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The big words of theology

Theology, like any discipline, is a constant search. For that, it needs to build its own vocabulary to evoke the ideas it develops. But these words sometimes become inaccessible, like all specialised languages. We want, in this series, to make more simple words that are not simple. Theology is for everyone!

Proleptic Eschatology
James Woody
Birds of ill omen announce that things will end badly. What do we know about the end? When we are interested in what the end of history will be, we do eschatology: the science of the end. The eschaton, in Greek, is what is last. To find out what is last, what will happen at the end of time, we can use our imagination. Often this means projecting our hopes or our fears. In this situation, thinking about the end is like using our imagination on the basis of our obsessions.

In Christianity, it is not a question of imagining what will happen. Eschatology is rather a way of indicating what is ultimate, final. The last judgment is not necessarily to be understood as the judgment that will be pronounced just before the world explodes, but the ultimate truth about a person or situation. For example, what is expressed at a baptism, namely that it is right and good that you are here, indicates an ultimate truth that will not pass away, whatever the circumstances.

In Christianity, always, in order to know what is ultimate, what is final, we look at what it is that Christ embodies. What Jesus revealed about humanity is the Christian way of envisioning what complete, ultimate humanity is. Of course, what Jesus demonstrated is only an anticipation of what each of us is called to live, to experience. Jesus is, from this point of view, a precursor of each of us, what we technically call a prolepsis. Proleptic eschatology therefore is thinking about what is ultimate, what is our aim, the purpose of our existence, on the basis of what Christ has embodied, on the basis of what Jesus has preached. This suggests that it is not necessary to wait until the end of history for everything to come to fruition. Already, we have at our disposal the elements that give our life the ultimate meaning that it can attain.
January 2018

André Gounelle
This word belongs to the jargon of specialists in ancient and medieval theology. It comes from a Greek verb meaning « to deny ». A theology Is apophatic (or, what amounts to the same thing, « negative ») when it denies that we can know or say anything about God, which may seem contradictory. Theology is, indeed, a scholarly discourse (a logos) about God (theos). When we feel that we can neither talk about God nor know God, we are leaving theology to enter agnosticism.

In fact, the paradox is less than we might believe. Indeed, apophatic theology does not shut up, it does not remain silent; it talks about God in order to establish that God escapes our words and our concepts. God is never what we say and think about God; God is ineffable (or indescribable) and incomprehensible. « God is neither this nor that, « writes Master Eckhart (1260-1328). Our words and our ideas are always at odds: they cannot begin to describe God or even point to God.

More specifically, for apophaticism we have indeed a consciousness of God. However our consciousness is negative: we know what God is not, but we do not know what God is. So when we call God « eternal » we mean that God is not subject to time; when we call God « transcendent », we are in this way stating that God does not belong to our world. We declare that God is not a temporal and commonplace being, which is correct; but what eternity and transcendence are, we have not the slightest idea.

Apophaticism has a part of the truth; it is a salutary reaction against the dogmatic claim of a perfect and complete knowledge of God. Our theologies always have deficiencies and gaps. Yes, apophaticism is an essential component of faith in a God who goes beyond us, it also has its weaknesses and its limits: the gospel message says about God that God is love and that we perceive something of God through Jesus the Christ, which is very positive.
February 2018

Laurent Gagnebin
Apologetics is the part of theology whose purpose is to defend faith and Christian doctrines against opponents. Theologians of the three first centuries were sometimes called apologists because their works sought above all respond to attacks from Jews, then pagans.

The whole history of Christian thought has this apologetic concern to show the excellence and truth of Christianity compared to other systems of belief.

The apologetic approach has too often generated through its fights a negative and aggressive attitude. An essential part of theology however ought to lie in meeting others and listening positively to their questions. Theology is not reflection in a vacuum, but a « theology of culture » (P.Tillich), a dialogue marked by a spirit of welcome and openness.

Should not apo-logetics then become rather syn-logetics, namely a debate with and not advocacy against? It will receive a large share of what it is thanks to what such a dialogue will bring; for example, with other religions, or between science and faith, art and religion, philosophy and theology, atheism and Christianity. It will not be so much a question of countering unbelievers, as of discovering that they do not necessarily object to authentic Christianity but to unfaithful practices, to alienating images of a beyond justifying our passivity and a discarnate Christianity. The representations of a God who is almighty but indifferent to our sufferings, as well as beliefs contrary to credible scientific knowledge also revolt many people who have become distanced from the Church. Their challenges however allow us to purify our faith and to find the gospel beyond particular expressions of Christianity.
March 2018

Supra /sublapsarian
Pierre-Olivier Lechot
Let us assume Calvin’s hypothesis of double predestination. Then we are faced with questions about the order of the decrees: did God first decide to create the human race and then, anticipating the fall, predestine some to salvation and others to damnation? This is the sublapsarian position (« after the fall »). Or does his choice to create the human race respond to his first wish to offer his salvation to a part of humanity, which implies that he first decided to predestine some to salvation and others to damnation before creating them? This is the supralapsarian position. It is not a question of chronological order but rather of knowing what comes first logically. For Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, there is no question about this: it is the will to predestine the human race that takes precedence over the will to create it. Beza tries to solve a double problem: if we say that God anticipates the fall and chooses the elect and the reprobate in the mass of sinners, we can no longer defend his justice, since his criteria elude us; moreover, his will is no longer free, since it depends on the fact that Adam will fall. The theologian Jacob Arminius opposed Beza, pleading for an abandonment of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. His reaction led to one of the longest controversies in the history of Calvinism and led to the condemnation of his theses at the Synod of Dordrecht in 1619. However, during this synod, it was also decided that deciding the question was not a matter of the faith of the Church, but simply a quarrel between theologians. Such discussions seem outdated today. However, the position of the supralapsarians always invites reflection: by setting the priority, in God, of the question of the salvation of individuals over that of Creation, they depict a God turned more towards humankind than towards the cosmic order. In this sense, their position may not be so distant as that of a certain form of existential theology.
April 2018

Olivier Guivarch
You suggest a distant appointment to a theologian. If he asks you why you take no account of the parousia is that he wants to be funny (obviously, as a, theologian) and, at the same time, the remark is suggestive.

The Greek word parousia had two common meanings: “presence” and “visit”. At the time of Jesus, parousia was also used to describe a grand visitation by a monarch who would be received as a god. Some New Testament writers who were addressing readers with a Greek cultural background borrowed the word with its echoes of the expectation anchored in biblical tradition and strong in popular belief: the expectation of the coming of the messiah or Son of man.

After the death of Jesus, those who believe in his resurrection await his return: the parousia. It is described dramatically in Matthew’s gospel
(chapter 24) and several letters discuss it (Paul, John, Peter and James). For some the parousia refers to the coming of Christ in glory and, for others, the earthly return of Jesus. The early Christians are convinced that the wait will be brief.

But time passes and the parousia does not come. Matthew was already calling for vigilance in chapter 24: « Regarding the day and the hour, no one knows.” Many false prophets and true frauds have claimed during the last two millennia that the end was approaching and humanity was going to experience the parousia.

But time passes and the parousia does not come. Has Christ already come back among us without our seeing the signs? Were the angels and trumpets just a way of speaking (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16)? Rather than awaiting a triumphant return that would relieve us of all freedom, I prefer to see the immediacy that the parousia suggests, the immediacy of the presence of Christ in our actions and relationships which make our world more fit to live in.
May 2018

Extra Calvinisticum / Intra Lutheranum
Pierre-Olivier Lechot
The expression Extra Calvinisticum appears at the beginning of the seventeenth century in Lutheran controversy with the Reformed. It is not the invention of Reformed theologians but serves to designate the Calvinist position in a polemical sense. Intra Lutheranum refers to the position of Lutherans as perceived by Reformers.

The point of disagreement is the question of the relationship between the divine nature and the human nature of Christ. Calvinists defend the idea that the divine nature is wholly related to human nature, but is not totally contained in it, inasmuch as the finite is not capable of the infinite. Jesus Christ is totally God, but not the totality of God: God in a way “goes beyond” the sole person of the Son. Lutherans, on the other hand, claim that the human being can not speak properly of God without speaking of Jesus Christ, even though, in Godself, God does of course go beyond Jesus Christ – the finite is therefore, in some sense, « capable of infinity « .

It can appear that we have gone beyond these two contradictory theses today. Yet they conceal in themselves two important tendencies of Protestant theology which I still find it useful to seek to articulate theologically. For the proponents of the extra Calvinisticum, God is never reduced to what we can say or perceive; God is always transcendental. For the proponents of the intra Lutheranum, on the other hand, what matters is recalling, to quote Luther, that « God is closer to all his creatures than these are to themselves »: God is also and always immanent. Paul Tillich is the one who has probably best grasped this dialectic by recalling that God is at once transcendent and immanent, the Wholly Other and the Wholly Near. In short, God is always both the unconditioned and the one who concerns us, unconditionally
June-July 2018

Abigail Bassac
This term is useful when considering the question of salvation and its recipients. Is salvation reserved for some, the privileged ones, chosen by God even before creation, or for those who recognize Jesus as their Saviour, or even for those whose behaviour is endorse by morality? The believer’s answer to this question speaks volumes about their conception of God.

In Greek, apokatastasis panton means « the restoration of all things ». The expression is found in the New Testament (Acts 3:21) and the concept it covers is one of the subjects that stirred up theological debates in the first centuries of Christianity, the era when the great dogmas were developed. Origen (c.185-254), one of the Fathers of the Church, is the main defender. Although, unfortunately, this notion was condemned as heretical in the sixth century, a large number of believers adhere to it today. But what meaning can we give it?

