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Ask a Theologian

Discussion in 'Off-Topic' started by Plotinus, Feb 13, 2007.

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  1. Atticus

    Atticus Chieftain Retired Moderator

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    Thanks for the answers, but you probably misundesrtood the first question a little bit, I didn't notice how ambiguous it was really. I thought only this theory of salvation was held:

    and my intention was to ask why couldn't God just let us go without sacrificing anyone? I mean, he's omnipotent and benevolent, he made the rules, why must he retaliate our sins to someone? If I think about humane forgiveness, revenge isn't integral part of it (but usually understood rather as opposite of it (though actions has nothing to do with forgiving, I think)).

    On the other hand revenging to someone else than sinner doesn't sound justice to me. It would imply that God wouldn't care about justice, but only about revenge. Perhaps one could say that whole idea of justice is revenge or equal amounts of suffering, but it wouldn't explain this scapegoat-thing. Unless God would be interested only about the total amount of suffering.

    Thats what I'm puzzled about: If the above mentioned is the explanation to why Christ had to die (and at least to lutherians it seems to be), then what's the explanation of God's blind hate?

    Now this Abelards answer

    sounds very good, not only because it is reasonable, but also because it's true. I don't even believe in God, and still the example of Jesus has saved my life! I just don't understand the death part: If he was only to show example, he died for no one, how is that a sacrifice? Or did Abelard think that the death was to only show how comitted he was to show the example?

    Well maybe it's there just to give us impression that life isn't that bad. There are many people who think life is hell allready, and even more people who are in a threat to start to think that way. Wouldn't it make sense then that there are just as much goodness as it's necessary to prevent the majority of mankind thinking that way.

    One more question: Wasn't there some sect that tought that the God of Old Testament was really malevolent, and Jesus was sent here from a good God to save us? When I think about those answers you gave, many of them seemd to have common element of Jesus scheming to betray God in oder to save us. (It was btw coincidence that my first questions relate to each others this way, I'm not pushing any agenda here, I'm not religious at all).
     
  2. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    No, that's a common misconception among both Christians and non-Christians. The reason for that is that, as I said, evangelicals hold this theory, and are very vocal about it; so, as with many things (homosexuality, the role of other religions, the nature of faith, the nature of the Bible, etc, etc, etc), non-Christians assume that the evangelical view is "the" Christian view.

    I don't think there is a very good one, to be honest. In my opinion, this theory of the atonement (normally known as "penal substitution", to express the idea that Jesus is punished in the place of sinners) is open to more objections than any others. Now evangelical theologians (something of a contradiction in terms, but still) would typically answer that God's justice demands that sins be punished. God cannot just forgive the sins without doing any punishing, because that would be unjust. Personally I don't see the force of this at all, especially when you bear in mind that it's normally unjust to punish one person in the place of another; it seems pointless.

    It's worth remembering that this theory of the atonement was developed when Roman law was standard in Europe; under this system, a crime has to be punished. It's quite different from the medieval law that was operating when Anselm worked out his own theory, under which no-one needed to be punished provided restitution could be made for the crime. Calvin and co were thinking of God operating under the legal system that they knew, just as Anselm had been. The problem, of course, is that legal systems change, and are ultimately fairly arbitrary; why should God operate under Roman law and not some other system?

    Many other objections have been made to the theory of penal substition, such as:

    (1) Jesus is only one person, so it seems impossible for him to be punished in the place of many people.

    (2) If salvation comes from Jesus being punished in our place, then we ought to be saved irrespective of whether we believe or not: there is no need for anyone to be forgiven later. (This, and the previous objection, were made by Faustus Socinus in the sixteenth century.)

    (3) The punishment for sin is supposed to be eternal damnation. So if Jesus is punished in the place of sinners, he ought to be eternally damned, not just crucified.

    (4) If salvation is just a matter of a sort of cosmic forensic exercise, then it doesn't actually affect anyone: no change of heart in the sinner is required or effected by it.

    (5) If salvation comes just from Christ being punished in our place, then there is no role for his resurrection. But traditionally, Christians believe that the crucifixion and resurrection are both vital to salvation.

