Theology Awakens a Grateful Heart


The words of this blog title are those Katherine Sonderegger uses to begin her book on the doctrine of God (xi). Her study of theology proper seeks to celebrate the Oneness of God, bringing a needed corrective to the contemporary focus on the Triune life of God. She confesses: “We hunger to know the Oneness of God, rest in it, and that hunger is the Spirit’s gift to us, quickening our appetite for divine things, our search into the Mystery of God, the pilgrimage of the Christian life” (23). Her work clearly illustrates a recent turn in theology toward the apophatic: an exploration of the (biblical ) truth that the One true and living God is, in a very real sense, beyond human comprehension. In her second volume, she will turn her attention to the Trinity.  Many are eagerly waiting to see how she integrates her almost shocking (but refreshing) affirmation of the Oneness of God with his Triune self-revelation in the gospel.

Less poetically, Paul Hinlicky states in the introduction to his theology: “the purpose of theology is to know God.” His focus is singularly Trinitarian:  he declares, “we intend that the doctrine of the Trinity permeate the whole presentation” (xxi). Toward the end of this volume, Hinlicky writes (in his typically profuse way; he cannot contain his words), “In Christian faith to know God is daily to die to sin, daily to rise to new life of love seeking justice, living in hope of the promised inheritance of one’s place and time in the eternal life of the Father and the Son in the Spirit in the coming in power and glory of the Beloved Community at the Parousia of Jesus Christ” (865).  Hinlicky’s Beloved Community is a delightful offering of a much more cataphatic approach to the doctrine of God: a celebration of the (biblical truth) that God has abundantly made himself known and knowable through the gospel revelation of his Son in the Spirit.

These two works on theology, published in the same year (2015), could not be more different: one calls for a renewal of the confession of the Oneness of God within the Christian faith, and the other is a mature offering in the more dominant stream of Trinitarian resurgence.

Both passionately call on us to know and enjoy the God of Holy Scripture, the God of the Gospel. Both voices are worth hearing.

For an interesting and helpful essay that explores the recent move toward restraint in our confident explication of the Trinity with its renewed attention to the mystery of God’s Oneness, see E. Jerome Van Kuiken, “‘Ye Worship Ye Know Not What’? The Apophatic Turn and the Trinity.”

Van Kuiken points us to an integrative approach.  He writes, “If apophaticism (i.e., the confession of the mystery of God’s Oneness) and cataphaticism (i.e., the explication of the revelation of God’s Triune life) exist in a dialectic, so too do unity and plurality within God” (22).

Van Kuiken quotes Gregory Nazianzen (d. 390 AD): “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One . . . .When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light” (22).

Surely, theology of this sort “awakens a grateful heart,” and leaves us delighting in and longing for the coming of the Beloved Community.  Like all proper theology, it leads to worship. As Sonderegger concludes in her preface, “There is no study, no examination nor understanding, without a heart seared by intercession, by repentance, by worship and praise….This is the proper dogmatic form of the doctrine of God: the intellect, bent down, glorified, in prayer” (xxi).  Amen.



Amazing Grace


Salvation by grace alone is an essential doctrine. Sola gratia (by grace alone) was a great watchword of the Reformation. God’s people rediscovered the wonderful truth that God saves us not by our works, but by his redeeming grace alone. Perhaps no passages captures this truth like, Ephesians 2:8–9. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works.”

In recent history the truth has been celebrated by songs like: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” “Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt.” “Wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all my sin; how shall my tongue describe it, where shall its praise begin?”

The other day I heard someone explain salvation using the acronym for grace as “God’s gift at Christ’s expense.” This captures much of the truth.

Here is another definition: “Grace is the effective presence of the triune God to save and empower.” Grace involves the powerful, personal, relational presence of God. Grace enables us to call God “our Father,” to have union with the resurrected Christ, and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. At the end of 2 Corinthians Paul declares, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.”

This amazing grace freely given to us in the gospel saves us from sin, Satan, and death, and it also empowers us to live for Christ. Rejoice in God’s saving grace today.

ISIS Seeks a Stronghold in the Philippines

Many have asked about the stability of the Philippines in light of the conflict between government forces and a puritanical Muslim coalition. At the moment the problem is isolated to an area on the southern island of Mindanao. But more than 300 people have died in fighting with the Islamic State-linked group which seized Marawi on May 23. The attack by a group known as “Maute” (the name of an important Muslim family in the area) and its allies on the island of Mindanao is a warning that the Islamic State seeks to build a base in Southeast Asia.

