The Name of the Lord

Out of Egypt: Reading Exodus Theologically

On October 28 at 10 a.m., the Sunday class continues its study of the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. The class looks particularly at the aftermath of the incident with the Golden Calf, when it seems possible that the relationship between God and Israel will be severed. But instead, the name of the Lord is proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” Israel is saved by the grace of God.

In addition to being a record of the central event in Jewish history – the exodus from Egypt and journey toward the Promised Land – Exodus also provides a prime case study of the benefits of a utilization of the traditional “four senses” of scripture: the literal, the typological, the moral, and the mystical.

St. Mark’s Gospel onstage: The performance and seminar event

On Wednesday, November 14, at 7 p.m., in the nave of the church, Tom Bair presents an exciting storytelling performance of the entirety of the Gospel of St. Mark. This compelling and remarkable story tells us about Jesus’s conflicts with the religious and secular authorities of his time, his important teachings, his somewhat stormy, and often humorous, relationships with his disciples, his miraculous acts, and, above all, his unique sense of mission. The Episcopal Journal calls this performance “a riveting journey” and a “brilliant and inspirational experience.” It is performed in the simple, elegant English prose of the King James Bible.

Then, on Thursday, November 15, at 10 a.m., in Andrew Hall, Bair leads a seminar on the Gospel of Mark. The group explores together the genius of the gospel and its overall impact by looking at the narrative sequences and literary forms that shape its stunning effect, especially when heard at one sitting in its entirety.

What is theological about “Theology at Saint Thomas”?

In a recent article in Christianity Today, Todd Billings makes a compelling case for the role of theology in parish life, as “not just a nerdy pastime but crucial for our ministries” (here). Though aimed primarily at clergy, his points are valuable for anyone involved in the life of the Church, lay or ordained. He points out that everything that happens in a community of faith – not only education, but also pastoral care, outreach, and especially worship – benefits from theological reflection.

He gives a few examples of why that is so. For one, thinking carefully about God helps us discern where and how God is at work in the world. It prevents us from following fashionable, but theologically dubious, trends in the church and wider culture. It also shapes the way we worship. Churches can and should learn from as many areas of knowledge as possible and glean edifying resources wherever they can be found. But, insofar as churches are communities gathered around Jesus Christ, the Son of God, every practice should be tested against the standard of what we know of God, however indirectly, through Scripture and the Church’s tradition. That testing is called theology.

Twenty years ago David Kelsey, a professor at Yale Divinity School, gave a speech titled “What’s Theological about a Theological School?” (here) and we can ask the same question of our specific education program: what’s theological about “Theology at Saint Thomas”? Kelsey’s answers could apply to our context just as well as they do to his:

A school is “theological” … to the extent that everything done in its name has one overarching goal: more clearly to understand God and to understand everything in relation to God. … A theological school is about theology in its broadest sense of the term: logos, speaking thoughtfully or thinking articulately and clearly about theos, God. Theological schools are communities engaged in a lot of practices which have the same ultimate goal: to increase our understanding of God. …

In hopes of a deeper understanding of God, we study such subjects as Jesus Christ and Israel, scripture in tradition, the history of practices of interpretation of scripture and practices of response to God in worship, moral responsibility and institution building. We study all these topics because they shape the practices that constitute the common life of contemporary communities seeking in faith to respond appropriately to God.

My hope for Theology at Saint Thomas has been that everything it does is done “more clearly to understand God and to understand everything in relation to God.” Fulfilling this objective can look many different ways, since such an objective does not prescribe any particular format or programmatic structure. It is my hope that it has maintained a focus on nurturing the knowledge and love of God in Christ.

I was glad to see Billing’s article in Christianity Today reminding us of the importance of theological reflection in practical, parochial contexts. However, there is one significant sense in which I cannot identify with him. The title of his article is “The Loneliness of the Pastor-Theologian,” that loneliness coming from a purported disinterest among parishioners in the work of theology. This, however, has not been my experience at Saint Thomas. On the contrary, I have found a parish community actively engaged in theological study, eager to mine Scripture and the theological tradition, serious and thoughtful in its reflections on Christ and the Christian life. Far from being a lonely vocation, it can be a source of conversation and conversion, a social activity that is challenging and life-giving. I have certainly found it so.

With gratitude

This is the last of the Theology at Saint Thomas emails that I will be sending, as I hand off responsibility for adult education to my colleagues in the parish and ride off into the sunset. As some of you know, I have the honor of having been called to be rector of a wonderful parish, soon to be announced, and October 28 is my last Sunday at Saint Thomas Church. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to coordinate the Theology program for the past few years, and I consider myself the most fortunate priest in the Episcopal Church to have had the opportunity to do so. I have received far more than I have given. Please feel free to stay in touch; I can be reached at joelcdaniels@gmail.com.

In addition, if you have thoughts about how you would like to see this program develop in the future, please share them by emailing AdultEducation@saintthomaschurch.org to reach the Adult Education Committee.

Yours in Christ,
Joel