Many people find the study of the principals of Christianity to be interesting and even intriguing. For some, however, the interest goes well beyond idle curiosity. For this group of truth seekers, a hunger for knowledge and truth drives them to dedicate years of their lives to the pursuit of deeper and meaningful insight into “what it all means”. They dive into their studies: reading, analyzing, listening, discussing, and debating the issues surrounding creation, divinity, and human relationships with nature, one another, and deity. Though their paths may be diverse, they share the universal hope that their efforts are fruitful; that they are able to tell the story of Jesus Christ, the history of the Christian church, and share the message of a loving Creator in a way that will have a positive impact on humanity and be pleasing to God. This is where my colleagues and I find ourselves today. We are charged with explaining what we have read, heard, learned, and understand, and the magnificent task of doing so with clarity and authority. The greatest challenge of sharing this message of hope, that is both exciting and challenging, is to be able to teach it (and live it) in a way that is not hypocritical or exclusive. While some are passionate and some are curious about the gospel message, there is still an entirely different group of people who are affected by it: those who are ignorant of Christian teachings and those who have negative feelings toward them. It is perhaps the majority of society, whom we should be reaching out to. Those people who are living outside of religion and spirituality are doing so because someone failed to share the message of God with them, or because someone failed to share it effectively. I believe there is more danger in being ineffective in sharing the message than in not sharing it at all.
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I grew up a pseudo-Southern Baptist. I say “pseudo” because my family’s attendance at church was very inconsistent. We were faithful to attend church at least once a month, maybe twice in some months. I was never involved in youth activities, vacation bible school, or bible study groups. I did not have a close group of friends within the church. My experience with pew sitting included hellfire and brimstone sermons delivered by preachers who were well-versed in salvation founded in fear rather than faith. It is easy to imagine that, for me, church was not a place where I felt peace or grace. I eventually stopped attending church altogether during my teens. I had not felt any affirmation or nurture during my church experiences, so for a long time, all I felt I was missing was the guilt and fear I associated with church membership. I stayed away for about fifteen years before I felt God calling me to a relationship. Shortly after meeting Christi, who would soon become my wife, we visited the United Methodist Church with our daughters. It was then that I became deeply involved in a bible study for the first time in my life, and so much of the gospel message from my hit-and-miss church attendance finally began to make sense. We began to participate in several church activities with our children, volunteering in youth events, Sunday School activities, mission projects, and small group bible studies. It wasn’t long before I was drafted into the church praise band, leading worship on Wednesday nights and at the early service on Sunday mornings. I had known for a while that I had a desire to serve more fully, but it was through a very unexpected event at church that I was rapidly introduced to full-time ministry. Stepping out on faith, I was hired as the youth minister and soon became a licensed local pastor. This served my purpose temporarily, but it did not provide fully for the kind of education I felt was necessary to preach and teach in pastoral ministry. The more that I learned during this time of rapid growth and awakening, the more I hungered for even more knowledge. My understanding of Christianity and church membership has since changed drastically from the narrow-minded perspective I had maintained throughout my childhood and well into adulthood. My perspective has shifted and my understanding continues to evolve. There are things which had no importance to me at all, that have become priorities. I have grown passionate about social justice and have gained a true appreciation for programs that promote the wellness and interests of women, children and others who are oppressed or marginalized. I have felt a calling to be a voice of support for women in ministry; to support their ministries and ensure that they are fully enabled to accomplish all of the good that they can, particularly in areas of ministry that they can be far more effective than a man could be. I feel strongly about the importance of encouraging inclusiveness in the church. I believe that it is important for all God’s people to have a place to participate in corporate worship. Church membership should not exclude members of the gay and lesbian community, as we all are in desperate need of feeling ever closer to God. There are several mainstream congregations within our communities that would not welcome gay or lesbian individuals into their churches. It is often openly and overtly preached against such blatant sinners becoming church members. I believe that none of our own sins can fairly or accurately be judged. Inclusiveness must be an overriding theme in all areas of the mission field. We are called to go make disciples and since we are all sinners, we would be hard-pressed to make disciples among those who are perfect. Our worship space and our church families should be places that are welcoming and inclusive, rather than rejecting and exclusive. If we are to model ourselves after Jesus, the Christ, we must remember that our savior ate with sinners. In those examples of love and forgiveness, Christ showed us the perfect model. If we are to be like Him, we must remember all those on the fringes; not just those who are victimized, but also those who are marginalized of their own poor choices. I believe that Jesus is my example and I am to model myself after Him. This is my calling.
