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The Evolution of Theology, Part 2 (June 1, 2018)

Last week, I wrote about the fact that human knowledge is in constant flux. We know more than we used to about so many different things.

I also suggested that the same thing is true of theology—which literally means “study about God”. Theology is the way we engage in God–talk, and like everything else, it changes from generation to generation.

This week, I met someone on the street who disagreed with me quite strongly. “God doesn’t change. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow,” he said. In our conversation, I said that even if God is immutable (which in itself is a question worth exploring), our way of talking about God is not. We live in different times, and we must find ways of affirming how God is present among us. Different questions provoke new answers to the questions being asked in our generation.

That’s not a new idea. We see this kind of process in the Bible itself. Since the Bible is not really a book, but a library of books written over many centuries and reflecting different points of view, it’s a natural thing to see different points of view included therein.

Consider the case of Nahum and Jonah. Both are Old Testament prophetic books. Nahum was probably written in the 7tn century BC. Jonah likely comes from the 4th century BC or so. The message of these prophets was delivered about 300 years apart, and show two very different perspectives.

About the year 645 BC, Nahum gloats over the destruction of the capital city of ancient Israel’s deadly enemy Assyria. Nahum almost delights as he describes Nineveh filled with “piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end … I am against you, says the Lord of hosts.”

300 years later, Jonah tells a story about a prophet begin sent to Nineveh to warn the residents that God was about to unleash a terrible judgment. Surprisingly, the citizens of Nineveh heard the message and were moved to repent. As a result, God changed God’s mind about the devastation. Even Nineveh has a place in God’s purposes.

That’s not necessarily a contradiction in the Bible. Instead, we interpret this as a new perspective which came about with a new understanding at a later time. A new generation thought and spoke differently about God’s purposes in life.

It’s hard for the church to do that. It’s much easier to stick with traditional ways of speaking about God. But we can’t.

Let me give an example. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a relatively common thing to hear preachers rail against how sinful human beings were. It was the time of revival meetings both in Europe and more commonly in the USA. This has come to be known as “worm theology”, from a hymn by Isaac Watts called “Alas! And did my Saviour bleed”. That hymn has a line which describes the hymnist as “a worm such as I.”

The idea of worm theology was that we must abase ourselves in order to receive and grasp God’s mercy. In the face of God’s unimaginable holiness, we are worthless. Only as we acknowledge that can God’s mercy be effective in us.

That way of thinking and speaking about God has caused untold spiritual abuse. People have been told they are worthless—when in fact the Bible proclaims the exact opposite. Genesis affirms that “we are created in the image of God”, and Psalm 8 echoes that when it proclaims that God has “crowned mortals with glory and honour.” Psalm 139 goes on in this vein to proclaim that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.

This is just one example of how our faith needs to find new images and new words to express God’s love in a new age. That kind of worm theology was a distortion of the good news of Jesus, and it’s a good thing we’ve come to realize just how wrong it is.

Why is this particular issue important? Because that kind of theology is found in probably the most often sung Christian hymn—“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

The hymn was written by John Newton, a contemporary of Isaac Watts, who was the captain of a ship which was involved in the slave trade. Newton wrote this hymn to illustrate his own experience that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of the sins one commits. We can be delivered from personal despair through God’s mercy.

While I affirm Newton’s central insight that God’s love embraces us all, I can no longer sing these words. I am not a wretch. Neither is anyone else a wretch. I don’t think that language about human beings was ever appropriate. Certainly in this age, when we lift up the dignity of every human being, when we recognize once more that all human beings have value and worth, we cannot sing those words.

All people are held in love. All have dignity and worth. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, rich or poor, gay or lesbian or straight, black or white. No human distinctions matter.

This is but one example of a rich and powerful tradition of faithful people seeking new ways to speak about the God who fills all of life with meaning and purpose, compassion and grace.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt