianity?

    How far back does the reform movement go?

    Was there some particular reason why the Reformation happened when it did?

    Did the Catholic and Orthodox churches schism because of a disagreement about St Peter?

    The history and development of doctrines

    Where does the doctrine of purgatory come from?

    Where did the doctrine of the Trinity come from?

    What’s the Holy Spirit all about?

    Where does the doctrine of hell come from?

    What is Papal infallibility all about?

    What is the doctrine of the hypostatic union?

    Where did belief in the devil come from?

    If you believe in purgatory, what’s the purpose of hell?

    How much does Catholic teaching change?

    What views are there on the devil and hell, and how powerful is the devil supposed to be?

    Has Christian theology generally just been an expression of the church’s political concerns?

    Have there been big methodological shifts in how theology is done?

    Are Mormons the only ones who think that the Fall was a good thing?

    Where did monotheism come from?
  3. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Super Moderator

    Nov 14, 2003
    Influences between Christianity and other religions/movements

    Who is more important to Christianity, Plato or Aristotle?

    Has Islam influenced Christianity?

    What was Mithraism like, and was it similar to Christianity?

    How have traditional African beliefs influenced African Christianity?

    What elements of pre-Christian piety made their way into Christianity?

    What influence did Zoroastrianism have on Christianity?

    Were the Christian rites copied from Mithraist ones?

    The early church and antiquity

    Why did ancient theologians say that some emotions are “unreasonable”?

    Did Catholicism triumph over rival churches and heresies just by luck, or was there something about it that made it intrinsically more likely to survive?

    What would the ancient ideal of passionlessness really be like?

    What about pagan beliefs about enlightenment and heaven?

    What do you think about Plotinus?

    What was marriage like for Jews in antiquity?

    What were early Christian beliefs about hell?

    Was the church organised by political powers in order to manipulate people?

    What is the difference between the Logos in Plato and the Logos in John’s Gospel?

    How influential were pagan neoplatonism and magic upon early Christianity?

    What were the regional differences in early Christianity?

    How did Manichaeism die out?

    What was the role of anti-semitism in early Christianity?

    What is the relationship between Mithraism and Zoroastrianism?

    Modern movements in Christianity

    What about liberation theology?

    What about Catholic theology?

    What are the main achievements of the ecumenical movement?

    What’s wrong with conservative evangelicalism?

    What about the doctrine that Christians are still bound by the Old Testament law?

    Why do Catholics believe in transubstantiation?

    What are the proportions of the different churches in Europe?

    Do any monastic orders allow marriage?

    What’s the KJV-only movement all about?

    Faith and reason

    Is faith in God rational?

    Which ancient authors should I read on the subject of faith?

    If someone believes something just because they have faith, is that irrational?

    Where did the rise of rationalism in early modern times come from?

    Science and religion

    Does the scientific method undermine belief in God?

    Why is Richard Dawkins wrong?

    Was Kant the first person to try to combine traditional Christian metaphysics with the modern scientific worldview?

    What about the “anthropic principle” and evidence for a fine-tuned universe?

    Why do people think that science and religion are incompatible?

    Christian attitudes to other religions

    What do Christians think about other religions?

    Does the Catholic Church think that other religions can offer routes to heaven?

    God, sin, and salvation

    Is there any proof that God can forgive sins?

    Why do Christians believe that God has to sacrifice someone before he can forgive people’s sins?

    Ethics and morality

    Why does Christianity have such a thing about sexuality?

    Do all religions have the same moral standards?

    What is the Christian teaching on Just War Theory, and what is its history?

    Why does Christianity have a thing about homosexuality?

    What does the Bible say about sex outside marriage?

    What is the biblical view of marriage?

    What’s the hoo-hah about gay priests and bishops?

    How essential is pacifism to Christianity?

    What did Augustine think were the criteria for a “just war”?

    What is honour?

    What is marriage?

    Particular people

    What about Pelagius?

    Why was Augustine fascinated by farting?

    What about Jovinian?

    Was Paul the only person to distinguish between his “own” views and those that were “divinely inspired”?

    Is John Locke a good theologian?

    What about Josephus?

    What about Berkeley?


    What is the point of philosophy?

    What is philosophy?

    Can there be mind-body dualism other than substance dualism?

