Does matter matter?
The significance of that which is financial, material, bodily and
earthly in theological perspective
1. Introduction: Issues that call for theological reflection
The purpose of this document is to provide (reformed) churches in South Africa with a broad
theological framework to engage with a variety of social issues. All of these issues require
from Christians to relate their faith in some or other way to that which is financial, material,
bodily and earthly.
The document is prompted by a range of issues that reformed churches in South Africa have
been addressing. The following examples may simply be listed here in order to indicate the
scope and complexity of the concerns that require theological reflection:
How should Christians engage with the world of money? Here a number of financial issues
may be mentioned, ranging from the personal to the global: personal finances, tithing,
consumerist temptations, indebtedness, possessions, investments, the world of work and
unemployment, the many faces of poverty, goals for “development”, international debt and
debt relief, financial governance in the corporate world and the prevailing inequalities and
injustices that characterise the global economy.
How should Christians respond to contemporary debates on land reform and restitution?
How is this informed by a “theology of land”? Here issues such as the ownership of land,
the selling and buying of real estate, the inheritance of land, the responsible/irresponsible
use of land, commercial farming, the plight, rights and responsibilities of farm workers, the
rights to housing and basic living commodities and the owing and accumulation of
possessions need to be addressed. Moreover, since churches are themselves major land
owners, how should the stewardship of church land be exercised?
How should Christians relate to culture and cultural identity? A prophetic critique of
cultural patterns may well be required, especially when culture is distorted by reigning
ideologies such as fascism, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, liberalism or consumerism.
However, an affirmation of cultural identity may also be required. In contemporary African
theology categories such as inculturation and indigenisation are often employed to stress
the need for “Christianity with an African face”. How should African Christians address
traditional customs such as initiation rites, ancestor veneration and the role of sangomas?
How, then, should the relationship between “Christ and culture”, the gospel and our
culture, be understood? Can one speak of a “Christian culture” or a Christianised culture?
What about cultural, ethnic and racial diversity? How should that be judged after the
disastrous emphasis on such diversity in apartheid theology? Would it do to only
emphasise the unity of the church as a response to such diversity? What about the
catholicity of the church?
How should Christians respond to contemporary debates around the production and
consumption of food? Here one may consider issues around the use of biotechnology in
food production, organic farming, the environmental costs of food production, the plight of
animals in meat factories, global agricultural monopolies, the transport of food products,
hunger and malnutrition together with obesity and health problems associated with that,
meat and vegetarianism, the availability of nutritious food amidst rising food prices, and
habits of cooking in a world of fast foods.
How should Christians engage with human sexuality? Here an equally wide range of issues
prompt theological reflection: the need for and the nature of intimacy, the availability of
pornography, patriarchy in church and society, the diversity of sexual orientations, various
issues around homosexuality, the exploitation of human sexuality in the corporate world,
and the plight of HIV and AIDS.
How should Christians engage with issues of health and illness? Here one would need to
address concerns such as various disabilities, the impact of living with HIV and AIDS,
coping with illness, degeneration, aging and the decay of potential, providing and
financing health care, fitness and vitality, death and dying, funeral arrangements and
numerous ethical concerns regarding decision making around abortion, euthanasia and
medical research. Is death completely natural? Or only the result of sin? If the latter, did
the leaves not fall from the trees in the Garden of Eden? If the former, how does that alter
pastoral counselling in the context of dying and death? How does the hope for eternal life
relate to this biological life? Indeed, theological reflection on death and dying may well
present a test case for thinking on that which is material, bodily and earthly – one with far-
reaching pastoral significance.
How should Christians respond to a range of contemporary environmental concerns –
including various forms of pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, over-fishing, the rapid loss
of biodiversity and, above all, the threats associated with climate change?
How should Christians respond to the far-reaching impact of information technology on
contemporary society? What about biotechnology and the options available around medical
technology? And nuclear technologies? Is technology by itself natural and ethically
neutral? How do such technologies alter our understanding of being human? Should the
elaborate use audiovisual technology in the liturgical space be affirmed or resisted?
How should Christians come to terms with the insights emerging from various scientific
disciplines such as astrophysics (the big), quantum mechanics (the very small), evolu-
tionary biology (the living), and the cognitive sciences (the complex)? How should the
relationship between faith and reason, or theology and science be properly understood? Is
faith a form of knowledge and, if so, what kind of knowledge is it? Is faith rational or does
it require a sacrifice of one’s intellect? Is faith based on knowledge or does it surpass
knowledge (e.g. in the form of wisdom or a comprehensive interpretative framework)? Can
the plausibility of Christian faith also be tested on the basis of criteria that are not
necessarily inherent to the Christian faith?
What role do worldviews and cosmologies play in theological reflection? How should one
steer between the views of the world assumed in biblical times, the worldviews of
modernity and postmodernity and a traditional African cosmology? While such questions
are hardly directly related to that which is material, bodily and earthly, they cannot be
avoided in interpreting that which is material, bodily and earthly.
How should churches interact with various other role players in contemporary society?
Should it see itself in sociological and legal terms as a voluntary association, a social club
of people with common interests, or what? And in theological terms? How, on this basis
should it relate to the state, to business and industry, to non-governmental organisations
and community organisations in civil society, to faith-based organisations and to other
religious traditions? How does theological reflection relate to these “publics”? What is
therefore “public” about public theology?
The purpose of this document is not to address any of these issues individually. The purpose
is also not merely to assist churches in the ongoing need for moral discernment, judgements
and decision making. Instead, a general rubric namely “that which is financial, material,
bodily and earthly”, is employed to capture what is at stake in this regard. What theological
assumptions come into play in Christian reflection on such issues? This requires moral
discernment but also (systematic) theological reflection.
Such a general rubric necessarily harbours the danger of becoming rather abstract and vague.
However, it would hopefully also be helpful to provide a bird’s eye view of theological
debates that become increasingly complex and entangled when any one issue is investigated
This document is not primarily aimed at lay Christians, pastors, theologians or the general
public. It is aimed at regional and national commissions of reformed churches that have to
provide guidance to churches in dealing with any of the issues listed above. It seeks to
provide a fairly comprehensive theological framework that can inform such debates.
The document emerged from a small ecumenical working group based in the Western Cape.
This document was discussed intensively in this working group from May 2009 until October
2010. It was then distributed more widely in order to allow for an ecumenical process of
consultation and reflection. The working group eventually made this document available to
the Parliamentary Desk of the General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church as a resource to
be use in ecumenical discussions on issues such as those listed above.
2. Theological distortions in Christian engagement with such issues
Theological reflection on that which is financial, material, bodily and earthly has been
plagued, at least where Western Christianity has been influential, by an inability to come to
terms with a number of dual concepts listed below. This theological impasse is experienced in
preaching, pastoral counselling and various other ministries. It surfaces at funerals, counsel-
ling around life-threatening illnesses, education on gender and sexuality, meetings of finance
committees and interactions between the church and other groups in civil society alike.
It may be helpful at first to merely list as many of these dual concepts as possible in order to
invite further theological reflection. Although each of these dualities is distinct and although
these dualities cannot be correlated perfectly, they often interact with each other. Some of
these dualities may be entirely legitimate, while others can easily lead to a number of
dualisms reinforcing each other. Here is a provisional list, loosely grouped together:
Spirit and matter
The visible and the invisible / seeing and insight
The spiritual and the material / financial
Soul and body
Theory and practice
Heaven and earth
Eternal life and biological life
The life of the world to come and the here and now
Grace and nature
God and the world
Creator and creature
The “supernatural” and the natural
Otherworldliness and worldliness
The Infinite and the finite
Christ and Jesus
Universality and particularity
The collective and the individual
Inclusiveness and exclusiveness
Church and society
Church and state
Church and nation / volk
The spiritual agenda of the church and its social agenda
Gospel and culture
Text and context
Faith and reason
Religion and science
The humanities and the natural sciences
History and nature
Humankind and otherkind
Salvation and creation
God as Saviour and God as Creator
Justification and sanctification
The up-building of the church (ministry) and building the church outwards (mission)
Doctrine and life
Truth and reconciliation
Ecclesiology and ethics
An important observation on this list of dualities is that it would be facetious to reject such
dualities in the name of a critique of dualisms. While the impact of dualistic thinking is
unmistakable, some of these dualities cannot be absolved without bringing the Christian faith
in jeopardy. One example is the relationship between Creator and creature. To reduce the
Creator to a creature (of the human imagination) or to divinise the creature would undermine
the Christian faith. Likewise, one cannot easily abandon discourse on the relationship between
the divine and the human natures of Jesus Christ. One can regard the church merely as one
organisation in civil society, but that would fail to do justice to the distinctiveness of the
One may wish to avoid such dualities by introducing threefold typologies, There are many
such typologies available – including the three offices of prophet, king and priest; faith, hope
and love; kerygma, diakonia and koinonia; the so-called “publics” of theology, namely
church, society and university; the true, the good and the beautiful; what we can know, what
we should do and what we may hope for (Kant); and of course Father, Son and Spirit. Others
would want a more pluralist approach where many themes are allowed to remain in tension
with one another. Such strategies may be appropriate, but the argument here is that some of
these dualities cannot be avoided and that the impact of others has to be recognised for the
distortions that they cause.
How, then, should one deal with other dualities such as the relationship between the spiritual
and the material, soul and body, heaven and earth? How does the “spiritual agenda” of the
church relate to its “social agenda”? How is this influenced by one of the most vexing
theological problems, namely on the relationship between nature and grace?
It may be easier to identify a number of distortions that have characterised Christian engage-
ment with such dualities than to suggest an adequate understanding of these relationships. It is
the recognition of the impact of such distortions that has prompted the need for a document of
this nature. In the discussion below five such distortions will be identified.
In brief, this implies that in a) the one pole is emphasised at the cost of neglecting the other,
b) the one pole is reduced to the other, c) both poles are emphasised but are disconnected
from each other, d) the tension between the poles is acknowledged but remains unresolved
(dualism), and e) both poles and some form of relationship between them are acknowledged,
but the one is allowed to dominate the other.
Note that dualism is only one form of distortion that may be identified in the way these
dualities are addressed. An important distinction between duality and dualism is therefore
a) Escapism and alienation
The critique of escapism is usually associated with the Christian hope to “go to heaven when
you die”, the proverbial “pie in the sky when you die”. Such a preoccupation with eternal life
can easily lead to a disdain for this life. The hope is to escape from this “earthly vale of tears”.
Moreover, this hope can easily be abused by those in positions of power to console the human
victims of history with the promise of a future reward, thus legitimising the present
dispensation of domination and oppression.
Such a form of escapism can also be associated with several of the other dualities. One
example would be those who focus almost exclusively on the building up of the church so that
they end up in self-isolation from the affairs of the world. Such self-withdrawal in a virtual
monastery may be appropriate precisely in order to re-engage the world, but can easily
become a purpose in itself. Another example would be a form of theology that focus
exclusively on the content and significance of the Christian faith in isolation from the insights
emerging from the world of science. A third example may be a form of asceticism that
promotes self-denial and thus denies our bodily passions for eating, intimacy and security. In
each the focus is almost exclusively on the one side of the dualities listed above, while the
significance of the other aspect is downplayed or even denied altogether.
Such escapism can only lead to alienation from that which is material, bodily and earthly.
Such alienation is widely discussed and criticised in secular and ecumenical Christian
literature. One example is the alienation between human beings and nature. We have indeed
for too long thought of ourselves as somehow separate from nature due to an overemphasis on
the distinctiveness of human beings within the ecosystems that they form part of (prompting
various forms of anthropocentrism). One may refer here to the “apartheid habit” (Larry
Rasmussen) of distinguishing between humanity and non-human nature, leaving the
impression that we are an ecologically segregated species, that we are somehow separate,
hence “apart” from the ecosystems in which we live. In response, many have suggested that
the earth is our one and only God-given home, that we belong to the earth, that we are “at
home on earth”, that we are not tourists here but residents (Sallie McFague). We are not living
on earth but in God’s creation as members of the whole household of God. The distinctions
between history and nature and between the humanities and the natural sciences have been
questioned on a similar basis.
Christianity, in particular, has been guilty of instigating, reinforcing and legitimising this
alienation of human beings from the rest of the earth community. Christianity has all too often
been preoccupied with an otherworldliness which did not encourage a sense of belonging here
on earth. This otherworldliness, this alienation from the rest of the earth community, is
manifested especially in the following theological themes: 1) a theological emphasis on the
absolute transcendence of God, 2) an anthropological emphasis on humans as sojourners here
on earth, 3) a soteriology which focuses on human salvation from the earth instead of the
salvation of the whole earth and 4) an escapist eschatological fascination with a heavenly
hereafter where disembodied souls will live in the presence of God.
Another example is the isolation of the church from the rest of society due to an over-
emphasis on the uniqueness of the church. This is crucial in order to protect the church from
becoming a carbon copy of the reigning culture. However, the church remains part of God’s
beloved creation. The continuity between the work of the Father and the body of Christ
therefore has to be recognised if justice is to be done to both the first and the second article of
the Christian creed.
b) Reductionism and secularism
The opposite danger to escapism and alienation is that of reductionism and secularism. Here
the emphasis is entirely on the other side of these dualities. The emphasis on the soul is more
or less replaced by an appreciation for the body, for example in the form of an emphasis on
sport, health and fitness, sexuality and beauty parlours. Sex is no longer a matter of
reproduction within a marital relationship, but of libido, orgasm and sexual techniques.