The central theme of the Bible is God calling us, God’s people, back into a relationship with God. If we believe this, then we can only accomplish this restored relationship by ensuring that all of God’s people have not only the chance, but the understanding of what that relationship means. But, for many, the Bible is a strange writing. It is filled with stories and situations and language that are not easily understood. In fact, for many, it is like a foreign language. In addition, as I have come to experience in the world of theological education, there are so many terms that are indecipherable to the common person. We take our knowledge of the Bible and continue to turn it into terms that are still “not user friendly.” I believe that as theologians and faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility to humanity to give our best efforts to share God’s message with others. We are called by God and by the scripture in Matthew to go out and spread the gospel in order that all people may have the Bible accessible to them and to bring the message of scripture interpreted to them in a language that they might understand. When I use the phrase “for the fringes”, I am referring to those who are outside the church. For whatever reason, they do not have any affiliation with a church- possibly from a bad experience, never having been exposed, or disbelief. I believe that this is partially what we are being told in the passage from Matthew 25, “the least of these.” These children of God may be in the far corners of the earth, or in our back yards. They may be from the poorest of society, or they may be in the wealthiest ten percent. They may be pre-teen children, or they may be in the eve of their lives. In any case, I feel as though it is the responsibility of those who know the truth of scripture, the Christian community, to educate in common terms. More specifically, I believe that it is my responsibility, as a response to God’s amazing grace, to make it a priority to share Jesus with everyone that I can, in a language that everyone can understand. Dr. Rieger referenced our God as a “fairly radical God.”  This God of creation and liberation is the radical God that can appeal to the masses of those who are believed to be on the fringes, those just outside the church. Some believe that God is only available to those who gather in community and in relationships found within the fellowship and experiences of like-minded persons. We characterize those outside established congregations with terms like “unchurched”, or “underchurched”, or “lost.” The fact that they are not incorporated into an organized body of believers does not make them wrong. Too often the Christian community carries within itself, perhaps even in its doctrines, the belief that God can only be found inside the church. There are some who may even believe that they are the only ones who “do church right.” As theologians, we are faced with the challenge of presenting good God-talk, rather than bad. Unfortunately, many people experience theology as nothing more than another’s unlearned opinion or agenda, which could be limiting, damaging, or complete destruction. It is the responsibility of every person to seek knowledge and to share that knowledge.
The Doctrine of God-
Theology begins and ends with God. In an effort to firm our theological stance, we seek resources to support what we have learned and understand of God. The Bible and other historical documents are not written to provide proof of God, but to show what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is yet to do. They are, in fact, a documentation of God’s existence throughout history. Of these resources, there is no place better to start than with the Bible. In Genesis, we see that “God created the heavens and the earthâ€¦.” and “God swept over the face of the waters.”  We see evidence of God’s existence at the beginning of time. However, God’s existence in the lives of the individuals is measured not by the accounts of others, but in the relationships and experiences of the individuals.
The book of Deuteronomy, chapter 26 carries a hidden creed showing that the God of mercy and love delivered the writer from captivity and bondage. “We cried to the Lordâ€¦..the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egyptâ€¦.with a terrifying display of power.”  Throughout the text, a merciful image of God is evident as God helped liberate a people from their captors. The Word shows that while being a God of great mercy and faithfulness, and love, that there is the existence of a God who can be terrifying. Both characteristics are contained within the same account. But, the testimony would not carry the same effect had it not been in a relational setting. The oppression and captivity were very real and very personal to the writer; also the action of God was also very personal. It is through these kinds of stories that the God of our Christian faith can be better understood.
