Category Archives: Essays

ESSAY: A Theology of Suffering (2001)

This essay was my first attempt in college at grappling with the issues related to Theodicy, that is, the problem of reconciling the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God with the presence of evil and suffering in the world.  Like many, my first exposure to this issue led me to the more traditional view influenced by St. Augustine.  

I have since altered my views a bit — influenced by such writers as Gregory Boyd and Roger Olson. But there’s still much of value in this old essay, notably many great quotes from the likes of C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, Philip Yancey, Billy Graham, Peter Kreeft and more.

I. UNDERSTANDING SUFFERING

Defining Suffering

Suffering—a basic human experience transcending race, age, gender, class, and religion—has been defined and understood by poets, musicians, theologians, mothers, and fathers alike.  No attempt fails to accurately express its essence, and yet no single attempt can be said to have exhaustively described the universal horrors of suffering.  Suffering takes a new shape and form with each new person and circumstance in which it shows its ugly head.

Thus, defining suffering is no easy task and necessitates a highly arbitrary process.  Putting suffering in a biblical context, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines it as “agony, affliction, or distress; intense pain or sorrow” and divides suffering into two types:

1) suffering that is “a result of evil actions and sin in the world as a consequence of the past fall in the Garden of Eden”, and

2) “suffering that is not related to past, but is forward-looking in that it serves to shape and refine God’s people” (Youngblood, 1995, p. 1207).

In other words, certainly much of the suffering in the world is perpetrated by humans themselves.  C.S. Lewis makes this clear in The Problem of Pain:

When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men.  It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork (Lewis, 1996, p. 79).

This essay is concerned with the second type listed above and attempts to understand the suffering of the innocent.  However, the first type will be inevitably dealt with shortly when discussing the origins of suffering.

Peter Kreeft in Making Sense Out of Suffering, defines suffering as Christ’s invitation to us to follow him to the cross and share his cross.  “Christ goes to the cross, and we are invited to follow to the same cross.  Not because it is the cross, but because it is his” (Kreeft, 1986, p. 137).

Mother Teresa also sees at the core of suffering an opportunity to share in Christ’s work.  When asked how a merciful God can allow the suffering of the innocent, Mother Teresa responded:

All that suffering—where would the world be without it?  Innocent suffering is the same as the suffering of Jesus.  He suffered for us, and all the innocent suffering is joined to his in the redemption.  It is co-redemption.  That is helping to save the world from worse things (Egan, 1994, p. 56). Continue reading ESSAY: A Theology of Suffering (2001)

BOOK REVIEW: Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification

Enjoy a book review of Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification edited by Donald Alexander.  The 5 representative views include the Lutheran, Wesleyan, Reformed, Pentecostal and Contemplative traditions.

SUMMARY OF VIEWS

I. Lutheran View. Gerhard O. Forde emphasizes the centrality of Christ’s righteousness as imputed to the believer for their justification.  Sanctification is not something distinct and subsequent to justification.  He warns against the notion that ‘justification is God’s part, while sanctification is our part’.  No; instead, he defines sanctification as merely “the art of getting used to justification” (13).  The believer must simply accept the unconditional grace of God in Jesus Christ.  “Because Jesus died and rose, therefore God here and now declares you just for Jesus’ sake (not even for your sake, but for Jesus’ sake)” (18-19).  For Forde, the good news of Christ is that we are freed from living a life under the Law, or in a state of conditionality. The greatest temptation is to fall back into a life of conditionality, or Law, by which we try to achieve righteousness by our own efforts.  Thus, Forde is critical of all approaches to sanctification that stress any human initiative and effort towards holiness.  Forde asks, “Why work at becoming just if you are already declared to be so” (24)?    Forde stresses the tension of being simultaneously just and sinner.  As far as progress in sanctification goes, there is only “growth in coming to be captivated more and more…by the totality, the unconditionality of the grace of God” (27). Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification

ESSAY: A City on a Hill: A Biblical Theology of Missions

“Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”

– St. Francis of Assisi

 

Modern readers tend to take the above statement as a kind admonition towards acts of charity and service in the name of Jesus.  But, they are usually quick to make clear that the primary means of evangelizing is through the preaching of the Word.