Knowledge is no longer a virtue of diligence, but packaged and sold on the education market.
When notions of eternity are no longer contemplated, time is calculated and quantified in
terms of money. The human nature of Jesus of Nazareth is emphasised while claims for the
divinity of Christ are questioned. The emphasis is on that which is “natural” and any
suggestion of the so-called “supernatural” is derided with suspicion. Likewise, the focus is on
this earthly life while heavenly life is regarded as rather speculative. The world sets the
agenda for the church. The church is at best regarded in functional terms as a significant role
player in the cause of social upliftment, dispensing funds to the destitute or “sustainable
development”. This leads to what Wolfgang Huber has aptly termed “self-secularisation”,
namely an exclusive interest in the social relevance of the gospel, without due consideration
for the content of the gospel itself. Then the church is no longer taking its own message
seriously and cannot expect others to do so either.
This approach is often based on assumptions derived from Newtonian science. That which is
complex has to be analysed in ever greater detail in order to identify the constituent parts – for
example at the level of sub-atomic particles, chemical balance, the DNA code or the brain
functions underlying human thought processes. Moreover, the assumption is that complex
processes can be causally explained in terms of the interaction between such constituent parts.
The belief amongst modernist scientists was that such interactions are determinist and that the
hope of science is to offer a comprehensive explanation of everything on that basis. Accord-
ingly, if we can know all the laws governing nature and the initial position of every electron
in the universe, it would in principle be possible to predict any future state of affairs. That this
cannot be done yet is merely due to our limited knowledge and the lack of sufficient
computing capacity. In positivist sociology (August Comte) such assumptions were applied to
the humanities as well. This view was famously expressed by the French physicist Pierre-
Simon Laplace (1749-1827) who was asked where God fits into his cosmological theory. His
answer was: “I do not need that hypothesis”.
Accordingly, chemical interactions are “nothing but” physical interactions, living cells are
“nothing but” chemical cocktails, consciousness emerged through a genetic process of natural
selection, thought process are entirely based on brain functioning and social systems are
determined by genetic inheritance and social conditioning. In these ways complexity can in
principle be reduced to and explained in terms of that which is simpler. On this basis there is
no substantive need to introduce concepts such as “soul”, “spirit” or “vital-force” since these
categories may be replaced by purely immanent characteristics of complex systems.
Pastorally, such reductionism leads to shallow remedies for complex personal and social
problems. Pastoral and spiritual counselling is reduced to therapy, therapy itself is based on
restoring a proper chemical balance in the human body, the key to education is to create a
environment conducive to learning through the availability of teaching aids, social problems
may be fixed through budget allocations and so forth.
This form of reductionism is also found within the church, especially where the social agenda
of the church becomes dominant. The temptation is then to view the church in purely
functionalist terms as an important role player in civil society to address the needs of
reconstruction, development and upliftment. The “spiritual agenda” of the church thus
becomes subservient to its social agenda. As a result there is little difference between the
contribution of the church and other organisations. As a result the church fails to make the
distinct contribution that it can. As Wolfgang Huber suggests, this boils down to a failure of
the church to take its own message seriously. He described this focus on ethics alone as a
form of “self-secularisation”.
The dangers of disconnection and dualism (see below) may be understood as two distinct
strategies to overcome the inadequacies of escapism and reductionism. How may this be
The comments on complexity above may help one to see why escapism and reductionism may
be regarded as opposite dangers. Here one needs to recognise a hierarchy of complexity –
from atoms and molecules, to living cells and organisms, to various levels of consciousness,
to the complex social systems associated with language, culture, cities, the economy and
democracy, to intimations of transcendence in moral discourse, religion and various
spiritualities. An example of such a recognition of levels of complexity may be found in the
work of the South African cosmologist George Ellis.
Whereas escapism tends to focus exclusively on that which complex, reductionism falls into
the opposite trap, namely of undermining such complexity by reducing it to a complex
interaction of basic material and bodily processes. The explanations that are offered tend to
explain the complexity away.
The one danger tends to pull everything “up”, the other tends to pull everything “down”. Both
these dangers are alive and well in reformed churches in South Africa. Some focus on the
spiritual agenda of the church, others on its social agenda. Some suggest that the emphasis
should be on Jesus Christ as the “Bread of Life”, others are more concerned with bread for the
world. Some emphasise the importance of the “soul” in sexual intimacy; others find joy in the
God-given bodily pleasures of orgasm. Some see the worship on Sunday as the culmination of
Christian living; others focus on their Christian calling for the following Monday. Not
surprisingly, most of us fluctuate between these two emphases in our own lives.
In response to such fluctuations there would be many Christians who would want to stress the
significance of both poles of such dualities without subsuming the one into the other. In the
strategy of disconnection it is recognised that both are important but it is maintained that they
actually have nothing or very little to do with each other. In the closely related strategy of
dualism the tension is maintained but not resolved so that the dualities remain in fruitless
opposition to each other.
On this basis the danger of disconnection can be outlined more specifically. Accordingly, the
significance of that which is relatively more complex is emphasised but then at the cost of
simply disconnecting it from the material processes underlying (if not determining) that. One
example is where the significance of the “soul” is recognised in order to stress the “higher”
human functions associated with consciousness, communication, intimacy and spirituality.
However, it may easily happen that such a concern for the “soul” underplays its
connectedness with bodily functions such as eating, drinking, defecating, menstruation, libido
or genetic abilities.
Likewise, the significance of both faith and science, both the church and the university, both
Christianity and society, both theology and philosophy, both Sunday and Monday, both
gospel and culture, may be stressed but then in such a way that they co-exist alongside each
other, without intersecting each other. The legitimacy of two forms of language is
acknowledged but translation from the one to the other (or being bilingual) is regarded as
almost impossible. They simply have nothing to do with each other. This begs the old
question: What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?
On the basis of such disconnection the bread of the Holy Communion becomes unrelated to
hunger in the world, while the body of Christ does not touch upon our bodily passions. The
Word has a life of its own, unrelated to our flesh. The ear is separated from the eye. God’s
word becomes mere ideas, lofty theories that cannot be implemented. Moreover, when
Christians no longer know how to handle the insights emerging from astrophysics or
evolutionary biology, it seems much safer to retreat into a safe haven, a narrow area of
specialisation, where the Christian faith (apparently) cannot be threatened or contaminated by
other insights. It may (perhaps) be accurate to argue (following Galileo’s famous comment)
that Christianity has little to say about “how the heavens go” and should focus instead on
“how to go to heaven”. However, Christian proclamation on “going to heaven” would
scarcely make sense to contemporary Christians who no longer assume a pre-Copernican
cosmology. When the relationship between God and the world cannot be clarified in
cosmological terms, it becomes difficult to hold unto the message of salvation – that God
loves the world and has acted in Jesus Christ to save the world from sin, evil and destruction.
Indeed, such disconnection ultimately leads to a separation of the world from God. It leaves
us with a godless world and a worldless God. Such disconnection cannot do justice to the
Christian confession that this world (in all its ambiguities) is and remains God’s world, that
God loves the world, and Jesus Christ came to save the world through the Spirit.
Such disconnection often has devastating consequences since it allows for various forms of
domination (see below) or an impoverishment of both sides of these dualities. For example:
whenever the church becomes completely separated from society, it looses its relevance. This
is to the detriment of society but also of the church. When theology as an academic discipline
becomes separated from the rest of the university, it is no longer kept on its toes through
conversation with other disciplines and can no longer make use of new insights that are
emerging. Such other disciplines also lose the contributions that theologians can and have
made, but may not experience this as a loss any longer.
Clearly these dualities are related to each other, but how? The disconnections and tensions
that are so often experienced in this regard can only be harmful to a Christian ethos, praxis
d) Various forms of dualism
On the basis of the dualities listed above it is easy to see why the Christian faith has so often
been criticised for harbouring various forms of dualism. It is especially the distinctions
between earth and heaven, body and soul, spirit and matter that are often questioned in this
way. However, it is not that easy to resolve these dualities without falling into the traps of
escapism and reductionism (especially). From this perspective, the somewhat surprising
conclusion is that dualist positions are more appropriate than the two extremes of escapism
and reductionism. At least both poles of the dualities are recognised and held in tension with
each other. One may observe a deep irony here: Many “evangelical” Christians emphasise
both the need for “saving souls’ through evangelism and for setting up soup kitchens for the
destitute. Their explanations as to how these are connected may not be satisfactory for others,
but they seem quite able to attend to both. By contrast, many “progressive” Christians would
emphasise the need to understand this connectedness, but fail to attend to either in their own
Having acknowledged that, one should immediately add that dualist positions remain deeply
unsatisfactory. The track record of dualism indicates that it is seldom possible to maintain a
creative tension or dialectic. The core of the problem is that the relationship between the polar
opposites becomes obscure. It becomes more and more difficult for Christians to explain how
they are related so that disconnection seems to be the only way forward.
Another problem underlying dualistic positions is that such separation can hardly be
sustained. This opens the possibility that the dominant culture may infiltrate our under-
standing of the gospel far more than we may realise, the contemporary context may shape the
interpretation of the biblical texts (the authority of Scripture was emphasised in apartheid
theology) and the world our images of God. Another example is the way in which
consumerism (and the prosperity gospel) has shaped the worship services of those evangelical
and Pentecostal churches that hold the authority of Scripture in high regard and seemingly
focus almost entirely on the spiritual agenda of the church.
To put the problem of doing justice to both aspects of these dualities in Christological terms:
How should the incarnation of the Word be understood? How is language and embodiment
(flesh and blood) connected? How can the word of the gospel become rooted in our world? A
failure to address these questions can only lead to a verbalistic reduction of the gospel, a word
about the incarnated Word, the communication of mere ideas than can hardly touch the world
in which we live, theories that cannot be put into practice. In other words: the danger of
escapism may be associated with the classic heresy of docetism, while the danger of
reductionism may be associated with Ebionitism. With disconnection the Christ of faith and
the Jesus of history barely touch each other. With dualism both are affirmed but the tension
between them undermines the plausibility and the clarity of the gospel. Indeed, there is
nothing new under the sun!
e) Domination in the name of difference
An inability to explain how the two aspects in each of the above mentioned dualities are
related to each other – and how their differences may be understood – typically leads to a
situation where the tensions can easily become distorted. Then the one aspect can easily
dominate the other.
The notion of “domination in the name of differences of gender, race, class, sexual
orientation, creed and education” is derived especially from feminist theory. The term
“interlocking dualisms” is used here to explain how such domination becomes possible. The
argument is that the duality of male / female is paired with rational / emotional, soul / body,
mind / brain, human / animal, heaven / earth, eternity / time, etcetera. Since a hierarchy is
assumed in each case and since this hierarchy is linked to the duality of male and female, this
imposes the gendered hierarchy typical of patriarchy. This allows for domination in the name
of differences of gender – with far reaching consequences for the position of women and girls
in society. Violence against women, especially rape, constitutes the extreme extrapolation of
this underlying logic of domination. Ecofeminists argue that this logic of domination has
disastrous environmental consequences, allowing the exploitation of natural resources in the
name of human distinctiveness. For our purposes the way in which such dualities are paired
with religious categories such as body and soul, earth and heaven, and time and eternity is
crucial since the logic of domination may then also be manifested in religious practices.
Perhaps the clearest example in this regard is the relationship between the so-called “spiritual”
and the “social” agenda of the church. While the content of the social agenda may be more or
less clear, it is not always clear why the church should engage in this agenda, what distinct
role it may play, how this role should be exercised and how priorities should be determined.
As a result, the world all too often simply sets the agenda. By contrast, the rationale for the
“spiritual agenda” of the church may be relatively clear and typically includes worship,
preaching and teaching, various ministries, pastoral care, mission and evangelism and so
forth. But how are these two agendas related? A failure to answer this question may lead to
dualism (where both aspects receive ample attention, while the relation between them remain
obscure) or to reductionism (where the “spiritual” agenda is seen in functional terms as
providing inspiration for the more socially “relevant” contribution that the church can make,
or to escapism (where such a danger prompts others to focus almost exclusively on the
“spiritual agenda”). As a result, there are competing agendas, conflicts over priorities and
leadership tussles. Typically, one agenda may dominate the others for a time until the
deficiency of such dominance is recognised and replaced by an alternative priority. Moreover,
this leads to a failure to recognise the distinctiveness of the church as an institution.
Another example: one may plead for holiness or even asceticism on Sunday but is soon faced
with the altogether human needs for finance, food and sexuality on the Monday that follows.
What one cannot practice on Monday should not be portrayed as the norm on Sunday. It is the
disconnection between heaven and earth, soul and body, ideas and matter, language and
culture that allows the one aspect to dominate the other. This form of domination makes it
very difficult to recognise various social forms of domination in the name of the differences
of gender, race, class, culture, education and species. This has led to a theology where an
emphasis is place on the royal task of ruling – over creation, over the uneducated, over the
poor, over women and children, over people of colour, etc. This is sometimes softened
towards a notion of responsible stewardship but sometimes hardened towards abusive forms
3. Nature and grace: A vexing and perplexing problem for reformed churches
Reformed theologians are usually quick to suggest that the fundamental theological contrast is
that between sin and salvation, not between Creator and creature or between nature and grace.
This is indeed appropriate. The Christian gospel is aimed at a world deeply distorted by the
impact of human sin. Sin has planetary implications, while God’s grace is cosmic in scope.
Both the categories of sin and grace have to do with that which is “natural”.
Having affirmed that, it remains crucial to reflect on the relationship between nature and
grace. This is one of the most vexing and perplexing of theological problems, not least
– 10 –
because of diverging views on the “nature of nature”. The same applies to the equally slippery
terms “body” and “matter” (but not so much to “earthly”). Theological differences often
emerge as a result of diverging positions on this relationship between nature and grace
This is certainly also true with reference to the theological issues listed above. For example:
What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens, the church with the academy, faith with
science, grace with nature? Opinions on an appropriate Christian response (from the
perspective of “grace”) to issues around homosexuality are deeply influenced by medical and
psychological evidence around the reversibility of a homosexual orientation (“nature”). How
can a prophetic vision for economic justice touch upon political realities (the art of the
possible) and global economic systems? How does the Christian message of salvation relate
to God’s own creation and to this planet Earth? How is the Christian confession of Jesus as
the Way related to other religious truth claims? Is religion something entirely natural? If not,
where does it come from? Where does the Christian faith itself come from? How does the
God of the Bible relate to the gods of Egypt (Willie Esterhuyse)?
These questions are expressed acutely by the Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye:
““Is the God of our redemption the same God of our creation?” This is born from the African
quest for identity. What is the continuity between a pre-Christian African notion of the creator
God and the Christian message of redemption that took root in Africa following the work of
Western missionaries? Since the earliest Bible translators have used the same word and name
for the God of our ancestors and for the God of Christian proclamation, there appears to be
some continuity, but given the legacy of colonialism also deep tensions in this regard.
It may be helpful here to outline eight distinct ways in which the relationship between grace
and nature has often been understood:
a) Nature is gracious (pagan positions)
This approach focuses on God as Creator in speaking about creation as “original blessing”.
The impact of human sin and the need for salvation are downplayed. The possibilities for
ameliorating the world may come from within the world on the basis of its inherent goodness.
As some would say “There is something good in everything I see”. There is something noble
in every criminal. Such an approach remains prevalent in the context of liberal notions of
education, therapy, moral calls upon people to muster their moral strength and secular notions
of salvation on the basis of “the power of positive thinking” or the functioning of free
markets. This is defended in explicitly religious terms through New Age forms of spirituality,
in contemporary forms of fertility cults, but also through some liberal forms of Protestantism.
b) Grace supplements nature (popular forms of Christianity)
This approach builds on the previous one in affirming the inherent potential of nature to
address the demands of life, to overcome societal problems, to resist evil and to enable the
forces of good to triumph over evil. However, the optimist tone of the previous approach is
regarded as suspect – either as a result of an awareness of the “tragic” dimension of life, the
finitude and fragility of life, or from an astute sense of moral depravity where the forces of
evil tend to outweigh the forces of good. Such problems cannot be addressed on the basis of
that which is natural alone. Grace (coming from the outside) is required as a supplement.
Grace is here understood as a power at work in the world, almost like a strong medicine rather
than a vitamin supplement. In order to survive in a hostile world access to such power is
On this basis various aspects of Christianity may be regarded as desirable in order to secure
such power – for example through the association between Christianity and technology (even
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guns), money, status, health services, and education. Other examples come in the form of the
gifts of the Holy Spirit and charismata. There are also more crude examples where the
elements of the sacraments, the Bible as book, the relics of saints and liturgical objects
acquire a quasi-magical power, almost like a form of strong muti. Finally, the prosperity
gospel thrives on the basis of such an understanding of grace supplementing one’s natural
abilities and sense of upward social mobility. Accordingly, allegiance to Christianity may
help me and my children to make it in life.
One may wonder whether such a notion of grace as a power (like a medicine) at work in the
world, whether as a supplement or not, is indeed adequate? Is grace not more closely related
to the personal presence of God? Is grace not epitomised by God’s word of forgiveness?
c) Grace elevates nature (classic Roman Catholic positions)
The classic Roman Catholic (more specifically Thomist) position is that grace does not
abandon or abolish nature but that it elevates or ennobles nature and human nature.
Accordingly, redemption is added to creation, grace to nature, eternity to time. The order that
is evident in nature is temporary, fragile and incomplete. The incarnation was necessary
irrespective of the reality of sin. Salvation therefore implies an elevation or a fulfilment of
creation in order to overcome such inadequacies. Natural life is overarched by a sacral,
ecclesial superstructure so that grace remains suspended above nature. Accordingly, Christian
life in the form of ascesis is directed towards the vertical more than the horizontal, the higher
rather than the lower. Nature is good but with grace things are better.
Such a notion of elevation can easily be associated with evolutionary optimism if the Thomist
distinction between the natural and the supernatural is no longer entertained. Accordingly, one
may find in the evolution of species a long-term tendency towards increasing complexity,
increasing consciousness and increasing beauty. Within human culture such increasing
complexity may be associated with the rise of science and the emergence of complex forms of
technology as witnessed in the 19th century dreams of historical progression, epitomised by
the “American dream”. After the second World War this suggested to many the need for
education and “development” towards ever “higher” forms of civilization, also involving
higher levels of consumption. Christianity (grace) may thus be regarded as the driving force
behind such progress.
Within the life of an individual human being such development of potential towards maturity
may also be stressed. The baby needs to grow, learn to walk, to speak, to read and write, to
develop her talents, intelligence, expertise and skill. Even more important is moral
development, learning to show respect to others and to acquire appropriate virtues. Even that
would not suffice. Parents would want their children to learn to appreciate the finer things in
life. Together with that may also come an appreciation for science, cultural refinement,
literature, culture, the arts and religion. Accordingly, Christianity may be regarded as the
epitome of culture. Grace elevates nature.
d) Grace is juxtaposed next to nature (classic Lutheran positions)
In terms of this view grace creates a province of spiritual life that is situated next to or as an
enclave within the world, alongside the human culture, the state or the spheres of civil society.
Here the influence of the gospel is restricted to the sphere of the church, although the church
as institution can also relate to other institutions such as the state. If society is left to its own
devices, this can either lead to a Pietist withdrawal or self-isolation from the world or to a
complete secularisation of the world.
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e) Grace replaces nature (classic Anabaptist positions)
In terms of this view the product of God’s work of salvation (grace) replaces the product of
God’s work of creation. God started anew since this earthly vale of tears is too deeply
contaminated by sin. Salvation is therefore regarded as new creation (nova creatio). Often this
(Anabaptist) position harbours a tension between faith in God as Creator and as Saviour. God
seems to abandon the work of God’s hands. Instead, continuity is found only in the identity of
God, not in the product of God’s work.
This position is nowadays widely adopted wherever the problem of natural suffering is
emphasised. Creation is good but not perfect. Pain, suffering, anxiety and mortality remain
deeply embedded in God’s creation. This can only be overcome eschatologically, that is on
the basis of God’s new creation, when the whole of creation will be incorporated in the eternal
f) Grace restores or reinvigorates nature (neo-Calvinist positions)
Like the first position and unlike the fourth position, the goodness of God’s creation
(creatura) is emphasised. God’s work is not a tacit failure. At the same time the radical
distortion brought about by sin is acknowledged. This requires a distinct act from God to save
the world in Jesus Christ. Such salvation is understood in terms of categories such as
repristination (returning to paradise), restoration (re-establishing the original order) or
reinvigoration (allowing creation to flourish once again so that its God-given original
potential can be fulfilled in new and surprising ways).
The danger of this approach is related to attempts to describe this “original” order that has to
be restored or the original “potential” that may be fulfilled or the original “purpose” that
should be kept in mind. Such categories describing “nature” cannot be derived from the world
as we know it. They are therefore necessarily social constructs. Such constructs can easily be
derived from a particular social order that is then read into the gospel. Apartheid theology, for
example presumed that God created distinct races and that the sin of pride encourages humans
towards grand schemes of unification. Accordingly, salvation is to restore the separation (in
society as well as in the church) that God introduced after the Babel episode. In a similar way
it can be used to defend domination in the name of difference (e.g. difference of gender, race,
ethnicity, intelligence, family background, sexual orientation) by describing such differences
as “natural” and therefore God-given. On this basis “salvation” may be described as
maintaining or restoring an oppressive status quo.
g) Grace re-creates nature (dialectical theology)
This approach may be understood as an attempt to overcome the weakness of the previous
one. Here it is argued that any theological reflection on nature (or the world) around us can
only lead to shallow and dangerous forms of natural theology. No theological truths can be
derived from the product of God’s work of creation (creatura). Instead the focus is on God’s
act of creation (creatio) and especially on the identity of the Creator. That the creator is
indeed the Father of Jesus Christ (the triune God) cannot be derived from the natural order,
the beauty of nature, human reason or a sense of morality or religiosity. That can only lead to
heathendom (Noordmans). To know what creation means can therefore only be discerned on
the basis of the cross as the symbol of God’s gracious judgement over creation. It can only be
derived from the witnesses to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
Although the focus is thus on grace more than nature, such grace is not merely spiritualised
but is itself regarded as natural (material, bodily, earthly); it naturalises so that one can only
know what nature is on the basis of grace. What we regard as “natural” is the always already
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distorted nature that we find around us. As Karl Barth famously maintained, creation is the
external basis (and requirement) for God’s covenant, that is, the election in Jesus Christ.
Creation was necessary to allow for the incarnation. In other words: through grace God
creates anew (re-creatio) but the emphasis is then on the act of creating anew and not so much
on the product of such work – which cannot be fixated and remains open to God’s judgement.
Formation (giving forms) is downplayed while discernment and judgement are emphasised.
On this basis there is little continuity required between the product of God’s work of creation
“in the beginning” and the product of God’s re-creating. The only continuity may be found in
the act of re-creating and in the identity of the Creator. This begs the question whether this
approach can guard against a separation of grace and the nature that we find around us. Where
does grace actually touch upon this world? What difference does it make? Where does it
become visible or evident? Is this distorted world still God’s beloved creation? Despite its
best intentions, this approach is therefore often criticised for docetist notions of the creation
(creatura), of the church, of redemption and of the content of Christian hope. It is no longer
clear how grace relates to that which is material, bodily and earthly. This is indeed the cost of
focusing on creation as act (creatio) and not also as product (creatura).
Moreover, one may raise questions about how knowledge of God as Creator and Saviour is
possible in the first place. Yes, this is only possible on the basis of the material reality of the
incarnation and the biblical witnesses, but how do these help us to know God? How does one
know that Jesus of Nazareth is more than an ordinary human being. What makes the Bible
different from any other book? The danger is that, if the hermeneutical path to knowledge of
God and the role played by the human senses (of that which is material, bodily and earthly) in
this regard is not clarified, an unwanted form of natural theology (using that which is natural
as a point of departure) may slip through the back door in any case.
At best, this approach does not necessarily avoid that which is material, bodily, and earthly,
but seeks to raise the debate to another level, namely the need to discern what is at stake in
that which is material, bodily, and earthly. At worst, such discernment becomes idealist,
unrelated to the biological processes (of perception and thinking) from which such discern-
ment emerged. This suggests an unresolved dualism in relating ideas to matter and hides a
Gnostic disinterest in that which is material, financial, bodily, and earthly.
h) Grace re-creates nature (other Calvinist positions)
The classic reformed position is that salvation is understood as being for the sake of creation
(creatura), so that God’s creation can flourish again. Salvation does not come in the place of
creation (both as creatio and creatura), nor does salvation elevate creation, but is understood
as re-creation. The incarnation was necessary primarily because of the reality of sin. Sin is
understood mainly as guilt and the roots of redemption therefore lie in reconciliation amidst
alienation. When guilt is forgiven, reconciliation is possible and creation can flourish again.
Salvation therefore implies a sanctification of the entire created reality. Accordingly, salvation
is not so much about the Saviour, or about salvation itself, or about being saved (the saved-
ness of being) but about the being of the saved (Van Ruler).
However, this formula of “re-creation” does not by itself resolve the problem as to how the
relationship between nature and grace may be understood. The question remains whether the
“re” in “re-creatio” should be understood as a “repairing” (of this creation, with the focus on
creatura) or as “again” (with the focus on creatio as act), which would indicate an act in
which God would create anew – and where the continuity between this creation (creatura) in
which we live and the outcome of God’s act of re-creation is not foregrounded. The problem
is that the term re-creatio remains open to rather different interpretations: a) as repristination
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or restoration (widely rejected); b) as reinvigoration (Kuyper); c) as a repetition of the act of
creating (Noordmans); d) as consummation and glorification through the inhabitation of God
in creation (creatura) or of the inhabitation of creation in the eternal life of the triune God, e)
as creatio ex vetere (John Polkinghorne) but then with connotations such as completion,
fulfilment, development, upliftment and even elevation; f) as the noetic disclosure of the
meaning that previously remained hidden (some Barthians) or g) as replacement or
substitution (which would lean towards nova creatio).
Even if this “re” can be clarified, the problem remains that “creation” (as creatura) cannot be
equated with nature. We do not have access to “true nature” or to God’s creation as it was “in
the beginning”. What the “nature of nature” is (whether defined in terms of essence, potential
or purpose) is necessarily a social construct from within a particular social context. The world
as we know and experience it may still be God’s beloved creation, but it is the product of
God’s creation, the impact of human sin, God’s providence and of God’s work of salvation,
including the ambiguous presence of Christianity in the world, all together. The same applies
to anything that is material, bodily, earthly or financial.