God has been presented to us with many attributes. These include Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, omniscient, omnipotent, holy, loving and forgiving, to name a few. Perhaps the best defining words for God would be self-existent. The fact that God’s existence does not rely on anything but God is somewhat overwhelming. The challenge is not only to gain a personal understanding of who and what God is, but to be able to effectively articulate God to others. This is the mystery of God. God can be described as everywhere, yet among us. God is said to be “the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  These terms provoke questions within those who do not have a relationship with God. God has been said to be all things to all people. It is through these examples that we begin to gain an understanding of the enormity of God. God is immeasurable through our human understanding. We cannot possibly have a complete understanding of God. To simply say that God is Christ leaves God somewhat boxed and therefore not the true God.
Origen said that “God is incomprehensible, transcending being itself. God is known only by inference from the created order.”  We see the presence and existence of God through the world around us. God is seen in the actions of neighbors and strangers. The God of creation is seen through the beauty of nature and in the faces of our fellow humans. God said in Genesis 1:26, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  It is clearly seen that God is intentional in God’s communion with humankind. Biblically speaking, the image of God can be seen in each and every person. John Wesley referenced in his Sermon 111, the scripture found in Jeremiah 23:24, “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth?”  Both John Wesley and biblical scholars agree that we see through this scripture that God is both immanent and transcendent. God exists entirely in this world and beyond. But the way that God is going to be seen in each person’s perspective is going to depend on where this person is in his or her life. God will meet us where we are at. The circumstances that surround a person’s life will shadow how God is viewed. A person who is suffering from loss, or poverty, or oppression might view God as uncaring, or distant. Whereas a person who is experiencing success- either socially, financially, spiritually, and relationally, may see God as very involved in their lives. It is those times where it is easier to see and acknowledge the existence of God. It is much harder to give God credit when times are hard. But the bridge to a better understanding of God is putting the two together and showing where God is present throughout. Trying to completely describe God would be failure. We cannot accurately speak of God’s greatness. Too many facets would be left out, and that would illustrate a God who fell short of the God that we have in our midst.
Explaining the Trinity is equally difficult. As theologians, we are to be able to put into words that the three- God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one. In our limited ability to understand, we seek to make sense not only to ourselves, but others. The Trinity may be likened to a full chord on a guitar. Each note, or string, has equal responsibility and equal worth. Each has its own tone and depth. But when all the notes are played simultaneously, the chord makes a complete and beautiful sound- a harmony, a relationship. This is how the Trinity works. As previously discussed, God the Father, Creator is with us always, from the beginning of time. As Christians, we understand that each point of the Trinity is equal to the other two. There is no subordination. If subordination were the case, the idea of the Trinity would be pointless. A wonderful example of the Trinity in modern writing would be illustrated in the book The Shack. The main character has suffered loss and brokenness and experiences all three facets while dealing with his circumstances. Though based on a fictional account, the lesson of each point of the Trinity, being in harmony with each other rings true. Each point of the Trinity was able to help the character in a different way.
Understanding God and the Trinity has and will be a continuous journey. As we move and study and live, the presence and knowledge of God will move within. Our understanding will change daily, as will our maturity in explaining. By helping others to identify God in their own personal experiences and relationships, we have a greater chance of helping them to understand scripture and the greatness of God.
The Doctrine of Jesus Christ-
Jesus Christ the Son, born of a virgin, is both fully divine and fully human. Jesus came and lived among sinners and died for our sins. This is the general idea of what Jesus Christ is to the world. But, there is so much more to the idea of the Son of God. The Christian faith says that the most significant way in which it has been able to see God present within the world is through the life, work, and legacy of Jesus Christ. It is claimed that Jesus Christ is the physical embodiment of God in the world. Jesus himself is not all there is to God, but He is God as God has chosen to physically manifest Godself in the midst of God’s creation. The historical Jesus is the Jesus of today, acting in history. In Mark 8:29, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  It seems that the world has been trying to answer the question since it was asked. The problem is that many different people have many differing answers. Or is that a problem. For some, He is simply a man who lived over two thousand years ago. To others, He was a prophet, much like Elijah. To some He was a politician, or a public figure that was well known and killed for His views. And yet to many of us, He was a man, who lived over two thousand years ago, who was able to tell us things that were of another dimension, who was political and stood for a cause greater than we could humanly imagine. And then, just as He said, He would be betrayed by a close friend, arrested for upsetting the higher political figures, and murdered- all the while, changing the course of history and the future of the world.
Jesus only had a short ministry, but the magnitude of things done in that time would shape a faith that give millions hope and peace all over the world. He began by assembling a group of men who were not in the upper crust of society. He never promised wealth or position, something that the average person might aspire to achieve, but instead offered life, unlike they had ever experienced before. These young men would have been the ‘blue collar’ workers of our times. They understood what it was like to work long hours for very little pay. Most of them were barely educated. But Jesus saw something in them and He chose them to help Him carry the message- His message. Much of the time, they did not understand the words or actions of this man. He spoke unlike anyone had ever spoken. He used parables to teach them how to live and how to love. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, ate with sinners, and basically drew outside all the lines of societal normalcy. Jesus spoke of a kingdom ‘not of this world’ where we would go to be with the Father. Jesus spoke about loving their neighbor and forgiving them of their wrongdoings. He challenged them to carry His teachings to the world. And this message was for the multitudes of people who believed, and followed. We are the disciples of Christ who are called to take this message now.
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The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit-
In the Old Testament, we see ‘the Spirit’ connected with deep experiences, through which its power might overcome an individual, it may rest upon an individual, or might be poured out over many people.  In the New Testament, this spirit is identified with Jesus Christ and is the bringer of justice, mercy, and the complete knowledge of God to the Jews and Gentiles alike. The idea that the spirit will be poured on the many- ie, Male and female, old and young, slave or free, as well as people of other nations, languages and cultures was radical considering the context of the time. The Spirit was granting knowledge to the outcasts. Not only were the wealthy and privileged receiving it, but so were the common folks.  We are told in scripture, “beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”  In fact, considerable time and study has been spent in exploration of this topic. The subject of spiritual warfare comes to mind. There are spirits that work daily in our lives. Theses spirits are not for the good of us, rather the opposite. The Holy Spirit is that presence that is carried within us every minute of the day. It is often the guidance that we seek when making a difficult decision. This Holy Spirit lives in contrast to the negative spirits. It is the spirit of both our God and Creator, as well as the spirit of Jesus Christ the Son. And this Holy Spirit will not act always the same way. Our individual needs and context will cause the spirit to respond in Its necessary capacity. Wisdom scripture say that the spirit “has filled the world and holds all things together.”  It is through our personal experiences that we see the Holy Spirit at work. It is often masked as the ‘nudging’ to participate or to not participate in any given activity. It is the feeling or calling of reaching out to those who are in need. We see the holy Spirit at work in the actions of others who show grace and compassion when their situations would not ordinarily warrant it. The Holy Spirit is the third element of the trinity, and is God and Jesus both active within our everyday lives. The Bible is a collection of all that God has said and done, as seen and recorded through the words of persons who were inspired to write by the Holy Spirit. It is a good example of how the Spirit works and speaks in their time and situation. The image of the spirit, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is that of wind or breath.  In the Book of John, Jesus promises the spirit as encourager to come after He is returned to God. “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truthâ€¦he abides in you and he will be in you.”  The Holy Spirit is God living in us. “And the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”  The work of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, just like in the lives of the Old Testament and New Testament people, helps to offer guidance even in our darkest hours. The battle that goes on within- ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ is the direct activity of the Spirit, working against the evil and sin in our lives. It may be very complex and often difficult to explain, but the fact is that the Holy Spirit is simply our God, the Creator of all things, living inside, present at all times.
The Doctrines of Creation and Providence-
The doctrine of creation tells us that God is the source and the Creator of all things. God is the Creator of the universe as well as individual human existence. All life comes from God and all life returns to God. We are told in Genesis 1 that God created and saw that everything was good. We have no doubt that God was pleased with creation.  Creation, however, is not simply a process that ‘was.’ Creation is a continuous, ongoing process in which God is actively involved- a relationship between God and the world. Throughout Biblical history, we have seen the hand of God at work, primarily in the acts of creation. For example, this is evident in the story of the flood, through the imagery of the olive leaf returned to the hand of Noah by the dove. We saw God establish the covenant afterwards, the creation of Israel, and then the creation of a new community of faith through Jesus Christ. These are just a few examples of the love that God has continued to show for God’s creation. We have to be able to share that creation did not create itself. It is the gift of a God who is love, and through this gift, we are shown the magnificence of God.