Without downplaying either propositional preaching or acts of charity, the following essay explores another approach to evangelism—an approach that seems to be rooted more deeply in the Old and New Testament traditions.  I call it the “City on a Hill Approach” to world missions.

In order to set the stage, we must take a trip back through the history of God’s people, through the Old Testament and up until the birth of Christ, when the world sat in darkness awaiting the brightness of a new dawn.

ISRAEL’S MISSIONARY PRESENCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

When God called Abraham and promised to make him a great nation, he and his descendents were to be the instrument through which God would bless all the peoples of the earth (Gen 12:2-3; 17:4, 16; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14).[1] All nations were to come to a knowledge of the one true and living God as they observed the people of God living in relationship with Him and obedience to His decrees.  As Moses says,

Observe [God’s decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”  What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him (Deut 4:5-7)?

Furthermore, the people of God were called to be a kingdom of priests, or mediators between the nations and God: “…if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5-6).

It is key to note that the primary posture of the missionary calling of Israel was not one of sending out individual missionaries to teach propositional truths about God, but rather a corporate calling to be a certain kind of people, or community, living a certain quality of life in plain view of the on-looking nations.  They are to be a unique, sanctified presence among all the peoples of the earth. Continue reading ESSAY: A City on a Hill: A Biblical Theology of Missions

ESSAY: Love, Justice & the Kingdom: A Christian Social Ethic (2002)

I wrote this essay many years ago.  Some of my views related to Christian involvement in the political realm have changed a bit. But it’s still worth a read.  -JB

INTRODUCTION

From the beginning, the question of how Christians should relate to the rest of society has continually been raised and reevaluated.  In retrospect, it is apparent that the church has never achieved unanimous agreement over the issue of Christian social responsibility.  History documents many movements toward a position of noninvolvement or even absolute separation from society.[1] At the same time, Christians also have a rich heritage of active social involvement.[2] Still others along the way have tried to acrobatically tread the high ground somewhere between these two valleys.  Regardless of which view one ultimately holds, any biblically sound basis for Christian social responsibility must start with the example found in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Which part of Jesus’ life and teachings do we turn to in order to find such a model?  Do we simply turn immediately to his most famous treatise on ethics—the Sermon on the Mount?  Or perhaps the answer is not necessarily to be found in what he said, but rather in what he did.  If this is so, might we just examine his interactions with various social groups and formulate a position based on that?   I propose that we center our attention on what was clearly the driving force behind both Jesus’ words and actions—namely, the gospel of the kingdom of God. A fuller understanding of the essence of the kingdom will provide the basis we are seeking for a position on Christian social responsibility.

The ensuing study seeks to show that at the heart of Jesus’ message of the kingdom lies the dual administration of both God’s love and justice.  If Christians of the twenty-first century are to be more effective stewards of the ministry of the kingdom, which is by essence a reflection of the character and will of God, then a proper understanding of love and justice is the crucial starting point. Continue reading ESSAY: Love, Justice & the Kingdom: A Christian Social Ethic (2002)

ESSAY: The Collision of Stories: An Exploration in Narrative Theology (2002)

As a sophomore in college two friends bought me a new study Bible as a gift.  I took that Bible to the dining center and began reading the Acts of the Apostles for the first time.  Something happened that night as I read this seemingly harmless story of the birth and expansion of the early church, and it forever changed my life.  An explosive encounter had taken place; a three-way collision between my story, God’s story and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Two years later I was in grad school and determined to find out what exactly happened that night to spark such a radical personal transformation.  The following essay was where my initial study led me.  Enjoy my first seminary term paper — I believe it’s semi-coherent. =)

INTRODUCTION: THE MYSTERIOUS ENCOUNTER

All Christian faith and theology presupposes that God has graciously chosen to reveal himself to his creation—most substantially in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, this historical revelation of the Word has been preserved in the sacred writings by the Apostles through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  As such, the inscripturated Word of God continues to interact with the lives and faiths of people today just as the incarnate Word touched and transformed lives nearly two millennia ago.  The fact that lives can be radically and eternally changed in equal proportions through these two drastically different mediums—the first, a personal encounter with God incarnate two thousand years ago, and the second, the seemingly mundane act of reading a book today—demands closer scrutiny.