4. Thinking theologically: Diverging ways forward
It should be clear by now that the issues that were identified in the introductory section cannot
be addressed merely on the basis of ethical reflection. They also require theological reflection
on that which is financial, material, bodily and earthly.
The purpose of the previous two sections was to show how theological reflection in this
regard has been subject to distortions. Such distortions should not surprise us given the
pervasive influence of various heresies in the history of Christianity. Indeed, it often easier to
identify such heresies than to obtain clarity on an appropriate sense of direction for
theological reflection. The previous section also indicated that even where terminological
clarity can be found, this does not preclude diverging interpretations of a (reformed) under-
standing of the relationship between nature and grace.
The purpose of this document is not to provide final answers to complex questions. It does not
claim to present answers to questions such as “What does God say?” or “What does the Bible
say about …?” or even “What does the church authorities say ..?” At the same time it does not
and cannot give up on the search for relatively adequate positions, forms of theological
discernment that can provide a way forward, that would lead us towards wisdom. The
recognition of distortions does not allow one to condone an approach where “anything goes”.
Both absolutism and relativism have to be avoided in a humble but sustained commitment to
search for the truth.
The problem of finding a suitable way, an appropriate method (meta-hodos = “about the
road”) for theological reflection cannot be determined merely through methodological reflec-
tion either. It may be pious to maintain that Jesus is the only Way, but the problem remains
how (through what disciplines) we as the disciples of Jesus Christ have to follow him on this
In this section a number of possible points of departure for theological reflection are explored
with reference to the traditional “sources” for theological reflection. Such a starting point is
deeply contested. It is then argued that to look for such a starting point may actually not be
very helpful since this does not provide any guarantees for travelling safely on the road.
Instead, a number of theo-logical themes or questions that may guide us for the journey ahead
– 15 –
Traditionally a number of sources for theological reflection have been identified, namely
Scripture, tradition, reason and experience (including the role of other sciences and social
analysis of the context). However, each of these is open to interpretation and the interaction
between these sources is highly contested.
a) One would often find in ecclesial policy documents (such as the present one) an early
section in which biblical principles or a biblical grounding for a particular theme would be
discussed. There can be no doubt that the Bible continues to serve as a source of inspiration
for Christians. However, it is far less clear that one can identify such abiding principles in the
Bible without the influence of contextual factors. All too often such a section would therefore
tend to legitimise a position adopted on other grounds, whether these may be of a traditional,
theological, pastoral, social, political or ideological nature. It would simply not do to argue
that one should start with Scripture alone, since this may well underestimate the impact of
reading the Bible from a particular context.
b) Our doctrinal presuppositions typically influence our reading of the Bible more than we are
aware of – which others may be quick to point out. Likewise, to start from the creeds or the
reformed confessions may offer some guidelines, but these sources have to be weighed and
tested as well, especially on the basis of rereading the biblical texts.
Others may wish to emphasise the role of “reading in communion” and recognising the
authority of the church (and its ordained leaders!) and the disciplines imposed on us.
c) Others would maintain that we should first articulate the questions that people ask about
their faith and then reflect on appropriate answers to such questions – otherwise one would be
proclaiming answers to questions no-one is interested in. Likewise, one may suggest that an
analysis of people’s needs (be it ministerial needs, the needs of the needy, the needs of the
poor and the oppressed) should provide a starting point for theological reflection. However,
such a contextual analysis can never be objective since one’s convictions would already
structure observations on what people’s deepest needs are.
Yet others argue that the plausibility of the Christian faith has to be tested through conversa-
tion with the poor and the oppressed; through critiques of domination, including feminist
critiques of gendered distortions; in conversation with poets, artists and musicians as the
“antennae of society” who can register the deepest distortions in contemporary culture; in
dialogue with people of other living faiths; or in terms of knowledge and insights gained from
the full spectrum of sciences and philosophy.
d) Finally, there are those who maintain that religious truth claims can at best be assessed on
the basis of what we know through other sources, for example on the basis of scientific
This diversity of theological starting points typically makes it difficult for Christians to hear
and understand one another, often arousing suspicion and a vehement defence of one’s own
approach. It is nevertheless clear that all these factors come into play in theological reflection
in one way or another. They are in fact hermeneutically necessary in order to relate the
significance of the Christian gospel to any contemporary context, to hear the Word of God
ever anew. Perhaps it is less important to find a proper starting point than to insist that there is
a need for consistent interaction between these sources so that they can mutually correct one
another. The interplay is more important than any one starting point. In these methodological
disputes reformed Christians would want to insist that every new theological position would
at least need to demonstrate its continuity with the canonical witnesses to God’s self-
revelation in Jesus Christ.
For the sake of simplicity the committee responsible for drafting this document opted to
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reflect upon that which is financial, material, bodily and earthly through the lenses of three
very basic theological questions, namely
1) “Who is God?”;
2) “What is God doing – in my life, in our congregation and denomination, in our
community and country and in history?” and
3) How have we come to know that?
One may argue that these three questions cover almost everything that there is to be discussed
in Christian theology. This may well be the case. Here the very heart of the Christian
confession of faith in the triune God is at stake (the economic and the immanent trinity). Any
discussion of these questions will therefore necessarily be subject to interpretation and
contestation. Yet a discussion of the issues involved may at least help to set an agenda for
further theological reflection on that which is financial, material, bodily and earthly. It
provides a theological agenda by focusing the questions on God’s identity, character and
actions. In other words, any position that one may adopt on specific issues may be tested in
terms of ongoing conversations on these three questions. At least this provides an agenda for
the discussion. The hope is that such an agenda may inform theological discernment in
various committees of the church that are tasked to address the particular issues identified in
the introductory section.
The order in which these three questions are addressed is also subject to debate. Some would
say one should start with the first (Who is God?) in order to retain a doxological focus on the
identity of the triune God. However, as others may point out, we can only know who God is
on the basis of what God has done. Knowledge of the triune God (the so-called immanent
trinity) is best derived from an understanding of the economic trinity in order to avoid
rampant theological speculation. Some would therefore wish to start with methodological
reflection instead (How do we know that?). However, as others would argue, an appropriate
method is often dependent on the content of what is to be studied. Then one would have
completed a full circle. In the section on how we arrive at theological judgements (“How do
we know that?”) the different starting points for theological reflection mentioned above will
again come into play.
In this document it is suggested that the order is not particularly important, as long as all three
questions are addressed and as long as they are addressed in interaction with each other. One
may therefore read any of the following three sections first.
In order to avoid unnecessarily lengthy theological discussions and in order to focus on the
aims of this document, the theological issues are in each case merely identified and then
related to reflection on that which is financial, material, bodily and earthly.
5. Who is God?
This simple question harbours in itself three extremely complex discourses. Although they are
intertwined, theologians typically focus on the one more than the other in order to address the
question – with far reaching consequences. Consider the following.
a) The word “is” in many ways forms the basis of Indo-Germanic languages. One may even
argue that the entire Western philosophy entails reflection on this word and that such
reflection is governed by the most basic structures of these languages. When does something
exist? Some would focus on particular entities (a person, a plant, a mountain, an institution).
They are evidently and tangibly “there”. Others would maintain that such entities are
fluctuating and subject to evolutionary changes. Instead, only ideas, principles, forms “exist”
– 17 –
in the “true” sense of the word; they maintain an abiding presence. Outside the Indo-
Germanic languages (for example in the Semitic languages) others would say that this debate
presupposes a certain priority for things (nouns) over processes (verbs). What if the most
basic category is not existence, but being or becoming?
The theological relevance of this debate becomes evident the moment the question “Does God
exist?” is articulated. The question is then whether God is a particular entity (e.g. a person in
the form of Jesus Christ) or more like an eternal idea, an abiding principle (the logos)? Others
would argue that one cannot name God in the first place. This is not only because God is
infinite and therefore elusive but also because not everything has a name. How can one name
the infinite? How can one give a name to events where only verbs would do? This ambiguity
is reflected in the title of Hans Küng’s famous book Existiert Gott? If God does not form part
of reality, God does not “exist” in the way anything in the world may be said to exist. It is
neither necessary nor possible to resolve this debate here. It may merely serve as a protocol
for theologians to proceed with care and a sense of humility. This protocol should warn us not
to reduce God as Creator to being one entity alongside others within the world as we know it.
b) There is a long tradition of philosophical and theological reflection, going back to the
famous Greek philosophers, that would approach the question “Who is God?” by reflecting on
the connotations of the word “God”. What does it mean to use an adjective such as “divine”?
Does the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods really have divine status or are they merely
superhuman persons (superheros)? This is an important question if one considers the
immorality, fickleness and impulsive behaviour of such “gods”. This discussion led to various
ways to describe divine status, for example through the negative route (via negativa) of
indicating what God cannot be and the positive route (via eminentia) of using superlatives for
God. Thus God is said to be infinite, immutable and impassionate, but also omnipotent,
omniscient, perfectly loving.
These criteria were more or less accepted by the earliest Christian theologians since they had
to defend Christian truth claims in a religiously plural society. They maintained that the triune
God is quite different from all the other divinities that were worshipped in the towns and
cities of the Roman empire. In line with the Jewish roots of Christianity, they emphasised not
only the utter transcendence of God as Creator of the entire universe, but also claimed that the
triune God is the only true God. On this basis the God proclaimed by Christianity would
easily include but also exceed such characteristics. Such philosophical reflection on the
possibility of knowledge of God and of God-talk may still be found in many circles today.
c) The dangers of this approach have often been highlighted in reformed theology. The
question who is God is easily predetermined by philosophical categories that are then merely
assigned to the triune God of Christianity. The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is then
framed in terms of presuppositions about what being divine could entail. Instead, many would
argue, one should start theological reflection with the particular identity of God, namely as
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Karl Barth, for example, would insist that one can only describe
what it means to be “divine” by focusing on the person and identity of Jesus Christ. Given the
impact of human sin we are unable to know from our observations what a human being is,
what the nature of nature entails or what a divine being may be. It is only through Jesus Christ
as God’s self-disclosure that these questions may be answered. Only in that mirror may we
discover who we are. The focus is therefore not on the word “is” or on “God” but on the
This approach is clearly highly attractive. It helps to avoid excruciating forms of abstraction
and rampant speculation on that which transcends us in any case. It may again serve as a
protocol against idolatry, helping us to avoid constructing our own images and categories of
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what being divine might or should entail. The strength of this approach is that it redirects our
attention to Jesus Christ. What being divine could mean can best be answered through a
confrontation with the crucified and risen Christ. To say that Jesus Christ is God is not merely
to attribute divine status to Jesus Christ, to sing his praises. It is primarily saying something
about the identity and character of God. Jesus illustrates and reveals to so us something of the
very heart of God – for example as a loving parent.
However, this approach has an inherent weakness. It continues to beg questions about what it
could possibly mean to attribute divine status to Jesus Christ. Even if this affirmation is
reversed (as suggested above), how does Jesus reveal to us something about God’s identity?
What connotations are attached to the word “God” here? Where are such connotations derived
from? Here a hermeneutic account needs to be given. It would not do to suggest that they are
derived from Jesus Christ himself. At best these connotations are clarified or further enhanced
through discerning the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The truth is of
course that these connotations are derived from Jewish language about the unspeakable
mystery (God). That, in turn, is derived from other religious traditions in the Ancient Near
East – although the Abrahamic religions obviously also transformed the way in which God
was understood. Such religious traditions are probably rooted in the earliest human quest for
meaning, the questions that emerged when humans started wondering about themselves and
the nature of reality.
The danger here is twofold: There is a danger of disconnection (see above) where our
categories about God are not connected with the rest of human language (or with the material
conditions that make such language possible), inviting a short cut that such categories are
given to us more or less directly (the underlying problem with orthodox and neo-orthodox
theologies). The other danger is that a Christian understanding of God (the connotations
attached to the word “god”) is merely derived from other (philosophical) discourse on God so
that the Christian faith becomes merely one expression of a common human quest for
meaning (the underlying problem with liberal theologies). In the latter case Christianity would
be regarded as one example in the general category of “religion” (which would serve as an
umbrella term that includes Christianity). Then God has “many names”, of which the
confession of faith in the triune God is only one manifestation.
These comments indicate that the three discourses identified above cannot be separated from
one another. Although the third approach may be safer theologically, it cannot remain
independent from the other two. One way to comprehend what is at stake here is to investigate
the role played by metaphors and symbols for God. Where do such categories come from and
what do they convey? This avenue may indeed also help us to reflect on that which is material
because metaphors and especially symbols always include an element that is tangible,
palpable and available to the human senses. They are therefore necessarily antropomorphic:
they express something about God in human language and in human categories. This
approach could also build on the deepest insights of John Calvin.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the human species is its ability to use signs to refer
to something that is not immediately present. Signs may carry a rich set of connotations (the
so-called signified) that are not fully captured by the material signifier, but which the signifier
refers to. Signs do not necessarily participate in that which they signify. Thus a road sign
“Cape Town 1000km” (with only 14 letters) refers to Cape Town (with all the connotations,
including emotional associations, that are attached to that), but the sign is not itself part of
Cape Town. By contrast, symbols do participate in that which they symbolise. The South
African flag, for example, represents everything that being a South African supporter entails
at a major sports event, even if the flag is hoisted on foreign soil. Metaphors are also signs
that are employed to highlight (or create) connotations by seeing something in the light of
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something else. Some philosophers would argue that all forms of language are rooted in
metaphors. Through the human imagination signs may also refer to a vision for the future, to a
society that does not exist yet, but which may come about through dreaming that a different
world may indeed be possible. Indeed, this role of the imagination is crucial in planning for
the future, individually and collectively. Consider signs that refer to a house to be built, a
degree to be obtained, a company to be established or policy to be introduced. In each case the
meaning of the sign transcends the materiality of the sign, but the material signifier is the only
access that we have to such meaning.