But why did God create the earth and everything in it? Some have pondered that God was lonely, so God created. We believe that God is complete in Godself. We have already established that God is self-existent and ultimately that God’s existence does not rely on anything but God. with that in mind, it does not make sense, even to or limited understanding of this all-loving God, that God would become lonely and subsequently create. Karl Barth believed that God was radically separate from this world. Barth said “that “the One who loves in freedom” was acting out of no external necessity but freely creating simply because love seeks to share its goodness.”  This loving God that we worship, and often fear, is seeking to share God’s greatness. Through creation, God begins the relationship with humanity, not out of need, but out of love.
John Calvin said, “God’s providence is not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events.”  According to Wood, in the Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, we are not to believe that we are tied to our situations simply because God has willed it that way. “This God who sends pain has also sent the means to alleviate it. The God who sends flood and fire has given is the intelligence to prevent it from happening, or to minimize its harmful effects.”  Providence is God’s divine guidance and care. God the Creator is continues as the sustaining force for creation and the guiding force for human destiny. But why would a loving God allow evil into the world. Placher points out that often, we just don’t have answers, but we might look at a few possible reasons. Sometimes good is not possible without evil, humanity abuses its freedom and the result is evil, evil helps refine our souls to be what God would have us to be, or simply that God allows some limited evil to act in the world.  It is only through God’s grace that humanity experiences free will. Sometimes, our choices through this free will cause us to be in harm’s way. God’s allowance of evil helps humanity to become the people God would desire us to be. Plainly speaking, we learn from our mistakes and through trials, we turn our hearts toward God. In the end, our relationship to God is strengthened, as is our witness to others.
The Doctrine of the Human Creature-
“The problem with the issue of human being is that we all believe that we have a complete understanding of human being. And because we already know about the human being, we tend to work from that assumption.” Our human condition, or human creature, or human existence is based upon our relationship with God. When we have a relationship with and we follow Jesus Christ, we become more fully human.  We are told that the human creature is not just individual, but collective, as well.  Our humanness comes with both possibilities and limitations. There is something in the individual, and in that individual’s desire for personal success that is adverse to the human creature. “We are qualified by the claim that what distinguishes them as specifically human is that God creates them in the image of God.”  The one who is created in the image of God seeks to form and sustain loving and caring relationships with God and other human beings. When the humans desire to achieve personal success overlaps the desires of another, conflict is created. Often in conflict, healthy relationships are not nurtured. This conflict is called sin.
The Doctrine of the Church-
“The church is the people of God.”  Though there are many divisions, facets, communities, denominations, the church stands as the people, the body of Jesus Christ, who founded the church and charged us with the task to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  “God will speak where God will and the community will form around where God is.” The role of the church is to re-present Christ to the world.  In a recent lecture, Dr. Rieger alludes to a personal struggle that was similar to the struggle of Luther, Wesley, Barth, and Bonhoffer. That struggle was not about the people not believing, but that the people were being taught wrongly and therefore believed wrongly. Rieger offers that rather than idealizing the church, we begin to analyze the church. To do this, we must look at the four marks of the church to function as a framework for our analysis.
First, we look at the unity of the church- “One holy, catholic, universal church.” But we are not one church. We have both social threats to church unity, as well as theological threats. One threat is segregation. We are primarily segregated. Racially, church is referred to as the “most segregated hour in America- from 11am to 12 on Sunday morning.”  Class stratification is not easily overcome, especially in America. If we are really interested in the unity of the church, we have to address the issues that divide us. We are also divided by our differing doctrines. As a United Methodist now and formerly a Baptist for 35 years, I appreciated the joke about a Methodist being a Baptist that can read. There is humor intended in the statement but the sad truth is that Baptists, United Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Church of Christ, and Pentecostals have been divided in their beliefs for ages. In addition to these differences, we also create divisions with the Jewish people. We believe that the new covenant of Jesus Christ has somehow nullified the covenant of God with Israel in the Old Testament. Instead, we need to look to our similarities, oppose anti