Government Forces

It is important to recognize that Islam is not just now coming to the Philippines. It has been in the southern areas for many centuries (long before the Americans or the Spanish arrived). Notice the mosques with their minarets in the picture.

Marawi Mosques

The beginnings of Islam in the southern islands actually goes back to the seventh century when Arabic traders and Sufi mystics arrived.. When the Spanish landed in 1521, and the islands became part of “the Philippines” (after King Philip) the explorer Magellan found the thirteen (!) Islamic people group already established, each with their own geographical location, language, culture, and aristocratic leadership. For the next four hundred years, the Spanish colonizers remained at odds with the Muslim Filipinos. By the time the Americans came at the end of the 19th century, and a new republic was established, the Muslim clans were an impoverished minority.

The cultural divide between Muslim Filipinos and what has been essentially a Roman Catholic majority intensified in the 1970s. The global rise of a politicized and puritanical form of Islam, combined with local political problems, led to an Islamic separatist movement. The various factions of this movement have at times engaged in armed conflict with government forces. So in the period leading up to the present crisis Filipino Islam has been a unique mixture of at least seven elements:  Orthodox Islam, folk beliefs, a datu (chief or aristocrat) led tribal social structure, a sense of marginalization from the majority, and a growing separatist aspiration.

What is new is the radicalization of the Filipino Muslims by the forces of such groups as Al-Qaida and ISIS with their extremely violent ideology.  Unfortunately fertile soil (both metaphorically and literally) has been found. It is against this background that the battle for the City of Marawi is taking place. It is part of a much larger challenge.

We need to be praying for peace and safety for all the people in Mindanao area. Pray also that the Church will be ready to endure hardship and compassionately share the love of Christ in the long years that now lay ahead for the Southern Philippines.

Here is a helpful article that explains the military situation.

Here is an important analysis from 2016 that should have warned government authorities of the imminent danger. 

Hermeneutical Humility

“My theological understanding will be inadequate to the eschatological fullness of God’s truth, to be sure, but it will be adequate to this time and place that I occupy, by the Spirit’s own promise to lead to truth, if my Spirit-given intention is in fact sentire cum ecclesia (thinking with the church).” (Hinlicky, 241, n. 116).

The Theological Difference

A concise statement capturing the theological difference between Islam and the gospel:

“Broadly the Islamic dictum runs: ‘To know is to do.’ Ignorance, ‘jahilayyah,’ is the problem. Hence ‘huda,’ revelation is the answer. Humans are amenable to law: They can respond to ‘thou shalt’ and heed ‘thou shalt not.’ The New Testament knows that we can know and not do. We have a defiant ability, a recalcitrance that flouts what it quite well understands. It is this perversity which needs redemption. The world is not righted by good advice, but a love that suffers, that bears, and thus only bears away the wrong and can thus forgive. For Christian faith this redemptiveness characterizes the very nature of God as told in ‘the throne of God and of the Lamb.’ This is the ultimate theological issue between the Qur’an and the New Testament, the mosque and the church” (Kenneth Craig, d. 2012 at age 99).

“In the name of God”

Samuel Zwemer died on April 2, 1952 – the day before I was born. This great Christian missionary saw the supremacy of God in all things. The Bible permeated his life. But he also diligently studied the Islamic doctrine of God. At first he drew stark contrasts with the God of the Bible; later he nuanced his view in wise and winsome ways. Unlike many Christian leaders today, he appropriately praised the all-encompassing idea of God in Islam. He even placed the important Qur’anic phrase, the Bismillah (“In the name of God”) on his study wall in Egypt. He also placed it on the cover of his journal “The Moslem World,” which he personally edited for over 30 years. For him the Islamic doctrine of God, in part, was a great strength, but also in its sad deficiencies also a tragic weakness. Zwemer knew that without a vital relationship with the Trinity, God remained unknowable and impersonal. May God raise up a new generation of Samuel Zwemers!

A Leslie Newbigin Read

A little book, most popular during Newbigin’s life time, but neglected today, yet still worth a read, is “Honest Religion for Secular Man.” (The title reflects the 1960’s).

Chapter 4, “Being God’s People,” is worth the price of the book.

He writes that the church is called to be “a band of pilgrims who have heard the word ‘Go’,” but has too often become “a large and solid building which, at its best can only say ‘Come’, and at its worst says, all too clearly, ‘Stay away’.”