My years as a layman in the Bible have persuaded me that Dr. James Houston once told me that spiritual theology is an understanding of Scripture that changes the way we relate, to God and others, not only the way we think.
I’ve concluded God answers one or more of the following 7 questions in each book of the Bible. I’ve included what I perceive to be fundamental answers (said very briefly) to the questions.
Q1: Who is God?
The average Christian quickly answers this question with descriptions of God, or with attributes of God. I’ve asked many congregations to say what comes into their minds when this question is asked. The answers include such words as love, holy, sovereign, just, omnipotent, Savior, Lord, wise. I’ve never yet heard a uniquely relational response. And yet as many trinitarian theologians have noted, God is essentially a happy community of three Persons whose holy love defines their essence, a “dispositional ontology” (Jonathan Edwards’ term), a nature that naturally and always gives who they are for the well-being of others. That disposition defines relational holiness which in turn defines spiritual formation.
Q2: What is God Up To?
We limit ourselves relationally when we answer with our eschatological millennial position and stop there. This question directs us to ask what story God is telling, what agenda He’s pursuing, that we can discern in any moment of our lives. The answer ushers in a “Copernican revolution” that exalts God’s purpose to glorify Himself over the “Ptolemaic view” that is anthropocentric, man-centered in a way that uses God to give us what we believe we need for happiness. God’s central goal is to people the universe with men and women who relate like Jesus. As C. S. Lewis says, we’re to go in for the “full treatment,” which will involve dark nights.
Q3: Who Are We?
Secular psychology builds personality theories on a research/empirical-based epistemology. A revelational epistemology begins by defining persons as image-bearers, male and female. As image-bears, we have been created with the human capacity to enter into participation in the divine community, and to find our wholeness and joy in so doing. To live in rhythm with trinintarian energy means we will relate to others as the Persons of the Trinity relate among themselves. As male and female, we each have unique opportunity to reveal something about how God relates that the other sex cannot as fully reveal. We are, above all else, relational beings. As such, there is no “whole person” ontology without interpersonal relationality.
Q4: What’s Gone Wrong?
Again, psychology too often fails to center its answers in sin, evil, and personal fallenness, defined as rebellious independence from God that pursues our well-being according to our corrupted wisdom. We are thus infected with an anti-God virus that pushes us to live as if God doesn’t exist. The key here is to define relational sin as central. Behavioral sin is real and obvious. Relational sin, any relational energy that has self-interest as priority, is subtle and just as real.
Q5: What Has God Done About Our Problem?
So many differing views on the atonement are being thought through today, such as the Christus Victor model and the moral influence theory. The penal substitution model, in my view and in agreement with John Stott and Leon Morris and John Piper (among many others, such as John Owen), is not the exclusive but rather the central meaning of Calvary. Through the cross, God has introduced the New Covenant by which each Christian is gifted with a new purity (forgiveness), a new identity (adoption), a new appetite (desire), and a new power (capacity). We’re given all we need, not to never fail, but to consistently grow in living and loving like Jesus.
Q6: How Is God’s Spirit Moving Today?
This is such a big question that can be answered in essential, summary form by saying: He is transforming us into “little Christs” by detaching us from dependence on any alleged source of life other than God (i.e. crucifying the flesh) and by attaching us to Him in a relationship of vital dependence. Relationship with Christ slowly becomes our “first thing” and every other good falls into the category of second things.
Q7: How Do We Join the Spirit’s Movement?
Change happens when we “look bad in the presence of love,” in a community of authentic, broken, grateful people. We learn to arouse the new life in each other by giving what is most alive in us and with vision for who we each will become, and when we provide honest feedback about how the flesh shows up in our relational sin.