Every “card-carrying” evangelical will readily affirm the divine origins of the Bible, proudly bearing the reputation of “a person of the Book.”  They may also get the right answers on an examination to questions of the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture.  The more ambitious student will even have a working definition of the doctrine of illumination.  Yet, rarely will one thoughtfully consider how or whether these doctrinal conceptualizations have any relevance to their daily walk of faith.  In other words, who beyond the walls of academia questions how the message of abook can impact a person in a way that completely transforms them and their way of life?  Such a question casts us headlong into an arena of vast debate over such issues as the authority of the Bible, the nature of revelation, the Spirit’s role of illumination, and the existential phenomena of religious experience.

How do we make sense of or describe such enigmatic phenomena as “hearts burning” from hearing the Old Testament story (Luke 24:32), a “heart strangely warmed” as with John Wesley,[1] or having one’s “heart filled with a light of confidence and all the shadows of doubt” being forever “swept away” as with Augustine through his reading of Romans? [2] These are not issues relevant only to gray-bearded, ivory tower buffs.  We are dealing with the everyday miracle of lives being radically transformed through a mysterious encounter with the Word of God!  The following study explores this question and proposes that a key to better understanding the relationship between the Bible and its transforming effect is a narrative approach to revelation and illumination.  After a brief overview of the concepts of revelation and illumination, I shall attempt to shine some light on these issues by approaching them from a narrative perspective. Continue reading ESSAY: The Collision of Stories: An Exploration in Narrative Theology (2002)

ESSAY: Telling Lies About Grandpa: Historical Amnesia in the Church Today (2006)

TELLING LIES ABOUT GRANDPA
Historical Amnesia in the Church Today
A Father’s Day Sermon preached at Bethel Methodist Church on June, 18 2006

by Jeremy Berg

Pearl Harbor Rewritten

On the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly after 7:00, “a date that will live in infamy,” Pearl Harbor was attacked by more than 180 Japanese warplanes. By 9:45, the attack was over, leaving some 2,400 Americans dead and nearly 1,200 wounded. The Pearl Harbor attack was the final straw, ending the United States’ two years of neutrality toward the world conflict, as Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day.

For 65 years the American people have viewed the Pearl Harbor tragedy as a foreign attack on American soil, and involvement in the war as the necessary response to such a national threat. However, recent investigations into the matter have slowly uncovered shocking new facts about what really happened.

Many of you may be aware that nearly a year before the Pearl Harbor attack, American technicians had cracked a top-secret Japanese code allowing them to read intercepted diplomatic messages. By November 27, just a week before the attack, based on decoded messages, American military leaders knew that Japanese aircraft carriers were on the move in the Pacific. They expected attack, but they did not know where.

What you probably don’t know is that these messages were not decoding a strictly Japanese plot. Rather, invasion plans that American military leaders were so close to uncovering turns out to be the best kept military conspiracy of history—even rivaling the legendary Trojan horse! At last, the greatest cover-up of modern history is finally being unveiled.

Here is “the rest of the story”: Pearl Harbor was ruthlessly staged by FDR himself in order gain the national support needed to join the Second World War. The Japanese planes were not flown by Japanese kamikaze pilots willingly offering their lives for the Japanese cause. Rather, they were flown into their targets by specially trained American hijackers—hauntingly similar to the 911 terrorists—secretly commissioned by FDR himself. Ever since, as you might imagine, the American government has been using every resource in its power to suppress any knowledge of this true story behind Pearl Harbor.

Ok, I’m Just Kidding!

Now, before you start hissing and throwing things at me, let me admit that this rewritten history of Pearl Harbor is purely the product of my own imagination. I made the whole thing up! Continue reading ESSAY: Telling Lies About Grandpa: Historical Amnesia in the Church Today (2006)

ESSAY: Moltmann & the Parousia: A Christocentric Reconsideration (2004)

I wrote the following essay back in 2004.  It explores Christ’s Second Coming by interacting with the thoroughly Jesus-shaped theology of Jurgen Moltmann. Warning: Theology geeks only!