    Abelard's actual texts on this matter are very brief, surprisingly so given that they have been so influential. In fact this is what he says:

    As you can see, in the last sentence there, Abelard actually identifies "our redemption" with "that supreme love in us". But it's not entirely clear exactly what Abelard himself thought this means. Did he think that Christ's death functions purely as an example? That's what Bernard of Clairvaux thought, and he denounced Abelard and had him condemned as a Pelagian (Pelagianism is the heretical belief that we save ourselves). But perhaps Abelard actually thought that the influx of love into sinners, as a result of Christ's death, is an act of God. There are disagreements of interpretation here. However, the objection you raise is in fact a very good one that has been raised before. If Christ's death functions solely as an example, then it's not particularly inspiring. Only if you already think it saves will you be that inspired by it. Now as I said before, Abelard also seems to have thought of Christ's death as working in some way as penal substitution, so he avoids this objection. Many modern theologians have been very impressed by Abelard's theory and tried to make it work as a complete account of salvation in its own right, without needing any alternative one to back it up; such attempts are often open to objections like yours.

    Perhaps; but if life seems good then it is good, I'd say. If you believe yourself to be having fun you probably are. Perhaps the malevolent God plunges everyone into an eternity of suffering after they die, in which case happiness in this life is nothing by comparison, and perhaps that earlier happiness makes the later suffering so much worse. Still, people aren't normally very impressed by the reverse of that reasoning: that is, if you try to say that suffering in this life isn't so bad given that there will be an eternity of happiness after death, most people would respond by saying it would still be better if there were no suffering now.

    That was the Gnostics, mostly in the second century AD. There were many Gnostic groups, who believed all kinds of different things, but they generally agreed that the Old Testament God was either ignorant or actively malevolent. Some, known as the Ophites, venerated the serpent of Genesis 3, because that was the first creature to teach humanity how to disobey the wicked God (normally known as the Demiurge, that is, the Creator).

    There was another group called the Marcionites, after the second-century theologian Marcion, who wanted to remove all Jewish elements from Christianity: Marcion rejected the Old Testament and carefully edited the New Testament to get rid of all the Jewish bits. He seems to have come to this view after reading the Old Testament and deciding that the God described there was pretty nasty and cannot be identical with the loving God of the New Testament. There's some disagreement over whether Marcion should be considered a Gnostic; he doesn't seem to have held the most characteristic Gnostic view, though, which is that the physical world is inherently evil.

    The various theories of the atonement aren't meant to suggest that Jesus conspires to betray God; obviously, for orthodox Christians, Jesus is God, and what he does is thus entirely in accordance with God's plan. So proponents of penal substitution believe that God has himself suffer in our place (John Stott calls it the "self-substitution" of God). That makes God sound a bit nicer than if he is punishing some random sinless person in the place of everyone else, though I don't think it really addresses the problems raised above. Still, some Gnostics believed that Jesus was a sort of double agent. As the Messiah, he was sent by the Demiurge, and his teachings were therefore bad. However, he was also possessed by a divine Saviour, sent by the true God; and if you meditate carefully upon his words, you will see the underlying, allegorical message from God, which a surface reading will not provide.
     
  3. Atticus

    Atticus Chieftain Retired Moderator

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    Thanks again for good answers.

    Well I thought that the lack of suffering could give the false hope that life can be good, and that would compensate the joys. On the other hand I have no reason to believe that there would exist such god, and it now starts to sound like some gothic teenagers diary entry... Maybe I was more interested about logical possibility of malevolent god.

    That's interesting. A friend of mine took me once into the cathedral of Tampere because there are some frescos of Hugo Simberg, quite wierd and haunted man. I looked around for a while, and then my friend pointed up: "look at that!". In the very top of the roof had Simberg painted a snake. (Picture in attachment). It was very confusing, especially because Finnish church paintings tend not to be too controversial.

    I'd rather consider the snake as unprejudiced creativity of an artist than a presentation of some doctrine, the mystery behind it is more exciting. I reccomend everyone who happens to go to Tampere visiting the church.
     

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  4. Veritass

    Veritass Chieftain

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    The serpent has long been a symbol of wisdom, and of death/rebirth because of how it sheds it skin.
     
  5. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    [Veritass] That is true. Indeed this goes right back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, where a serpent steals the elixir of immortality from Gilgamesh and promptly sheds its skin. This is also why serpents represent healing (with Asclepius, and also that bronze one on a stick that Moses used to do miracles). I don't know if this sort of tradition lies behind the fact that it is a serpent that speaks to Eve in Genesis.

