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God in the 'third person'? (John 17.1-11)

Easter 7: May 16th, 1999.
Fr. Richard Treloar, Associate Chaplain, Trinity College
Stewart Lecturer and Turner Research Fellow,
Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne

German Reformed theologian, Helmut Thielicke would begin his course of lectures to first-year theological students in the 1960s by saying "I believe I must see and hear my listeners not only as students but also as souls entrusted to me. And this soul of a theological student is in great danger..." (A little exercise for young theologians, p.1) On reading this my ears pricked up. Why was Thielicke so worried about the souls of his students, and would he - ought I, as a staff member of Trinity College Theological School - still be worried today?

Well, first perhaps I'd best worry for myself, for Thielicke is just as nervous, it seems about teachers of theology. He writes,

The man [and for Thielicke, of course, they all were! The man] who is in the position of reproducing a lecture [say] about Luther, or possibly giving one himself, perhaps knows nothing or almost nothing about [Luthers paradox that the Christian is both sinful and justified at once] [or has] a merely conceptual experience [of this]. Some truth or other has not been passed through as a primary experience, but has been replaced by 'perception' of what anothers primary experience [perhaps even Luthers own] has discovered. Thus one lives at second hand." (A little exercise, p.11. my emphasis)

I can vouch for the alarming possibility of being asked to give a lecture on a subject about which one feels one knows nothing or almost nothing! I'm reminded of the story about two academics chatting in the faculty lounge: "Have you read 'so and so's' latest book?", one asks the other. "Read it?!", comes the reply, "I havent even taught it yet!" Mores seriously, though, I do recognise the danger Thielicke warns both students and teachers of theology against - the danger of living theology at second hand.

There are others too, he cautions, such as the danger of a sort of Gnostic pride as knowledge increases. It is said that knowledge is power, and certainly a particular sort of theological knowledge has been wielded as such throughout the Churchs history. But what type of knowing is it that those who come to theological colleges seek in order to test a vocation to ministry in Gods Church? What sort of knowledge of God is needed in order to prepare for that ministry?

On this question Thielicke's views are very clear.

Theological method, is [based on] the fact that ... God has spoken, and that now what God has spoken is to be understood and answered ... Consider that the first time [a character in scripture] spoke of God in the third person, and therefore [spoke] no longer with God but about God, was [in the third chapter of Genesis] when the question resounded, Did God really say [that]?. [I]n contrast with this the crucified Jesus does not complain about [the] God who has abandoned Him. He speaks to Him at this very moment - in the second person. (A little exercise, p.34, mostly my emphases.)

Thielicke's fear is that in contemporary theology this transition from the second person to the third person has become increasingly common. Speech and knowledge about God too often substitute - or attempt to substitute - for speech directed to God and personal knowledge of God (p.35).

In the Anglican tradition we have an instinct which ought to help us avoid this falling away from 'second-person theology' to 'third person theology': lex orandi, lex credendi - the law of prayer is the law of belief. For Anglicans, the way we worship, the way we address God in prayer has always both informed and been a reliable index to what we believe about God. So third-person theology only ever arises out of and remains subordinate to second-person theology. Which is why at Trinity College, what we do together in Chapel throughout the week is regarded by staff and students as being at the very heart of both theological education and priestly and diaconal formation.

Thielicke puts the same idea well in proposing that

[The God] who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological [ideas]. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life. How all-important it is that a vigorous spiritual life, in close association with the Scriptures and in the midst of the Christian community, be maintained as a background to theological work, and that the unformed shadows of thought always derive their life-blood from that source (A little exercise, p.37)

But of course, theological education and preparation for ministry are not just about developing strong connections with the worshipping community and deep roots in its tradition. It's also about the Church's mission in the world.

You may recall last week's first reading from the book of Acts, and the story of Paul in Athens (Acts 17.16-31). Its worth noting that, prior to his speech in the Areopagus, the Apostle had been wandering the city streets for a day or so, taking in the sights. Greaco-Roman culture being what it was at that time, these sights included many statues and temples in honour of gods other than the God of Israel, and the famous altar dedicated 'to an unknown god' - an inscription better translated perhaps (according to the fifth Warden of Trinity) as 'god who is unknown'.

His theological juices stimulated by what he sees in the world around him, Paul begins to engage the locals in conversation. Luke would have us imagine him down the street, as it were - not so much waxing philosophical with the intellectual elite as debating with the locals over cafe latte - some of whom, it must be said, regarded Paul as a nutter! Others, however, were genuinely interested and wanted to hear more. And, as we heard last Sunday, when given an opportunity to present a more formal account of the hope within him, Paul, like any good educator (theological or otherwise), starts where his audience is: "People of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious" (Acts 17.22).

He doesn't begin by trashing their existing devotions, or accusing them of idolatry. Instead he presents the Gospel against the background of the prior spiritual instinct he has discovered through observation and real dialogue.

There is surely something of a parable here of the apologetic task that faces the Christian Church again in the twenty-first-century West, and those - both lay and ordained - who are called to its ministry. Luke might just as well have been describing multi-cultural, multi-faith Melbourne. For possibly not since first-century Athens has any culture been as spiritually restless as is ours today.

But the parallels go further. Many argue that at the end of this second millennium of its life the Christian Church is once more in the peripheral, marginal space with respect to mainstream culture that it occupied in its first centuries. How is it - how are we - to proclaim the gospel from that position? How are we to make known the once again unknown God?

There is much we might learn from Paul's experience in Athens, and the seriousness with which he treats that part of the world in which he finds himself set. In that apostolic tradition the Church must learn again neither to fear nor to simply condemn popular culture but to be sacramentally and incarnationally present to it: to spend time in its market-places listening and observing, so that we may enter into the sort of conversation which invites a greater sharing of the hope within us.

But perhaps we can also learn from that archetypal 'New Age' city of Athens itself, which in building an altar to 'God who is unknown', reminds us of the quite proper - even holy - agnosticism which belongs to Christian theology. For no one of our systems or orthodoxies, our liturgies or ecclesial structures can ever make fully known the 'I will be who I will be' encountered by Moses (Ex. 3.14), via whom Israel's entire claim to knowledge of God is framed in that foundational expression of 'second-person theology': the covenant relationship of Torah.

As Church we believe this same God loved the world enough to risk direct conversation in the market-place of its history by speaking the Word-made-flesh. And in the Spirit whose promised indwelling we await afresh this week, that conversation goes forward, so that the God who remains unknowable in the third person, as the 'object' of Christian theology, may be known intimately, reliably in the second person as its 'subject' - as the one who addresses us and invites us to respond.

Please pray for those you read about today who have responded by offering themselves for ordination, and for the places where they train. But more importantly, perhaps, let their response be a reminder of the sort of second-person theology to which the whole Church is called, and for which the whole Church is equipped by the Spirit of him who came that we might know the only true God, and in that knowledge have life.


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