This recognition of the role of transcendence is crucially important. God-talk has often been
discredited as escapist because a particular model of transcendence has become outdated. This
is the cosmological understanding of transcendence associated with a more or less flat earth,
with the heavenly firmament above and the underworld below. Although the Bible was
largely written on the basis of such an understanding of the world, this is no longer tenable
following the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and various more recent
scientists. However, this does not imply that all other forms of transcendence cannot be
recognised. One may still wonder about the origins of the universe, its ultimate destiny,
whether this universe is all there is, what lies at the core of everything, if there is indeed such
a centre and whether there may be hidden dimensions to reality that we are unaware of. There
are numerous other forms of transcendence that are recognised in everyday life – in terms of
that which is faster, richer, stronger, more intelligent, more beautiful and deeply meaningful.
In each of these cases transcendence is open to scientific inquiry but associated with a lack of
knowledge. Another form of transcendence is embedded in the ethical distinction between
what reality is and what it ought to become. Without such a vision and discernment all human
endeavours would lack a sense of direction, but such discernment cannot be derived from
science. Questions around ultimate meaning offer another route for recognising
transcendence: Why is there something? Why can reality be modelled mathematically? Why
is it comprehensible? What is the purpose of life? Where do we as humans belong and where
can we find a home? Are we damned by the guilt of the past or are we ultimately forgiven
sinners free to create a new future? What convictions can guide is in a world that is far too
complex to establish the truth of everything we may come across?
One may argue that almost anything can be or become a locus where some form of transcend-
ence could be recognised and traced. In each case such an awareness of transcendence evokes
notions of the transcendent. Yet, in each case our concepts of the transcendent cannot be
equated with what is transcendent. Such concepts necessarily remain part of the world in
which we live. This applies especially, but not only, to the role of symbols.
John Calvin, more than many other theologians, recognised the role played by symbols and
developed (at least for this time) a highly sophisticated understanding of signification. He
employed that in his views on exegesis, on the sacraments on the incarnation and so forth. He
recognised the importance of the materiality of signs and therefore emphasised the role played
by the human senses. His emphasis on the ear as the vehicle through which God’s word may
be heard is well-known, but he equally emphasised visual metaphors (Scripture as spectacles,
the role of mirrors, illumination by a flash of lightning and the theatre of God’s glory), not to
exclude the other senses (smell, taste, feeling, even intuition). Symbols are indeed palpable,
tangible, accessible to human experience. They are material, bodily and earthly, perhaps also
Following in the footsteps of Calvin, two crucial aspects have to be emphasised. These may
be illustrated with the example of exegesis (or of the sacraments). On the one hand: In reading
the biblical texts it is important not to reduce the meaning of the text to the letters of the text.
It is necessary to capture the “spirit” of the text, that is, what it communicates, conveys, what
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it reveals to us about God, its meaning for us, today (the city Cape Town entails far more than
the signpost outside Bloemfontein!). On the other hand, we can only have access to the spirit
of the text through the “letter”, that is, by engaging in the hard work of detailed, disciplined
and where required scientific exegesis (we cannot know everything that Cape Town stands
for, only small fragments of it). Any short cut to the spiritual meaning, for example through
the use of allegories or direct illumination, therefore ought to be avoided.
This is of crucial significance for answering the question “Who is God?” We do not have any
direct access to God. Any knowledge of God cannot come straight from above, but can only
come from below, from within the world in which we live, from that which is material, bodily
and earthly. Also if we claim that such knowledge was revealed by God, we would only know
that through our human experience, not in any direct way. Any claim for divine intervention,
for the occurrence of “miracles” could only be recognised as such from within our world.
Again, we do not have any direct access to God. To claim that we do, would be to reduce God
to something in our world. It would be to create our own idols, to read one’s own views into
symbols or to claim authority for private, so-called immediate illuminations. To prevent and
discipline such claims we have to recognise the path through which knowledge of God may
be discerned, namely through the use of symbols. Again, the meaning of the symbol can only
be discerned on the basis of the materiality of the symbol – also because the symbol itself
participates in that which it symbolises.
At the same time, the meaning of the symbols transcends its materiality by far. When we
employ metaphors for God (as rock, anchor, wind, hen or father) we therefore have to recog-
nise that we cannot grasp such connotations fully. We cannot capture or contain God through
the metaphors and symbols we employ. If we do we would only create idols. Every metaphor
illuminates some aspects that may previously have remained hidden. However, ever metaphor
also remains limited. God may in some ways be like a rock or a father, but there are even
more ways in which God is not like a rock or a human father. This requires a sense of theo-
logical humility and a recognition that we as Christians are nothing more than witnesses of
God’s elusive presence in our midst. In speaking about God (which always implies speaking
to God), we need to recognise that our language would always remain inadequate to express
the inexpressible, but that we can and should search for relative adequacy. It matters! To use
an analogy: there is no perfect way to declare one’s love, but it does matter how this is done!
On this basis one may recognise numerous manifestations of God’s presence in our world.
Almost everything may function as a symbol. In the words of the non-Christian poet Rabin-
dranath Tagore, “I asked the tree, speak to me about God, and it blossomed.” One may find
traces of the Holy Spirit at work in the world almost anywhere, indeed everywhere, also in the
history of the human species, in other religious traditions, in non-human nature and in the
story of the universe itself. However, these traces are not equally clear. In terms of a famous
image that Calvin used, these traces may provide a flash of lightning during the dark of night,
but the moment of light is not enough to help one to find one’s way home, if hopelessly lost in
a stormy night. Or, to use another image, the detective on the crime scene may find numerous
clues, perhaps too many to follow up, but would need to recognise the most significant clues
and follow those leads further in order to identify the culprit. Only on this basis may the
significance of several less evident clues be recognised retrospectively and employed to build
up a strong case.
This suggests that the question “Who is God?” may indeed be answered in many ways, but
not all ways may be equally illuminating. To recognise the identity and character of God, we
need to recognise the most significant clues, traces, symbols of God’s presence. According to
the Christian tradition this is indeed a matter of selection. Actually, it is re-described in terms
of God’s election, as a form of grace, since these traces are confessed to be given to us by
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God. The Christian confession is that the clearest of these traces is found in the person and
work of Jesus Christ – who is indeed God’s self-manifestation within our world. On this basis
one may recognise numerous other relatively more obscure traces of God’s presence – in the
world of nature and historical events (such as an east wind blowing across the Red Sea), in the
lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and Sarah, Rebeccah and Rachel), in prophets, priests and
kings, in disciples and apostles. In the reformed tradition the role played by the biblical
witnesses to God’s presence is especially emphasised. Again, the available witnesses are not
equally clear so that a distinction between canonical and deutero-canonical books was
required. Either way, there is more or less consensus that God’s presence and identity can be
discerned only through such symbols and that we need to focus on the best available symbols
in order to answer the question: “Who is God?”
On this basis there gradually emerged some clarity within the Christian tradition that God
could be named as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or as Loving Creator, Wisdom and
Counsellor/Life-force/Source of Energy). The doctrine of the trinity emerged as an always
inadequate attempt to say something about the identity of God. At best, it serves as a
doxological conclusion in order to articulate the heart of the Christian confession, to express
the deepest mystery of everything that is.
Two further conclusions with respect to that which is material, bodily and earthly may follow
from this discussion:
a) Firstly, one may suggest that something like an “earthly spirituality” may be appropriate in
exploring questions about God’s identity. This does not imply a vague appreciation for the
grandeur, beauty or diverse complexity of nature, but may be directed towards the triune God
in whom Christians believe. The central insight of such an earthly spirituality is that we have
no direct access to God other than through that which is natural (material, bodily, earthly). At
the same time, the meaning of that which is material, bodily and earthly is not self-evident. It
is only when we learn to see the world in God’s light that we can understand the world, our
place within it and our responsibilities towards the world around us. This is exemplified in the
person of Jesus Christ who is confessed to be “truly human” and truly divine”, Creator and
creature. The significance of Jesus is not contained in his human personality, but the only
access to that we have to his divinity is through his humanity.
We learn to do recognise that especially in and through the Christian liturgy: in focusing on
God alone through worship we learn to see the world through God’s eyes, with mercy and
compassion. In the liturgy there is an important dialectic at work between the world and God
and between church and society. Worshippers carry with them into the liturgy all their
experiences from the past week, all the sorrows and joys, all the burdens of life, their needs,
interests and desires, their moods, habits, customs and cultures. They also bring with them
their own notions of what makes the world go round, their worldviews, together with their
notions and images of God. We can only talk about God on the basis of our experiences of the
world. All talk about what is above comes from below. We inevitably construct God in our
own image; we therefore bring all our idolatries with us into the liturgy. When we then enter
the liturgy, we are confronted with and ritually reminded of God’s identity and character. This
takes place through worship but also through preaching and teaching. We are confronted with
the accumulated wisdom of the biblical texts and the slow process in the biblical narratives of
gradually coming to an understanding of who God is.
In focusing on God alone through Christian worship we cannot leave the world completely
behind because we carry the world with us in our hearts and minds. However, we also learn to
look at the world from this newly-found perspective. We recognise that the soil on which we
are standing is holy ground. When we depart from the liturgy with God’s blessing we
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therefore look at the world through new eyes, having been trained to see it through God’s
eyes, with compassion and mercy, as something so valuable that it is worth dying for (John
3:16). We return to the world and our daily lives seeing the world as God’s world. We insist
that “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything within it (Psalm 24:1). We cannot understand the
(needs of the) world unless we see that within a wider interpretation framework, unless we
learn to see that from God’s perspective.
The spiritual quest to focus on God and God alone therefore, somewhat paradoxically, helps
us to see the world in a new light, in the light of the Light of the world. This enables us to
look at the world as God is looking at it, to cry when God is crying, to laugh when God is
laughing (Dorothy Sölle). This is also the deepest insight of the contemplative tradition. The
aim of withdrawing temporarily from the world is not an escapist flight from the world, but to
learn to see the material world in perspective. Inversely, to focus on the world and the world’s
needs is to be confronted with God’s presence in unexpected places. Mother Theresa was
therefore right to suggest that one would be welcome to come and help with her work
amongst the destitute and dying in Calcutta, but only if one is prepared to meet God.
b) Christianity is sometimes described as the most materialist of all religions. This may well
be appropriate. Not only does it embrace matter as good, but also proclaims that God entered
the world in human flesh. Jesus became flesh, he died for us and was raised to life and
ascended in a bodily form. The Spirit hovers over the deep, dwells amongst God’s people and
lives within our bodies which are called “a temple of the Holy Spirit”. The church is described
as the body of Christ. The Holy Communion is a form of “reverent consumption” in which the
act of consumption is turned inside out: the consumer is consumed; to eat such food means to
become part of another body, the body of Christ. The Christian vision of hope is that God will
make God’s home amongst us, on earth as it may be in heaven. This suggests that that which
is financial, material, bodily and earthly may be or become a vehicle of God’s presence.
When we talk about human bodies and sexuality, money, non-human animals, trees, flowers
or stones we stand on holy ground. Each of these categories may serve as a symbol of God’s
presence, with connotations far exceeding the material signifier.
In short, theological reflection on that which is material, bodily and earthly requires a two
way process by which a concrete issue may be used as an avenue to see God’s presence
precisely in and through that issue, while thinking about God’s identity and character may
help to see that issue in proper perspective.
6. What is God doing?
Christianity, unlike several other religious traditions, is based on the assumption that the
triune God is a God of history, one who acts in the world, the One who was, is and will be.
God is not merely an eternal, infinite being, but One who brings about change. This convic-
tion is deeply embedded in the biblical roots of Christianity. God is the God of Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca, the God of the exodus and of the exile, the
God of judges, kings, prophets and priests. More specifically, God’s very identity is disclosed
in the birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The history of Christianity
is a history of witnessing to this event. This too is regarded as the work of the Holy Spirit to
transform the world. All of this assumes a God who acts dynamically in the world.
In the context of modernity this faith in the God who acts in the world has become deeply
contested. This is due to the rise of modern science and the modernist assumption that
everything happening in the world could in principle be explained in terms of cause and
effect. This left less and less room for divine intervention in our everyday lives. Only two
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alternatives could be considered on this basis: to defend God’s action in the world as
miraculous on the basis of an outdated cosmology or to accept a deist view according to
which God created the world in the very beginning but is no longer involved in any way.