    I was meaning to look this up before answering but I didn't get a chance... the image posted above is certainly interesting but I don't see anything specifically Christian about it. I'm not even sure what sort of snake that's meant to be - it actually looks to me more like a caecilian!
     
  6. Atticus

    Atticus Chieftain Retired Moderator

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    He holds an apple in his mouth, so I'd think it is the snake. Simberg probably didn't care that much to paint it look like a real snake, note that it also has wings, almost the same colour as the background.
     
  7. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    Ahhh, I didn't realise that was an apple! I thought it was just opening its mouth very wide...
     
  8. flyingchicken

    flyingchicken 99 117 110 116 115

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    A question out of curiosity: from which existing stories (at that time) did the story of Genesis borrow from?
     
  9. Quasar1011

    Quasar1011 King of Sylvania

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    Which Genesis "story"? There are quite a few "stories" within the pages of Genesis.
     
  10. Maimonides

    Maimonides Chieftain

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    Quasar1011 has a good point.

    It's probably impossible to answer that question with certainty. Almost every culture has it's own creation story. Some are very similar, some are very different. Speaking about ancient creation stories, who knows which one borrowed from another.

    It is interesting that the Mesopotamians have a flood story very similar to Noah, but their flood story is part of their creation story. In the Torah, one comes long after the other.

    The story of Abraham in Genesis is pretty unique being that it involves monotheism as a main theme. However, I've heard some say that it may have borrowed the idea from Zoroastrianism which was pretty close to monotheism. It's all speculation, though.

    The Koran definitely borrowed large parts of Genesis, but that came many centuries later.
     
  11. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    There are indeed many stories in Genesis. I don't know much about the Old Testament, but this site is a good place to start. Genesis, like the rest of the Pentateuch, incorporates material from various sources; I believe there are four main ones. The redactor doesn't always combine them entirely effectively, which is why you can sometimes see inconsistencies between them. So, as I said in the other thread, Gen 1:1-2:3 is a creation story in which God creates the universe bit by bit, with plants before animals, and finally ending with human beings (male and female together). But Gen 2:4-25 is a completely different creation story in which God creates a man first of all, then creates plants, then creates animals, and finally creates a woman. The redactor has taken two different stories and whacked one after the other for some reason known only to himself.

    If you're talking about the creation stories, then as far as I know there are no particular parallels that are known. Of course there are other creation myths, other stories involving talking animals, etc, but I don't think there are any that are close to those ones. Other parts of Genesis, however, do have known parallels. For example, the story in 6:1-4, about the Nephilim, is a greatly cut down version of a story that is found in other texts, about the Watchers, angelic beings who intermarry with human women and produce evil giant offspring. That was an early myth about the origins of evil, and you'll notice that in Genesis it is immediately followed by a statement that human beings were terribly wicked. An interesting thing here is that it was only later on that Judaism developed the idea that Adam's sin was the cause of later wickedness. That is, originally there were the two stories - Adam and Eve, and the Watchers, and the Watchers were used as the explanation of human wickedness. Later, Adam and Eve became a more popular story. Both stories have made it into Genesis, but Adam and Eve is much longer, and the Watchers are stripped down to be almost incomprehensible unless you know the longer version of the myth.

    Also, the story of the Flood in Genesis 6 is parallelled by the story of Upnapishtim, which comes in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. There, the gods get together to cause a big flood to wipe everyone out, but one of them warns Upnapishtim, who builds a big boat and survives. The Epic of Gilgamesh, of course, is considerably older than Genesis, but I don't know what scholars think about the precise relationship between the two versions of the story.
     
  12. El_Machinae

    El_Machinae Colour vision since 2018 Retired Moderator

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    I've heard that Paul's writings were fairly low-quality and thus hard to interpret. Is this accurate? Were his writings of a lower quality than what we'd want from someone passing on wisdom, or were they 'standard' for an educated person of the time? Should Paul have had more skill than he did (in his penmanship)?

    We would find his writing style hard to understand, but did the people of the time?
     
  13. Abaddon

    Abaddon Chieftain

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    Do you think theologys "relevance" to human development has waxed and waned over the centurys?

