Here are some observations about Christianity that you can use as you work out your theology.
Christianity Is Like an Automobile Accident
Christianity has at its core a spectacular event that happened long before you arrived on the scene. A large crowd has gathered, and as you approach the scene, you ask the people on the outer fringes of the crowd what happened. They give you all sorts of contradictory accounts and they give you conjectures that they think are facts. Some even say the accident never happened. You push your way to the center of the crowd. The police are gone, the cars have been towed away, but there are still a few banged-up pieces of the wreckage strewn about—so you examine the evidence that remains, you talk to the people who were closest to the event, and you read the police report.
I once bought a book on the early church fathers without looking at it thoroughly. When I got it home, I was unhappy with my purchase. It was like the footnote apparatus of a seminary paper, without the paper, with shoutouts to other contemporary scholars. It was interpretations of interpretations of interpretations of speculations. Why did I need that book, when I have the early church fathers on the shelf in front of me? The events are the primary source, the church fathers are secondary sources, so if I read them and ponder them, I become a tertiary source, much better than the twentieth-generation contemporary sources.
Christianity Is Like a Murder Mystery
If you are a police detective, you have to qualify your leads, and test the authenticity of the evidence, measured by what you find, not by what you would like to find. What if one person says that the victim was murdered with a knife, but four others who were closer heard a gunshot? Your ancient sources must be the ones with broadest acceptance in the ancient church; the truth is preserved in the mainstream, sometimes a torrent, sometimes a thin trickle, but ever continuous. You use contemporary sources but only for calibration and corroboration. As in any field, evidence that doesn’t fit tends to be irrelevant or wrong.
Imagine that the Old Testament is a mystery novel, and the New Testament reveals the answer. That gives you an idea of the meaning of
mystery in Christian theology. It doesn’t mean
I can’t explain it, so just believe me, it means
something that was true all along, but we didn’t realize it until Jesus revealed it.
Christianity Is Like an Ocean
Christianity is an ocean that is two millennia deep. Only venturing far enough out to get your ankles wet does not make you an oceanographer. Just as an oceanographer must plumb the breadth and depth of the ocean, a theologian must plumb the historic breadth and depth of Christianity, taking care not to get get stuck in estuaries or bays.
Christianity Is Like a Movie
If you are watching a documentary about the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin cannot send an email to George Washington. If you are watching a movie about an alien invasion in the 24th century, no one needs a stamp to send a letter. If you believe the Jesus part of the incarnation, you must affirm that the incarnation took place within the entire legal, political, linguistic, ethnic, religious, and historical context of the first century, in which there were neither emails nor postage stamps, and which wasn’t concerned with our issues. One cannot edit the historial record to conform to modern sensitivities without producing a children’s book or a forgery.
Conversely, if you believe the God part of the incarnation, then you must affirm that all of Jesus’ teachings and commandments are relevant to all times and all places.
Christianity Is a Revealed Religion
Christianity is the interpretation of events that happened in a specific location and at a specific time when God intervened in human affairs. That means it had a coherent starting point from which it spread and became diverse. The best information about the original story comes from the earliest sources.
Some modern thinkers say that Christianity originated as several different faith communities that gradually harmonized their beliefs over time, but that’s the opposite of what we observe. While empirical disciplines gather different schools of thought into a coherent body of facts, religious groups pull their founding body of facts apart into different schools of thought.
Christianity is a Pinocchio Story
According to the [fictional] story, a woodcarver named Geppetto carved a marionette named Pinocchio, who came to life and wanted to be a real boy. Eventually, he accomplished his goal.
In Christianity, God is the woodcarver and we are the marionettes. God loves us, and gradually transforms us into real members of His family. We are not God's offspring, we are His artifacts whom he transforms by His love into His glory, substance, and light until we share in the fellowship of the Trinity.
Like Pinocchio, we are prone to sin and we can opt out of the process. Fortunately, our sins don’t make our noses get longer, so there is less embarrassment for us than for Pinocchio.
Theology Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Both the theological right and the theological left engage in historical revisionism and thus deny the incarnation, by focussing either on their nostalgia for the past or their ambitions for the future. Theology must be grounded in the historic past, it must be applicable to today, and it must be portable into tomorrow.
In theology, our primary source is scripture, our secondary source is the interpretative thought of the ancient church in the early church fathers, and then only the more contemporary ones that stand in a line of sight with the ancient ones, both eastern and western. Christianity arose in the eastern Mediterranean, most ancient theologians were from the eastern Mediterranean, so eastern sources have priority over western sources.
A theology with only contemporary components might seem better, but it is Christianity in name only. If in examining the earliest sources, you only find a refutation of what they believe, and nothing to confound what you believe, it would be more constructive to abandon theology and take up knitting.