In a postmodern context other alternatives emerged. This is partly the result of developments
within the sciences that acknowledge the role of irreducible complexity and the possibility of
emergence. As quantum mechanics, chaos theory and evolutionary biology all indicate, not
everything can be fully explained. However, this does not suggest a return to a “God of the
gaps” or a cosmology that suggests that God can intervene, as it were “from above” in world-
ly affairs. This would in any case reduce God to a form of agency in the world, alongside
other explanatory factors. Then God may be indeed be very powerful but could be compared
with other powers. Many forms of contemporary theology explore an understanding of God’s
transcendence that would move away from a pre-Copernican cosmology, that would
emphasise God’s presence within the world and that interprets God’s actions in history in a
non-interventionist way (not contravening the so-called laws of nature) and in a non-
reductionist way (where God’s actions make no difference as to what happens in the world
and becomes a rough synonym for the missions of the church). The argument is that the “laws
of nature” allow or actually create freedom for God to act within their parameters – in the
same way that the rules of grammar do not inhibit but create the possibilities for texts that can
fill whole libraries. The laws therefore do not inhibit God’s freedom to act but create such
freedom. After all, Christians regard these laws as the work of the triune Creator and marvel
at God’s faithfulness to creation.
It is not necessary to go into details here. Suffice it to say that this at least allows the
possibility of ascribing what is happening in the world to God’s presence, influence and
action. The liturgical vision mentioned above should be understood as a re-description and a
theological ascription of a world that can be described in a multi-dimensional way, including
the languages of science, governance, business, jurisprudence and poetry. Formulated
To ascribe an event to God’s involvement is not to exclude other factors. To say that the
Israelites escaped from the pursuing Egyptian army through God’s mighty hand does not
exclude the role of the East wind. To say that God forgives our sins is to say something about
what happened on the cross on Golgotha. To say that God’s Word came to me today is not to
exclude the role of the preacher and of exegesis. To use the example of healing: In itself there
is nothing “miraculous” about healing. It takes place every day. (One may also say that every
time that healing takes place, this may be regarded as a “miracle”.) The question is how the
healing that did occur is explained. Some would point to the role of the new medicine,
powerful muti, the diagnosis of the doctor, the medical procedures, excellent medical
services, one’s own healthy lifestyle, good food or to the power of positive thinking. None of
these factors exclude the possibility of ascribing the healing to God’s presence. That one has
been healed is then ultimately regarded as only due to God’s grace. This explanation may
exist alongside all the others but function at a different level, namely to place what is
happening in the world within a cosmic and indeed an ultimate frame of reference.
Christians may therefore discern God’s presence in history, in one’s personal life-story, one’s
family history, the history of the church, the history of the human species in all its dimensions
and indeed in the story of the universe itself. Retrospectively one may ascribe things that
happened to God’s involvement. Again, to ascribe something to God’s presence is not to
exclude other explanations but it is to deny that they offer a full explanation of what
happened. It is only when something is understood in terms of God’s work that its meaning
To identify the finger of God in evolutionary history or in human history, to detect God’s
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grace in my life or to point to what God has been doing in a particular congregation or to ask
what God is saying to us today through this biblical text form inescapably part of Christian
living. However, especially in the reformed tradition, the danger of ascribing events in history
to God’s presence has also been recognised. Finding God in history can easily serve as an
ideological legitimation of particular narrow group interests, of one’s own agendas, or of the
church’s predetermined agenda or even of a consumerist lifestyle (defended as “God’s many
blessings”). The diverging ways in which God’s involvement in the history of South Africa
have been understood illustrates the problem. The proverbial joke is that in war (or in mega-
sports events) God is asked to help our side win, or not to be involved at all!
Since it is so fraught with dangers to identify the finger of God in history, one may refrain
from that completely. However, that would lead to a form of self-secularisation, where faith in
God is affirmed but where God’s presence seems to make no difference to what happens in
the world or even in the church or in the lives of believers. To outsiders such a God would
remain impotent. The difference between belief in God and in no God at all would then
disappear. A better strategy would be to focus on the way in which we talk about God’s
identity and character (i.e. returning to the previous section). This would allow us to test what
we say about what God is doing with the image of God that is portrayed in this way. The
question is then whether the God whom we identify is in continuity with God revealed to us
in the biblical witnesses. However, this shift to focus on God’s identity and character can only
have a corrective function. The task to discern God’s presence and involvement in our lives
and our world would remain unavoidable.
To detect traces of God’s presence in history is indeed an inescapable task for Christians, but
it is necessarily ambiguous, never uncontested. It requires considerable discernment and a
sense of humility. We need to recognise what we are doing with awe and wonder, if not fear
and trembling. If we are asking questions about the ultimate mystery of the universe, about
the key to unlock the meaning of history, about the purpose of the emergence of life on earth,
about the significance of one’s own life, or the meaning of any one moment, then we should
not expect to receive answers with any degree of finality. It may be so that by God’s grace we
may have found provisional answers, answers that we can rely on, answers in which we can
put our trust in life and death. However, we cannot claim to possess the truth; at best the truth
possesses us. We cannot claim to be anything more than witnesses to the answers that we
have received to life’s ultimate questions. This is also relevant whenever Christians talk about
the triune God in the presence of adherents to other religious traditions (which is always!).
While it may not be possible to circumscribe God’s involvement in any detail, there
nevertheless emerged in the Christian tradition at least a set of broad parameters within which
God’s actions in the world have been understood. This provides a narrative framework within
which our lives and the history of our planet may be situated and which enables us to find our
place and role in life. In broad outline and on the basis of the biblical roots of the Christian
tradition, Christians have told the story of who God is and what God is doing in and also far
beyond the Christian tradition with reference to at least seven rubrics. One may call these the
“chapters” according to which the story of God’s work may be structured. These include the
The triune God’s resolve to create “in the beginning”, “out of nothing”, or better, out of
the exuberant love of God (creatio ex amore);
God’s presence in the evolutionary history of the universe and of the earth itself, in the
evolution of life on earth and of the humanoid species, in the various cycles of nature, in
stability and transformation of ecosystems and in the sense of direction of such ongoing
changes – towards increasing complexity and diversity, but also towards increasing
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God’s involvement in the emergence of the human species, which arrived on the scene
only very recently, on the late afternoon of the sixth day, after God had a siesta, as has
been suggested – in the development of human culture, in the joys and sorrows of everyday
life, through grandeur in the spheres of governance, the economy, architecture, technologi-
cal innovation, education, literature, art and religion, but also in all its misery, understood
in the Christian tradition especially in terms of the radical distortion of such culture
through the devastating impact of human sin on earth – which became embedded in society
through what is aptly called “structural violence”;
God’s continued providential care for creation to restrain the impact of sin in the world, to
protect, provide for, nourish and allow creatures to flourish, keeping the “whole world in
‘his’ hands”, guiding the course of history, interacting with (human) agents, notwith-
standing the impact of sin (evil), in but also far beyond the Jewish-Christian tradition;
God’s acts of salvation in the history of Israel, through the work of Jesus Christ and
through the work of the Holy Spirit – in different contexts and in multiple ways – by
conquering and exorcising evil, by mediating, forgiving and reconciling, by feeding and
healing, by offering advice, council and a sense of direction, by demonstrating solidarity,
be re-establishing order amidst chaos and so on and so forth;
The work of the Holy Spirit in the formation of Christian communities, especially on the
basis of the apostolic witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the
subsequent history of the Christian tradition, for better but often also for worse, in and
through the worship, sacraments, ministries and missions of the church, through the
vocations of Christians in society, through the witnesses of the church to the message of
salvation in the world and signs of God’s coming reign;
The expected completion, fulfilment or consummation of God’s work, “on earth as it is in
heaven”, through but also despite of the witnesses of the church, culminating in the
banquet of the “Lamb that was slain”, in the “feast of the Sabbath”, in the renewal of
God’s good creation.
Of course, one may wish to question such distinctions, the terminology employed, the narra-
tive framework and the sequence of the seven “chapters” as suggested. However, this is not
necessary here. Instead, it is crucial to see that any discussion of any of the issues listed in the
introduction above can best take place if such an issue is situated within the whole immense
drama of God’s work.
For example, when discussing the role of money or possessions in our lives, we have to
situate that within the story of creation, fall and redemption. If this is not done one can all too
easily demonise, glorify or merely tolerate the way in which “money makes the world go
round”. Likewise human sexuality cannot be explored by looking merely at medical or
psychological evidence on that which is natural without recognising that our understanding of
intimacy has become radically distorted. To employ providence (procreation) or salvation
(either in the form of abstinence or of fertility) as the proper point of departure for theological
reflection could likewise lead to disastrous theological positions.
In the case of pastoral counselling to Christians with a homosexual orientation, situating that
within the whole story of creation, fall and redemption is crucial given the way that entirely
different biblical texts are employed to construct contrasting positions. Nevertheless, this
would remain highly contested since the story of God’s work may be told in different ways.
Some would maintain that a homosexual orientation is related to the distortion of sin and that
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healing from that is possible through God’s grace. Others would insist that homosexuality is
part of God’s good creation (not a deviation from that) and that salvation implies that
homosexuality will no longer be stigmatised, but will be embraced, also by God. Such forms
of intimacy have eternal significance. The purpose is not to resolve this issue here, but merely
to suggest that it cannot be dealt with adequately outside such a theological framework.
A second example may suffice here. How should one think about technological innovations?
For example, our lives have been changed dramatically over the past century by motorised
transport – by road, rail and air. We take that nowadays for granted. For many having private
transport is almost salvific. It is a matter of convenience but also a status symbol. Yet, this has
multiple effects on our societies and our psyches. Consider the role of road accidents, traffic
jams, road carnage, jet lag, air pollution and the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. How
can we think theologically about such motorised transport? The suggested narrative
framework may help us here. There is room for biological and cultural evolution in God’s
creation. However, this has become deeply distorted by the cumulative impact of sin. This is
even embedded in traffic rules that allow us to drive at 120km/h – knowing that this would
cause more accidents than driving at 100 km/h – or 80 or 60 or 40? These tensions are
reflected in a study by the World Council of Churches entitled “Mobile, but not driven”. How,
then, can our modes of transport be redeemed by God’s grace?
This inability to do justice to the whole story of God’s work has plagued Christian discourse
on such issues, especially when one assumes that an appropriate point of departure may be
found in any one of these “chapters” of God’s work. Typically, all the other aspects of God’s
work are then subsumed under that one aspect. Numerous examples may be mentioned in this
Apartheid theology used the “orders of creation” as the point of departure and interpreted
salvation as the restoration of such preconceived orders. It also interpreted the unity of the
church in such terms, namely in such a way that distinct churches had to be established for
homogenous population groups. Evangelical and Pietist theologies opted to focus, instead, on
“spiritual” matters, on the salvation of the human soul from damnation and therefore on the
need for conversion and mission to the “heathen”. However, this message of salvation is
undermined if it is no longer clear how God as Creator is related to the world. One may then
still talk about experiences of salvation, but it would no longer be clear that such salvation
may be ascribed to God’s work – or whether this is merely a metaphoric expression of our
human efforts to save ourselves. Other theologies focused on the social agenda of the church,
and understood salvation as “liberation’, “reconstruction”, “development” or “social uplift-
ment”, but is again not necessarily clear whether and how God is involved in the pursuit of
such agendas. Yet other forms of theology may find a safer point of departure in the ministries
of the church. However, without situating the formation of the church in the world (in God’s
creation) this may easily lead to ecclesial bureaucracy or ascetic seclusion. An emphasis on
eschatological consummation alone can prompt an impatience that fails to recognise that to
attempt to eradicate evil in the world may exacerbate such evil, precisely through the
instruments employed in this regard. While the roots of evil (sin) may be addressed through
the forgiveness of sin, the impact of sin in this world (evil) cannot be removed completely yet.
Further examples may be added. Suffice it to say that any particular issue can only be
addressed in terms of the whole narrative framework of what God is doing. It is not that
important to find a valid starting point for theological reflection as long as a dynamic
movement is maintained where one theme is introduced to rectify distortions that may emerge
when focusing exclusively on another theme. Like a juggler, the task of theological reflection
is not to focus on any one of the cones, but to keep all of them in the air and to focus on their
interplay. To capture any one of the cones would be to let all the others fall.
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In short, the narrative framework of God’s whole work provides a tool for theological
reflection on any of the issues mentioned in the introduction since every one of these issues is
the product of all seven categories and is situated in the tension between them.
7. How have we come to know that?
In the reformed tradition faith has typically been understood as the knowledge of God (piety).
This is the focus of the opening chapter of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The
best analogy for such knowledge is the kind of knowledge that we have of other persons, not
knowledge of facts or a set of truths, abiding principles, an interpretation framework, a way of
life, or even of experiences that we have had. Knowing someone is to be situated in an
ongoing personal relationship of mutual trust, reciprocity and respect requiring a dynamic
interaction between the two (or more) persons involved. To know God is of course different
from knowing another human person, but at least this emphasis on a dynamic relationship
based on regular interaction and reciprocity (a life of prayer) and respect for the otherness of
the other is also emphasised. To know God is to know what God is doing, to know God’s will
for our lives but also to know God’s identity and character, that is, to know God truly,
precisely while respecting the incomprehensibility of God. In this section the question how
we have come to know that, that is, how we have come to know God will be explored.
Christians would (hopefully!) not answer this question by first of all examining the
epistemological presuppositions or the hermeneutical processes involved. Instead, we use the
language of doxology, worship and prayer to express our gratitude to God in this regard. We
would insist that the reason why we know God is none of our own doing: it is not our search
for truth, for meaning or for experience that makes the difference. The emphasis cannot be on
what we do, least of all on our responses, virtues or good works. It is only through God’s
grace that this became possible. The clue to answer the question “How can we know God?” is
the recognition that we are already known by God. We are not only known by God, but also
loved and forgiven. That forms the very basis of our knowledge of God.