    Is is more or less popular now than say 500 years ago?

    whats contributing to these changes?
     
  14. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    [El Machinae] I wouldn't say they're particularly low-quality. They are not the best-written parts of the New Testament, but they are not the worst either. Mark is written in not very good Greek; John and Hebrews are written in good Greek. The whole of the New Testament is written in koine Greek, which was a rather inelegant form of the language anyway, but the one that was commonly spoken at the time. Many of the later church fathers (John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, etc) wrote in an exaggeratedly classical and learned style of Greek, which was terribly impressive but not exactly aimed at a wide readership. Paul is sometimes ungrammatical (Rom 5:12-13) but generally writes OK, I think.

    Certainly Paul isn't enormously easy to understand, although presumably it would have been easier for people in his own day, at least if they were Jewish Christians like him. Some people didn't understand Paul (2 Pet 3:15-16). Some people were fans of Paul, but didn't understand him well. The Pastoral epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) are written in Paul's name, but they are not really by him; the author seems not to know or understand Paul's theology well. The same may be true of Luke, who attributes speeches to Paul in Acts that don't seem to have much in common with Paul's ideas in his letters. Others, however, seem to have understood Paul better; the letter to the Ephesians is also not by Paul, but it was written by someone who had immersed himself in Paul's genuine writings.

    As for his penmanship, Paul had bad handwriting (Gal 6:11) but of course would have dictated most of his letters (Rom 16:22).
     
  15. Quasar1011

    Quasar1011 King of Sylvania

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    It's more like, God creates the universe all at once, and then fashions the raw materials into things we see today.

    Where did God form this man?
     
  16. Murky

    Murky Chieftain

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    I watched some documentaries this weeked on severl tomes that were omitted from the Christian bible. Have you studied much in this area? Do you think they were left out for a specific reason?
     
  17. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That's an interesting set of questions and I'm not sure what the answer is. Obviously the relevance of theology is at least partly tied to the relevance of religion. So religion is mostly irrelevant to most people in the western world today, and theology is correspondingly irrelevant. I think it's the most unfashionable subject you could want to study. Whereas 500 years ago it was clearly very important. And in other parts of the world it's very important even today.

    But, equally significantly, people can be interested in religion without being much interested in theology, if by that we mean the examination of religion and the asking of questions about it. In fact many religious people would actively discourage such things. And this is true of the form of Christianity, at least, which is most familiar today, namely evangelicalism. It's even more true of the fundamentalist kind of Christianity we associate with America and Africa. That sort of religion actively discourages theological inquiry and speculation.

    Occasionally theology becomes a hot topic. This sometimes happens when ideas that have been around for a while at the academic level suddenly become more widely known, for some reason. That happened on several occasions in the nineteenth century, when the views of German liberal theologians filtered down to the popular level. For example, consider the storm over the Life of Jesus, published by David Strauss in 1835, in which he argued that many of the events described in the Gospels never happened. Strauss' career as a Lutheran minister was destroyed by that. There were similar rows over the Essays and reviews volume, edited by Benjamin Jowett in the 1860s, and William Smith, a scholar who wrote an article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1880s endorsing the views of Julius Wellhausen on the Old Testament. In all these cases, people who were completely unfamiliar with recent trends in theology became aware of them and were horrified; the authors mentioned were all vilified as atheists or irreligious.

    Possibly more interesting was the case of Honest to God, published in the 1960s by the bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson. It presented some of the ideas of Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich in a popular format, and as with the earlier cases, Robinson was popularly villified as a destroyer of Christianity. But the interesting thing here is that despite all the condemnations from religious conservatives, the book was very widely read and appreciated at the popular level; Robinson received far more letters in support than he did letters of criticism. This was also the time of the "Death of God" movement, which was really just a few theologians (notably Thomas Altizer) Christianising some of the views of Nietzsche and arguing that Christianity doesn't really need God at all. These ideas also received very wide exposure (it was Time magazine that named the movement, by asking "Is God dead?" on its cover one Easter).