    Isn’t philosophy of mind part of neuroscience?

    Does it make sense to talk of two situations that are different yet observationally identical?

    Is philosophical methodology now the best it’s ever been?

    Where would one start to find out about scholastic logic?


    Why aren't you a Christian?

    What do you believe?

    What got you into theology?

    What’s your favourite sub-topic in theology?

    How do you go about working?

    What denomination would you be, if you were a Christian?

    If you had to read only one theologian for ever, which one would it be?

    Are all theologians as clever as you?

    Why did you choose to study philosophy and religion?


    What does “Judeo-Christian” mean?

    What about the Gospel of the Nazarenes?

    Do Christians consider the soul to be divine?

    Are there some things that all Christians must believe to count as Christian at all?

    What does it mean to say that the Holy Spirit sanctifies the faithful?

    Why is “hell” a swear word?

    What would the love of God be like?

    Who defines the church?

    What influence has the Bible had on the blues?

    What is “gnosis”?

    Who is the most under-rated theologian in history?
  4. Narz

    Narz keeping it real

    Jun 1, 2002
    St. Petersburg, Florida
    Hi Plotinus. Forgive me if this was asked before but is teaching Theology your profession? How did you first get into it? Do you feel this study has enriched your life? What made you so curious about Christianity seeing as you're not religious?

    A couple more - do you think overall Christianity is good or bad for people? How about if they actually studied it and knew more about it (assuming they'd still take it seriously as religion)? And finally - does it bother you that Theology is a dead end "science" in Civilization 2 (I always wondered if that was a secret dig at religion :D)?

    Thanks for the thread. :)
  5. philippe

    philippe FYI, I chase trains.

    Mar 24, 2002
    Bourgondische Kreitz
  6. Fifty

    Fifty !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Sep 3, 2004
    an ecovillage in madagascar
    Plotinus: What have been the major theological responses to the Euthyphro dilemma? Has the church ever had an "official" position on it?

    Thanks again for the thread... best serious thread in OT history!
  7. Defiant47

    Defiant47 Peace Sentinel

    Jan 2, 2007
    Which is more likely to have happened (out of these two possibilities), based on your studies?

    A) Jesus was an excellent trickster. He fooled everyone into believing he is divine. He knew what he was doing.

    B) Jesus didn't actually do much or intend to do much. The story was exaggerated by being passed down through multiple rewrites and interpretations, either through intentional or unintentional means (or both).

    Sorry for the concise and imprecise descriptions. Thanks for your input! :)
  8. Sidhe

    Sidhe Deity

    Jan 30, 2006
    Defiant didn't you forget:

    C) It's true without the miracles.

    D) The Gospel is Gospel.

    E) It's all junk Jesus never existed.

    Which are all equally put forward cases. Not saying any are more or less valid exactly.

    Anyway I'd like to ask what Plotinus thinks is in his opinion the conclusions you can draw from what we know, not what we don't and have to assume.
  9. Defiant47

    Defiant47 Peace Sentinel

    Jan 2, 2007
    Indeed, but I'd like the assessment of the two possibilities I gave (at least for now).

    It's like a scientist might know that Theory A>B>C>D>E, I don't know that, but I'm only interested in which is better: B or D?
  10. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Super Moderator

    Nov 14, 2003
    Thanks for the new questions. I shall try to answer them as soon as possible.

    I've put together an index, found in posts 2 and 3, of most of the discussions we've already had, which should help people wanting to discuss them again. Putting that together took longer than I anticipated!
  11. Abaddon

    Abaddon Deity

    Apr 20, 2002
    NES/FG/SF Activity:Arguing the toss
    What an awesome OP!
  12. Margim

    Margim Footy's back.

    Oct 6, 2003
    Don't know if they are wanted or required, but (as I did from time to time before), thought I'd offer my services on the side to compliment Plotinus.

    I'm a theologian probably in both senses of the word as Plotinus has described, but really fall somewhere between the two definitions. I've trained in theology within a Christian context, although in anything but the sense of religious indoctrination. I completed my honours in Biblical studies, focusing on higher biblical criticism and exploring the social, political and religious context in which the gospels were written. I'm less likely to offer help in the classics/philosophy stuff, but can get involved in discussions directly linked to Biblical stuff, Christian theological debates,

    As well as the BTheol in Biblical Studies, I've also completed a BA in History (Islamic Studies), and studied a fair bit of Jewish History. I'm currently working on an MTheol in how to make authentic, intelligent, considered theology accessible to the masses to help Christians think and challenge what they believe, rather than simply accepting claims 'because the authorities said so'.
  13. Margim

    Margim Footy's back.