When Christians are asked for further explanations in this regard they would typically use the
term “revelation”. We can only know God on the basis of God’s self-disclosure. Anything
less than that would not be knowledge of God; it would be the product of our own
imagination, of our projections and of our own social constructions. As was reiterated above,
we can only know God’s self-revelation from below, by recognising the signs that point to
God’s presence. However, these signs are not created by us; they are there already. They are
given to us. We are the recipients of such signs.
Any further explanation would therefore focus on the question where God’s self-revelation
may be found. Which signs may help us to recognise God’s presence in our midst? Which
signs would not allow us to domesticate God’s transcendence and help us to see what we
cannot see with our eyes only? This emphasis on the question where God’s revelation may be
found is important in order to acknowledge that we do not have direct access to God, that our
human knowledge of God’s revelation is always mediated through that which is material,
bodily and earthly.
In response to this question where God’s revelation may be found, Christians would of
course, as we saw above, point to Jesus Christ as the clearest manifestation of God’s presence
in our midst. Indeed, this Jesus is confessed to be “truly God”. This is also the gist of the
famous passage in the letter to the Hebrews Chapter 1: God has spoken in many and varied
ways to our ancestors in the past. However, in “these last days” God has spoken to us
primarily through God’s own beloved Son who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact
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imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV).
It is precisely on this basis that one may also recognise traces of God’s presence (of God’s
Spirit at work in the world) in numerous other places, especially in the lives of prophets and
apostles and in other figures and events in the Jewish-Christian tradition. One may find it in
subsequent events where the proclamation of the gospel has led to the overcoming of evil and
suffering, to the transformation of society. Once one knows where to look, one may indeed
recognise God’s presence almost everywhere else, in human history, inside and far beyond the
Christian tradition, in the work of God’s hands and in the whole story of God’s beloved
creation. To return to an earlier analogy: Once a detective has made the breakthrough on the
basis of decisive evidence, it becomes possible to recognise other pieces of evidence in order
to put together a coherent case.
When pushed for yet further explanations, Christians would also emphasise the role of the
many witnesses to God’s revelations. Here the role of apostles and prophets again has to be
recognised. Moreover, Christians would suggest that the most reliable witnesses to God’s
self-revelation may be found in the biblical texts. Christians do not believe in the Bible; they
believe in the God of the Bible. They insist that the Bible contains nothing more than reliable
witnesses to an event (especially the life and work of Jesus Christ) that is more important than
the actual witnesses. In the words of David Tracy: “We believe in Jesus Christ with the
apostles” (not in the apostles themselves).
The Bible is indeed not reliable in every possible sense of the word, but primarily in this sense
of witnessing to what has happened in Jesus Christ. Moreover, Christians would maintain that
the way in which God is revealed to us anew is through the recollection of these former
witnesses, through reading the Scriptures, through exegesis and meditation on the meaning of
these texts. It is by recalling the past that God’s presence may be discerned. In this way the
biblical witnesses can become vehicles of God’s self-disclosure in changing circumstances. In
this way the word of God can be heard anew.
One may, of course, precisely on this basis, also consider the role of a “cloud” of other
witnesses, including the church as a community of disciples, the role of our mothers and
fathers in the faith, the lives of saints and martyrs, of heroes and ancestors, of family and
friends. Each of these factors may be brought into play when we are asked to explain how we
have come to know God.
Christian theologians have the task to offer an even more detailed account of the many ways
in which we have come to know God. Such theological reflection would typically refer to the
many sources that come into play in this regard. Above, the roles of Scripture, the ecclesial
tradition and its confessions, contextual experiences (including a social analysis of one’s
context) and human reason have already been mentioned. It is abundantly clear that all these
sources do play some or other role. However, since each of these is open to interpretation, the
way in which they are and should be weaved together remains disputed. This prompts
ongoing methodological reflection in Christian theology and its many sub-disciplines. All too
often the focus thus shifts away from knowledge of God to the ways in which theological
positions are constructed. Yet, a hermeneutical account of how we have come to know God
remains a necessary task, precisely because of the danger of idolatry, of creating substitutes
for the knowledge of Godself.
It is neither necessary nor possible to offer such a hermeneutical account here. Suffice it to
say that the way in which we come to know God is incredibly complex and requires a
bringing together of all four sets of sources mentioned above. Any act of reinterpretation
requires from us to bring together the meaning of the Bible as a whole, the legacy of the entire
Christian tradition, the complexities of the world in which we live and the sum total of what
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we know and value, what we hold to be true in the epistemic, moral and aesthetic senses of
the word. Given such complexity, it remains remarkable that we often do that with such ease.
Nothing less than this is required in every sermon, in every act of pastoral counselling, in
every bit of advice we offer one another and in every reflective decision we make. Of course,
we almost inevitably distort the Bible, the tradition or the context in the process. This implies
that we continuously have to search for a relatively more adequate understanding of the
meaning of the gospel, of the significance of the Christian faith and of God’s identity and
character. However, as human beings we cannot avoid the task of bringing all these sources
together in a new act of interpretation, always anew.
For theological reflection on that which financial, material, bodily and earthly, it may be more
helpful to explore the way in which such complexity is typically approached. Here one needs
to emphasise the role of root metaphors and conceptual models. Metaphors come into play
because each of these sources is interpreted. All data are theory-laden. Likewise, the meaning
of the world as a whole is not self-evident. Christians may suggest that it is only when the
world is seen through God’s eyes, namely as God’s beloved creation, that one can find the
appropriate key to understand the world. Given this immense complexity, of understanding
the very meaning of history, it becomes clear why such metaphors and models are needed.
Models are especially useful because they help to reduce complexity so that only some salient
features can be recognised, even though such a model would necessarily also distort and over-
simplify such complexity. Let us focus especially on the role of theological concepts (or
doctrinal keys) as one example of such a model.
Although the role of theological concepts is often frowned upon in biblical interpretation, they
play a crucial role in helping people to establish a link between the biblical texts and the
contemporary contexts, between God and the world, between heaven and earth, between
church and society, and between gospel and culture. To establish such a link requires the
identification of something similar between these two poles. At best one would not want to
draw on only one similarity but on a set of such similarities. However, this is by no means
easy, given the differences between, for example, the biblical texts and the contemporary
contexts. If, therefore, one cannot easily find such similarities one may have to make them
similar. This is actually the Latin roots of the word “identification”, namely idem (the same)
and facere (to make). It should be obvious that this is highly dangerous since this enforced
similarity can easily distort both aspects that are related in this way. However, such a
similarity is necessary; without that the connections cannot be made. They are therefore
employed for the better, but often also for the worse.
There are numerous strategies available in this regard. One may, for example, find abiding
truths in the Bible (e.g. “God is patient”) which still applies within the contemporary context
precisely because this is still true (but not always!?). Likewise, one may find abiding moral
principles, rules, values or goals. One may even detect commands and instructions that are
perceived to be still valid (with potentially disastrous consequences!). Alternatively, one may
uncover similarities between the situations described in the biblical texts and our situation
today (e.g. Jonah was in a fierce storm, fearing he would drown; we experience many similar
storms in life). Likewise, one may discover similarities between specific characters and
character traits and learn from the examples of others that came before us. Another strategy is
to identify promises (or even predictions) in the biblical texts and then reflect on the multiple
ways in which such promises may be fulfilled in changing circumstances (e.g. the promise of
Jesus that he will be with us always). Further examples may be multiplied.
In order to aid this process of proclaiming the gospel always anew, Christians have adopted a
number of theological concepts (based on root metaphors) to explain such similarities. This
may be illustrated with a few examples of which only the first three are sketched in any detail:
– 30 –
Firstly, liberation theologians typically employ the notion of “liberation” in this way. They
would suggest that, according to the Bible, God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
The contemporary context is then read as essentially one of political and economic
oppression. On this basis, text and context are linked by proclaiming that God shows solidari-
ty with those who are oppressed today and is as Liberator with them in their struggles for
liberation. Although, as liberation theologians have also recognised, the poor are not only
poor but are indeed people with other concerns, this one feature of their plight is highlighted
in order to establish the connection.
Secondly, those Christians emphasising the notion of “family values” would argue that the
message of the Bible is that God is a loving Father and that we are invited to become family
members through being adopted in God’s household. They would then describe the impact of
the contemporary destruction of family life and of family values. On this basis they would
describe the message of the gospel in terms of finding the key to a restoration of happy
families, perhaps adding the patriarchal notion that this is only possible if the husband is the
“head of the family”.
A third example is that of “forgiveness”. Here it is emphasised that the Bible describes the
ways in which God has acted in the history of Israel and especially in Jesus Christ to bring
forgiveness of sin. The deepest problem of humanity today is then described in terms of
alienation from God and the guilt associated with that. On this basis the message of the gospel
is then understood as proclaiming forgiveness of sins, emphasising the liberating
consequences of that and the life of gratitude that follows from that.
Numerous further examples may be mentioned rather randomly: Apartheid theology
understood the gospel in terms of the need for separation (if not isolation) in order to
maintain cultural identity. Liberal theologians have often described the gospel in terms of
moral influence, that is, it aids human beings to live good lives and to actualise their potential.
Orthodox theologians insist that in Jesus Christ the victory over death and destruction has
been accomplished and that one may therefore see the world in that light. Some ecumenical
theologians portray a vision of the “whole household of God” in which each member of the
house (oikos) may flourish. Some African theologians may argue that the gospel is about
God’s victory over evil forces, thereby emphasising the need for a ministry of exorcism.
Pentecostal theologians may well agree with that, but would also wish to emphasise
charismatic empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Black theologians would emphasise the
importance of human dignity: every person (especially those whose humanity has been
violated, but also the oppressors) is created in God’s image and loved by God. In response to
all of these theologies, yet others insist that reconciliation remains at the heart of the Christian
gospel. Accordingly, Jesus is understood as the mediator between us and God. This implies
the need for a ministry of reconciliation that would have far-reaching social consequences.
A few further comments on the use of these theological concepts are important:
Firstly it should again be noted that one cannot avoid such concepts. They are necessary in
order to reduce complexity and to establish a link between the message of the gospel and
the world in which we live.
Secondly, it should be clear that each of these concepts draw from certain metaphors that
are embedded in a particular context (consider the juridical context of the announcement of
forgiveness: guilty as charged, but pardoned). Since the concepts are extended far beyond
their metaphorical rootedness, they would have certain strengths but may also distort the
complexity of the gospel and of the situation in which it is proclaimed. This is especially
important in terms of the characteristics of God that are emphasised (e.g. as Friend,
Governor, Liberator, Father).
– 31 –
Thirdly, the soteriological focus on these concepts may be noted: they seek to capture the
very heart of the gospel, but understand it in very different ways.
Fourthly, these metaphors / concepts are never merely derived from the biblical texts or for
that matter from the contemporary contexts. They emerge and are selected and employed
precisely in order to construct a bridge between text and context, gospel and culture,
church and world. The conceptual clarification of the connotations attached to these
concepts is the task of theological reflection and is embedded in the traditions that
constitute the history of Christianity.
Fifthly, these theological concepts are never simply invented or constructed. They emerge
and may govern theological reflection for centuries. We are nothing more than the
recipients of the long-standing theological paradigms that are based on these core concepts.
Finally, given the limitations of each of these concepts it is typical to search for umbrella
terms that can offer a more generic but necessarily vaguer understanding of the message of
the gospel. The notion of “salvation”, a “holistic approach” or a sense of “comprehensive
well-being” may serve as examples of such generic terms.
It may be true that a multi-dimensional approach, where more than one such concept may be
employed, would be preferable. However, it is even more important to recognise the dominant
doctrinal keys that are indeed being employed and also to come to terms with the distortions
which they may well prompt.
To summarise: If Christians are asked how they have come to know who God is and what
God is doing, they would want to witness to God’s grace and to experiences of God’s
revelation. However, if they have to offer a fuller account of that, they would need to
recognise the highly complex process of theological understanding in which the Bible, the
ecclesial tradition and contemporary experiences are weaved together. Amidst this complexity
and in the need to bring everything together, the role of soteriological concepts has to be
recognised. These concepts (or doctrinal keys) may be derived from the Biblical texts but they
have to be clarified continuously through theological reflection. Even then, we are the
recipients of the lure of such concepts and can scarcely invent or creatively construct them.
In short, when we reflect theologically on that which is financial, material, bodily and earthly,
it is crucial to identify the dominant theological concepts (doctrinal constructs) that are
employed to link the text of the Bible with our contemporary context. How adequate is such a
concept? What soteriology is embedded in that? How is God being portrayed?
8. Using this document to address particular issues: The example of debt
The purpose of this document is not to discuss all or even one of the particular issues raised in
the introduction above at any length. Its purpose is also not to offer a method or an easy recipe
to address such issues. It would be mistaken to expect from this document a set of guidelines
or principles to assist reflection in this regard. This would not be possible since one would
also need to take into account the social context in which theological discourse is situated, the
need for proper social analysis and ongoing social change that require theological discernment
and responsible decision making. Instead, this document merely sketches the broad para-
meters within which such a discussion may be situated. It offers a theological framework but
does not instrumentalise such a framework for the sake of easy application and appropriation
by ecclesial commissions. The task of theological reflection and discernment cannot be
It is nevertheless possible to illustrate how this document may be helpful for ecclesial com-
– 32 –
missions which have to grapple with the particular issues mentioned in the introduction
above. For the sake of such illustration, let us therefore take only one example, namely
monetary debt and the impact of indebtedness.