    So theology is sometimes far more popular, as a topic of debate, than you might think. Unfortunately this is not the case right now; the bitter rows you hear between prosyletising atheists such as Richard Dawkins and American fundamentalists have got nothing to do with theology, partly because most figures in those slanging matches know nothing whatsoever about it. However, I'd say that the time when theology was most discussed at the popular level was the fourth century. On the eve of the Council of Constantinople in 381, the ordinary people of the city were apparently obsessed with the subject, and particularly the relationship between the Father and the Son, which was the major theological issue of the time. Gregory of Nyssa, who was in the city at the time and who was also one of the most important theologians of the century, found it exasperating:

    In fact both creation accounts are really accounts of the moulding of the universe into what it is now. That is, neither suggests that God actually creates the universe itself out of nothing - only that he takes a chaotic, already existing universe, and imposes order upon it. The opening verses of Genesis speak of the Spirit of God passing over "the water" even before any creative activity has taken place. God goes on to "separate" the waters below and above the sky, not to create any. In fact, the idea that God not only fashioned the universe but created it out of nothing at all was first proposed (as far as I know) by the gnostic theologian Basilides in the early second century. It had filtered into mainstream Christianity by the end of the century.

    I'm not sure I understand you. Presumably on bare earth, since we are told that the man was formed from the dirt of the ground, and God subsequently causes trees to grow around him and animals to appear. As with the first creation narrative, there is the sense of an existent but barren universe being coaxed into life and order, rather than the creation of something completely new.

    There are lots of books that didn't make it into the Bible. We've already talked about a lot of them earlier in the thread - if you specify which ones you mean it would be helpful!
     
  18. Fifty

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

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    :bump:

    While google image searching "god behind bars" to try and get a nice Alt. Member Photo of Perfection, I came upon this blog.

    Is experimental theology a serious academic subdiscipline of theology? What are your thoughts on it?
     
  19. Plotinus

    Plotinus Philosopher Administrator

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    That's not a discipline; it's just his description of what he's doing. I think his point is that he's using insights from experimental psychology in his theological musings, so he calls it "experimental theology" in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way. If there were really such a thing as experimental theology I'm not sure how it would work - you'd probably have people praying in a laboratory or something...
     
  20. DNK

    DNK Member

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    I have a few questions, some of which might already have been asked:

    1. What, in your opinion, is the best bible version, by which I mean the closest to the original text? My understanding is that with a lot of versions, a good bit gets lost in the translation.

    2. Where did the idea of the Trinity first come up?

    2b. Where did the Holy Spirit come from? The Father and Son are fairly obvious aspects, but that third one always confused me as to why it couldn't be considered as either the unification of the two, or as just a natural aspect of God. In fact, the Holy Spirit just confuses me in general.

    3. Is there much theology discussion around earlier Western religions, like the Greek and Roman gods? I've studied them, but I still feel like I have no real understanding of the texts.

    4. Can God create a rock he can't lift? j/k, I don't want to get into that, but I do want to ask can God split himself in two?

    5. How exactly is the formation of the Trinity explained, or is it one of those "always just was" things?

    6. This is perhaps the biggest problem I've had with Christianity that I can't say I've shared with other religions I've looked into: why? I don't believe I've seen a credible, logical answer given yet. By "why?", I mean why the mortal world, why not just heaven? God's own trial and error for potential souls or something?

    7. How can you believe in determinism, hell, and a perfectly benevolent God? In fact, leave determinism out of that question and I still think it's pretty hard to understand.

    7b. How can one believe in Free Will? Seriously, I eagerly await a logical explanation of this concept.

    7c. What exactly is the point of hell, and what if any historical situations do you think may have influenced such ideology.

    8. Where exactly did hell come from anyway? I'll have to reread the New Testament, but at least in the gospels I didn't see any direct references, save the wailing and gnashing of teeth, which doesn't seem extraordinarily specific. I in all likelihood missed it, though.

    9. So can the Pope get rid of hell altogether? I thought I saw something to that extent was being put to a vote somewhere.

    10. Why is casual sex considered a worse sin than creating an unsustainable population situation that causes massive suffering and death on a large scale?

    11. Is there any radical difference between the general philosophical community and the theological one?

    12. How does the Pope know when he's being infallible and when he's just being some guy with an opinion? Infallibility also confuses me.

    13. How has the Christian theological tradition impacted Western history?



    I know some of those were pretty big questions, so I expect I'll have to do some clarifying, but 'tis late. Thanks for this thread and the great posts, by the way. I have to say this is the first forum where I've actually learned something. A real treat on the internet.
     
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