If apocatastasis means that everything will be restored, in the context of Christian theology, subscribing to it means affirming that salvation is universal, intended for all. No, the salvation offered by God is not reserved for some. For whatever criteria one might imagine restricting the salvation offered by God, that would not change anything; it remains an unacceptable affirmation. Salvation, this gift of God constantly renewed, is what wrenches us from the grasp of absurdity, death, everything that extinguishes life. Yes, this gift is for everyone, whoever we are. Affirming apocatastasis, for me, is not a gamble on life after death, it is affirming that we can, all of us, live a full life here and now, and that this life that we did not even imagine can finally begin at any moment for each one of us.
August-September 2018

André Gounelle
O God, why? Why do you allow this world with its dramas, its miseries and its cruelties? What are you waiting for to intervene and make these horrors stop? Many pages of the Bible put this question in a tone of complaint or accusation: psalms, prophets, Job and Jesus himself with his cry on the Cross: Eli Eli lama sabachthani? Many believe that suffering, their own or that of others, torments and revolts. Every faith struggles with misfortune, and misfortune, probably more than anything else, is constantly threatening, shaking and undermining faith.
In a book published in 1710 which deals with this question, the philosopher Leibniz forged, or at any rate introduced, the term « theodicy », born from the combination of two Greek words: theos which designates God and dike which means justice. A theodicy is an attempt to demonstrate the justice of God; it aims to resolve the enigma of evil, to prevent the attribution of responsibility for it to God; it wants to somehow justify God, even to exonerate God.

Theodicies are many. Some say that it is not up to the human being to judge God and to hold God to account (the book of Job goes in this direction). Others believe that what seems to be an evil is not so in reality and that we must learn to see in our suffering, even the greatest, the benefits of God (this is close to what Calvin thinks). Some believe that God is not all-powerful; evil comes against his will; God is opposed to it and will eventually eliminate it in what will then be his Kingdom (this is more or less Wilfred Monod’s thesis and that of Process Theology). And there are many other answers.

Camus observed that at the bedside of a child in agony, no theory holds; the urgency is not to explain the evil but to fight it and to push it back. That observation is profoundly true; it does not, however, prohibit a thorough reflection on the question of theodicy.
October 2018

Dany Nocquet
What is diachronic analysis of a biblical text?

Among the tools for reading the Bible, the diachronic approach (also called « historical » or « redactionial ») reads the text as a « document ». It places the passage in a probable historical context according to the clues left: a date, the name of a king, or of a city … For example, the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 suggests that its authors know some Egyptian rites well: Jacob and Joseph are embalmed, a practice unknown in Canaan.

Again, it is a question of sometimes identifying added material in a text by observing changes of style, vocabulary or astonishing repetitions: Exodus 14, the departure from Egypt describes in two ways the end of the Egyptian army. These two ways, originally distinct, were carefully put together. Finally, diachronic exegesis makes it possible to understand the passage studied as a writing linked to a literary form from a known historical period: the stories of Esther, Judith, and Joseph offer many similarities. This allows them to be read as a product of the conditions of the Jewish diaspora established after the 6th century Exile. These stories explain the importance of Jewish communities abroad for the salvation of all Judaism.

With these criteria, it is possible to shed light on the reasons for the writing of this or that text. Thus, the story of Joseph, Genesis 37-50, offers a surprisingly positive image of Egypt as a « land of salvation », contrasting with that of the book of Exodus. This story was probably written by Jews living in Egypt, enjoying a happy experience of Egypt and its administration. The Jewish colony of Elephantine (in the South of Egypt) in the 5th and 4th centuries BC would be the setting which produced this story. Diachronic exegesis further illuminates the reasons for placing this story just before the book of Exodus. Genesis 37-50 is not only a preparation for the harsh situation of the Hebrews in Egypt, but it also corrects Egypt’s image, offering a positive vision of the oppressors at the origins of Israel.
November 2018

Henri Persoz
Literally in Greek « who engendered God », but often translated into French as « mother of God ». An Orthodox priest told me that believers were invited always to say « mother of God » after pronouncing Mary’s name.

In fact, the question of whether Mary was the mother of Christ only « according to his humanity », or also « according to his divinity » was quite quickly raised among Christians. This question provoked very strong controversy in the first centuries of the Church. The first to use the term theotokos was Clement of Alexandria (151-215). In the famous School of this city, the idea of the union of the two natures, divine and human, of Christ has always been supported. This idea of Mary mother of God became very popular and quite wide-spread even among the Fathers of the Church.

However, Nestorius (381-451), Patriarch of Constantinople, protested against this idea. It is true that he had been trained at the School of Antioch, where it was thought, following Arius (256-336), that Christ was born man and became God afterwards. Nestorius could not admit that God was locked in the belly of a woman. « The creature can not engender the creator, » he wrote in his controversy with Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), the then bishop of that city. He was condemned to the Council of Ephesus (431), during which the title theokos was reaffirmed. Nestorius was deposed immediately and sent into exile. He died about ten years later. There are many Nestorians in the Orient, for example in Iraq. And in the seventh century, some emigrated to China.

The Lutheran reform has not kept to this expression, mother of God, too much, because it is too closely linked to the constant temptation to elevate Mary above the human condition. Protestants are Nestorians without knowing too much about it.
December 2018


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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