There are many circumstances under which one may incur debt. These may range form a very
short term problem with cash flow (I forgot my purse at home), surviving until the end of the
month before the next salary, pension or welfare grant is paid out, using credit card facilities
(whether frugally or not), accepting a study loan, purchasing a house, setting up a business or
a project, planning a major development project requiring investments and shareholders or
long term national loans for the sake of “reconstruction and development”. Such debt may
therefore be short-term or long-term, involving individuals, groups, companies, shareholders,
or entire nations. Debt may be small or very large in scale.
Such indebtedness need not pose any problems and need not require much theological
reflection – if the terms of the contract are clear and if both parties are able to meet their
obligations for the duration of the contract. However, all too often matters do go awry and
become systematically distorted. Consider, the inability to pay back monetary debt, chronic
indebtedness amongst the poor and the affluent alike, the associated traps of a culture of
poverty (including gambling), the problem of living above one’s income due to giving in to
consumerist desires and lifestyles, the lure of advertisements and the advertising industry
associated with that, using bonds (or a supposed escalation of property values) to finance
further expenses, fluctuations in interest rates that are beyond the control of those who are
indebted, charging exorbitant interest rates (or higher than what is legal), the way in which
some exploit the predicament of others (“loan sharks”), the draconic measures sometimes
implemented as a result of the failure to pay the debt or the interest on the debt (removal of
furniture, termination of renting agreements) and the disastrous impact of international debt
and the associated “Structural Adjustment Programmes” on the economies of so-called
This document may help church commissions confronted with such problems in two ways,
the one negatively / critically and the other positively / constructively.
Firstly, one needs to guard against ways of approaching this cluster of issues that are clearly
inadequate. Consider the following:
Some may regard the issue of monetary debt as a matter far removed from the “spiritual”
agenda of the church, from the heart of the gospel, from the core content of the Christian
faith, from a sense of Christian calling, from the demands of discipleship or from the
ministries and mission of the church. This attitude may therefore easily fall into the traps of
escapism, dualism or disconnection identified above. Accordingly, there may be a
tendency to emphasise our human guilt before God and God’s forgiveness rather than the
social problems around monetary debt. If the matter is addressed at all, it is associated with
personal virtues such as wisdom and restraint.
By contrast, some may prioritise the social agenda of the church to such an extent that the
church becomes merely another pressure group that may help to address such social
problems. They may easily fall into the trap of reductionism and self-secularisation
identified above. Accordingly, there may be a tendency to focus almost exclusively on the
social dimensions of indebtedness. Accordingly, one may campaign for a Year of Jubilee
to address international debt and equate that with God’s work without discussing the
interplay between the confession of guilt and God’s forgiveness.
Where this cluster of issues around debt and indebtedness is actually addressed and not
merely avoided, several other inadequacies may well emerge. These may be identified on the
– 33 –
basis of a hermeneutical analysis (with specific reference to the role of the text, the
contemporary context, the ecclesial tradition and contemporary re-appropriation through the
use of theological concepts and moral frameworks):
Some may explore individual biblical texts where such themes are indeed being addressed
(e.g. Ex 22:25, Lev 7, Lev 25:25f, Matt 18:21-35, Luk4 16:1-13, 19:11-27) and derive a set
of clear principles from that for the contemporary context. This may be well intended but
often ignores the differences between the economies of biblical times and the
contemporary context. It would fail to recognise the trajectories around theological
reflection on a particular theme already found in the biblical texts. Indeed, which texts are
selected, how are they related to other texts and what is being regarded as core and what as
peripheral in this regard? Can a sense of direction be identified in the biblical trajectories?
One may also underestimate the complexity of any industrialised economy. How does debt
function in our context in ways that may be quite different from a pre-industrialised
agrarian economy where enslavement may have been an option to overcome chronic
indebtedness? What distortions have emerged in the contemporary context? Have such
distortions been taken into account in one’s analysis of the situation, in “reading the signs
of the time” prophetically? Moreover, has the danger that one’s analysis may itself become
distorted (perhaps on the basis of capitalist or socialist ideologies) been recognised? What
about the possibility of an “inverse hermeneutics” where the social analysis determines the
meaning of the gospel and robs it of its transformative power?
In our attempts to address a problem such as debt thoroughly one may well underestimate
the very different ways in which Christians have dealt with such issues throughout the
history of Christianity. This may well be related to the use of metaphors from distinct
social contexts. When we talk about God’s forgiveness, what notion of forgiveness is being
assumed? Consider the following possibilities: the inter-personal word of forgiveness
offered between spouses or between parents and children or between close neighbours, or
perhaps the cancellation of monetary debt, or the amnesty offered in a court of law to a
convicted criminal, or the pardon offered by the landlord to a serf in a feudal estate, or the
pardon expressed in public in cases where one’s honour and good name has been violated,
or a negotiated settlement reached between management and workers after lengthy wage
conflicts, or the truce signed amidst social conflict, including civil war, or the cultic
bringing of sacrifices offered to appease the wrath of the deity? In the history of Christian
theology each of these social contexts has at times been assumed in seeking to understand
the meaning of God’s forgiveness – with considerable confusion! Generalised notions of
forgiveness seeking to include all these nuances have merely worsened such confusion. It
would therefore be rather presumptions to capture “the” Christian position, or even “the”
reformed position on any particular issue.
It may be necessary to recognise the limitations of the root metaphors and theological
models that are employed to address a particular situation. Again, every doctrinal construct
has certain strengths but inevitably also distorts our ability to recognise the relevance of the
gospel in changing circumstances. See also the discussion below on this very point.
It would, in other words, be irresponsible and simplistic to apply biblical texts more or less
directly to a contemporary problem such as debt – without recognising the whole history that
lies between them and the complexities involved in human understanding and in social
analysis. Theological reflection requires a complex interweaving of text, context and tradition.
Moreover, we also need to recognise the immense complexities involved in moral
discernment and in moral decision making processes in response to issues. This may again be
illustrated with reference to the issue of debt and indebtedness.
– 34 –
Moral discernment is all too often reduced to a set of preconceived principles, commands,
laws and rules that are applied rigorously and directly without recognising the complexity of
contemporary issues. There can be no doubt about the value of moral codes but any such
codes provide little more than a framework within which particular issues can be discussed.
One may agree that “Thou shall not steal!”, but does collecting interest on investments
amount to stealing? This is a position that Christians and Muslims have adopted in the past
but which many would regard as ludicrous in an industrialised economy. Nevertheless, if
investment is not tantamount to stealing, how should the impact of investment income (based
on shareholding) on economic inequalities be assessed in the context of late-modern, neo-
What is required here is a more nuanced moral framework in which the role played by a moral
vision for the good society is also taken into account. Here one may consider the differences
between economic systems such as neo-liberal capitalism, socialism and the so-called “new
economics” – which are based on very different visions for the good society (the
unprecedented production of material wealth, distributing such wealth more equitably and the
need for redefining the very meaning of such wealth)? Which of these are to be privileged?
Can one identify any of these as more “Christian” than the others? How, then, does this
influence our understanding of the role of debt and indebtedness?
On the basis of such a moral vision one would also need to reflect on whether the emphasis
should be placed on appropriate moral values and goals to guide responsible decision making
(producing wealth or an equitable distribution of income?), on human dignity and thus on
basic human rights (to a living wage, shelter, food, clothing, or to employment?), or on moral
obligations and duties (to contribute to the economy or to care for those in need?). Yet others
may wish to emphasise the need for the retrieval of appropriate virtues (wisdom, entrepre-
neurship, diligence, efficiency, justice or self-restraint?) and thus for the task of moral
formation and education or for the role of human conscience in meeting such obligations. The
problem is therefore that even where we agree on the need for moral discernment, our maps of
the moral landscape may well differ significantly (Birch & Rasmussen). This often allows for
a selective morality where people with good intentions can still support an evil system (e.g.
attending to the need of client for a good return on their investments, without questioning the
social or environmental impact of the economic activities enabled by such investments).
Secondly, the document may help in a constructive way to address the cluster of problems by
suggesting a theological agenda for further discussion that focus on the distinctiveness of a
Christian understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world. This agenda
would at least include the following items:
What metaphors for God are implied in particular suggestions on an appropriate way
forward? What notions of God come into play here? Are these appropriate? How is the
identity and character of God understood?
How is this matter embedded in the full story of God’s work? Has the value of that which
is creaturely been recognised? How is God’s many blessings and God’s providential care
understood? Has the distortions due to sin been under-estimated? Has the strange power of
the cross to overcome evil been allowed to transform the situation? How is the message of
the resurrection (the power to overcome evil, death and destruction) made relevant within
this context? Which instruments of God’s work have come into play and how are these
related to the church as the elect people of God? What vision for the future is implied?
Does this understanding of the content of Christian hope allow for attractive alternatives
that can energise action?
– 35 –
Which is the most dominant theological concept (or soteriological key) that is employed
here? Has its strength and limitations been recognised? Is this indeed the most appropriate
key to make the message of the gospel relevant within this particular context?
Again this agenda may be applied to the issues around debt and indebtedness:
What notion of God’s identity and character is implied in the way in which we talk of
monetary debt? Is God one who punishes laxity and a failure to abide by contractual obli-
gations? Or one who allows others to start again by offering a word of forgiveness? Or one
who always forgives everything, which would merely imply condoning whatever we do?
Or a fair judge? Or a ruler who manages to maintain the rule of law – in order to protect
the victims by punishing the transgressors? Or one who rules with justice and mercy? Or is
God the one who liberates the poor and the oppressed from their predicaments?
How is the way in which we deal with monetary debt embedded in the grand narrative of
God’s work? Loans and investments may well be the fruit of God’s creative engagement
with human creatures, but it may also be radically distorted by structures of domination.
Contractual obligations are important to maintain stability in society and may well be
regarded as a form of God’s providence. However, given the many distortions associated
with indebtedness, there may also be a need to redeem the situation, to liberate those who
have become enslaved from their bondage. This may indeed be regarded as part of the
redemptive work of the Holy Spirit. The ministry and mission of the church may be to
serve those who have become marginalised in the global economy, who have ended up on
the periphery of society. This too may be God’s work. Thus we may live with the hope of
the transformation of our investments so that God’s reign can be established, on earth as it
is in heaven. To focus only on one aspect of this narrative may well lead to serious
On this basis one would need to investigate the root metaphors and dominant theological
concepts that are employed to discuss the issues of investments, of debt and indebtedness.
Is this a matter of receiving God’s many blessings? Or the fruitfulness of human
productivity? Or of forgiveness of sins? And thus the cancellation of debts? Or of social
justice? Or solidarity with those who are suffering, the marginalised and outcast? Or of the
liberation of the poor and the oppressed? Or of reconstruction and development in a post-
colonial context? What should be done with dominant concepts in social theory that are
typically derived from Christian roots – including “social development”, “social trans-
formation”, “national reconciliation”, “social cohesion” and “sustainability”? Clearly our
choice of key concepts will make a huge difference in this regard. Since all of these
concepts have biblical roots, it requires considerable theological discernment to make use
of such concepts with wisdom and humility.
9. Conclusion: Using this document for theological reflection on a range of other issues
As indicated above, the purpose of this document is to provide a theological framework that
can guide ecclesial commissions to address particular issues such as those identified in the
introductory section above. A few reminders may be appropriate in this regard:
Firstly, this document only provides a theological framework. It helps to set the agenda for
further theological reflection. It does not provide easy guidelines or principles that could be
applied in a technical way to any given problem. It does not relieve ecclesial commissions of
the hard work of theological reflection or of social analysis. It helps us to ask the appropriate
theological questions. The question is not merely: What does the Bible say? Or: What is the
position of the church on this or that matter? Or: How does Christian faith inform us in this
– 36 –
regard? Or: What does society expect from us? Or: What social and spiritual needs do we
have to address? Or even: What does God expect from us? Instead, the task is to address all
these questions together in order to offer an integrated response, one that can take the full
complexity of theological reflection into account.
Secondly, in addressing such issues, there is a need to avoid a separation of the social and the
spiritual agenda of the church without reducing the one to the other. It has become abundantly
clear from this document that matter does matter, also in God’s eyes. Indeed, Christianity may
well be described as the most materialist of all religions. At the same time, the meaning of
matter is not self-evident. Christians find the clue to the significance of that which is material,
bodily and earthly in the triune God who created the world, who loves and sustains it, who
redeems it from the impact of sin (evil) and the roots of evil (sin) and who guides it towards
its destiny. This should preclude a reductionist view that may suggest that the world has its
origins, life and destiny in itself. To return to the example of the previous section: the
problems around monetary debt can scarcely be separated from the financial, social and legal
problems that emerge around human guilt, or from theological discussions of our guilt before
God, or from the message of the forgiveness of sins.
Thirdly, it is crucial to recognise that this document leaves much work to do for ecclesial
commissions. One reason for that is that all the particular issues mentioned in the introduction
above would require a detailed description and analysis of the issue at stake. Since such an
analysis would have to reckon with ongoing changes, this requires moral and theological
discernment that can hear God’s word for a specific place and time, that can meet God where
God is present and that can help us to grow in the knowledge of God. This is a task that can
never be completed. It has to be renewed again and again. It needs to be revitalised, every
morning anew through the presence of the Giver of Life in our midst.
Convener of the Task group: Ben du Toit
Editor: Ernst Conradie
30 May 2012
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