    Oct 6, 2003
    Personally, I think the second has more weight, although its probably not a balanced statement to have to make when you exclude several other possibilities.

    Firstly, the idea of Jesus as a con man is completely incompatible with the attitudes, ethics and principles that have filtered through the gospel accounts. More than preaching his own divinity, Jesus argued for a changed lifestyle ethic that would impact people in this life and, as he believed, the next. This ethic placed him at odds in a society that favored the rich and powerful. For this teaching, he was ultimately executed. Nothing about Jesus' story as we know it suggested that he had anything to gain... which is what a trickster is generally on about. I imagine that even the Jesus seminar, the harshest group of gospel critics going around, would support this.

    That leaves the second option, that the story has gained embelishment through retellings. How much embelishment remains the question in this case, but obviously it did happen. The simple likelihood of Matthew and Luke using Mark as source material in the gospels demonstrates how one set of stories can take on new meaning in a later retelling. That the first gospel was probably written at least 30 years after Jesus death leaves it open to the telling of others who certainly had something to prove (well-meaningly or otherwise).

    Because the second statement is more likely, however, does not mean we can say Jesus didn't do much. His actions left enough of an impact to build a movement that made a sizaeable impact in the ancient Jewish world, into the Roman world, and into the world beyond that. From a purely secular perspective, you have to say Jesus did something. The question then becomes: What?
  14. El_Machinae

    El_Machinae Colour vision since 2018 Retired Moderator

    Nov 24, 2005
    Pale Blue Dot youtube=wupToqz1e2g
    I know there are a couple types of Satanism these days, but is there evidence of it being a cyclical historical fad? I guess there's no real 'anti-Christian' faith these days (i.e., a faith with the same metaphysical makeup as Christianity, but an opposite conclusion), but there're hints about it in fiction (and the like). Any history of groups with very similar metaphysical views, but radically different (and antithetical) conclusions?
  15. Berzerker

    Berzerker Deity

    Dec 30, 2000
    the golf course
    Are the disciples precluded from being the authors of the gospels?

    If the gospels were written at different times, could this be because they were written or transmitted by disciples as they neared the end of their lives decades after Jesus?

    Did the actual destruction of the Temple serve as proof of his prophetic powers further convincing the disciples to record what they remembered of him?
  16. Sidhe

    Sidhe Deity

    Jan 30, 2006
    Double post. Oops.
  17. Sidhe

    Sidhe Deity

    Jan 30, 2006
    We did this on the other thread quite recently I'll try and find it. But yes most people believe that the Gospels were not first hand accounts.


    Post#948 onwards in particular.
  18. Defiant47

    Defiant47 Peace Sentinel

    Jan 2, 2007
    Thank you for your answer. I would now like to open it up even more (but not completely). What do you think is the most likely reason that Christianity exists today as a religion and Jesus is claimed to be divine? (allowing every explanation and possibility other than any kind of affirmation of Jesus' divinity... i.e. suppose he is not divine, then what is the most likely reason?)
  19. Perfection

    Perfection The Great Head.

    Apr 9, 2002
    Salisbury Plain
    So Plot, what do you think of memes and the description of relgion as memes or collections of memes?

  20. Berzerker

    Berzerker Deity

    Dec 30, 2000
    the golf course
    Meaning the names used may not be of the people serving as sources?

    How do we know who was or was not a witness or what they saw? If Mark was not a witness yet served as a source for Matthew, then where'd Mark get his stuff? From someone who was a witness? And if Mark's source saw something Matthew didn't, then why not use Mark's source? But that does indeed suggest Mark's source was a witness and known to Matthew as reliable.

    As you said, early Christians were expecting the end...and the Messiah, etc... No need to write stuff down, but the end didn't come and neither did the Messiah. So they got older, neared death, and recorded their memories. Are actual witnesses precluded from authoring the gospels?

    and thx Sidhe, I read the other thread but dont see an answer to my question.
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