Introduction

For most of Christian history, the doctrine of the parousia of Christ (his “coming” or “effective presence”, i.e., Second Coming) in glory and judgment has been neglected and pushed to the margins of Christian theology and devotion.

While the cross and resurrection serve as the pillars upon which systematic theologians construct their doctrinal towers, the parousia has often remained a mere appendage to our creeds with a quite subsidiary role in our faith.  For most, it would seem, the parousia is that far-off future hope, only to be tasted in the hereafter, and quite removed from our present concerns.

More recently, however, theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have alerted us to the thoroughly eschatological character of the Christian gospel, insisting that the future hope of the parousia should significantly shape and guide our present relationship with God (who is the promising God), our understanding of the meaning and direction of history (which is proleptic in nature), and our knowledge of and faith in Christ (who is the coming Redeemer and Judge).

Preliminary Considerations

While a renewed interest in the eschatological parousia has touched virtually every aspect of Christian theology (soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, etc.), this study will focus specifically on some christological issues related to the parousia. [1] Some initial points are necessary before proceeding.

First, christological investigations in the past have tended to draw almost exclusively upon the ‘finished work of Christ’—his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  Yet, Moltmann argues that Christ’s work is not ‘finished’ until he returns in glory to judge and restore all things.[2] The past and future Christ-events must be considered together in our christological inquiries.  Or, as Moltmann put it, “Christ’s messianic mission, his apocalyptic suffering and his eschatological resurrection from the dead would remain incomprehensible fragments if we were not to take into account the future ‘Day of the Messiah’…”[3]

Secondly, while the ‘Second Coming’ has always dominated eschatological conversations, the parousia is rarely consulted in christological discussions examining the person and character of Christ.  A biblical understanding of the parousia should not only focus on what is to come, but also on the precise character of the one who is to come.  And this ‘who-question’ is a thoroughly christological one.

Thirdly, and most importantly for this paper, studies on the parousia of Christ have tended to let popular, preconceived images of the Final Judgment  — often influenced by Dante, the Sistene Chapel or Left Behind novels — shape our images of the coming Christ; rather than letting what we know of the character and will of Christ as revealed in Scripture reshape our images of the events surrounding the parousia.  I suggest that Christology (which is more clearly defined in Scripture) should shape our apocalyptic eschatology (which is more elusive and multivalent in Scripture)—not visa versa.

Having made these few preliminary remarks, we may now precede to the main argument of this essay.  The basic claim being made is that if we approach the doctrine of the parousia of Christ through christological lenses—that is, considering what is to come in light of what we already know of who is to come—some of our traditional understandings of the Final Event may be misguided and in need of reconsideration.

I believe that Jurgen Moltmann has rightly challenged some traditional views of the nature and purpose of the parousia.[4] Letting Moltmann guide the conversation, I will draw from some patristic writers along the way who either support or challenge his basic claims.   Continue reading ESSAY: Moltmann & the Parousia: A Christocentric Reconsideration (2004)

ESSAY: Stanley Hauerwas & the Church as God’s New Language (2004)

“Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you.”

(2 Corinthians 3:2 MSG)

Stanley Hauerwas

Upon reflecting on the birth of the church and its purpose, Stanley Hauerwas claims that “at Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words.  It is instead a community” shaped and formed by the memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.[1]

The following essay explores this image of the church as God’s new language in and for the world.  Is this some strange and novel idea that Hauerwas recently invented?  Or is this metaphor rooted in the biblical tradition of the prophets and apostles, and retained by the early church fathers?

In this study I will explore aspects of Hauerwas’ ecclesiology more fully and examine them in light of the ecclesial teachings of the apostles and early church fathers.  I will argue that the church gradually shifted away from being God’s message to the world to a community who instead possessed a particular message for the world.  In other words, the church as a sacrament began with an incarnational model and as soon became an institution administering the sacraments with a more confessional and proclamational model.

Issues relevant to ministry and spiritual formation that arise in this study include (1) the question of what type of evangelistic approach should the church have in today’s post-Christian world and (2) the issue of whether Christian ethics should focus more on right acting (behavior) or right being (character).   Let us begin by exploring in more detail Hauerwas’ ecclesiological contributions. Continue reading ESSAY: Stanley Hauerwas & the Church as God’s New Language (2004)