Systematic Theology I - Lesson 1
An introduction to theology, answering the questions of what is EST (Evangelical Systematic Theology), why study EST, and how it relates to other theological disciplines.
I. The Nature of Evangelical Systematic Theology (EST)
A. What EST Is
2. Elaboration on the Definition
a. The Subject-matter of EST
b. The Sources of EST
c. The Structure of EST
d. The Setting of EST
e. The Satisfaction of EST
B. Why Study EST?
1. Comprehensive Scriptural Vantage Point
2. Interpretive Guide
3. Religious Pluralism
4. Head, Heart, Hands, Habitat
C. EST in Relation to other Theological Disciplines
2. Biblical Studies
3. Biblical Theology
4. Systematic Theology
5. Church History/Historical Theology
9. Practice of Ministry
An introduction to theology, answering the questions of what is EST (Evangelical Systematic Theology), why study EST, and how it relates to other theological disciplines.
Introductory issues of how to do EST and the criteria for assessing theological formulations.
Issues of cultural Christianity, and the evangelical position of "contextualized normativity."
Begins with a discussion of the background to the discussion (Pelagius, Augustine, Council of Carthage, and semi-Pelagianism), and then a discussion of Luther, Calvin, Arminius, the Synod of Dort and the Five Points of Calvinism.
Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and their views of Israel and the church
A discussion of these three positions and the key figures in each (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, von Harnack; Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr; Carnell, Henry, Graham)
The beginning discussion of revelation and the specifics of General Revelation
A continuation of the discussion of revelation with an emphasis on Special Revelation, moving into the topic of Inspiration (definition and key passages).
A survey of the recent debate, defining inerrancy (including the relationship of hermeneutics and inerrancy), and its relationship to authority.
The definition of illumination, why it is necessary, and how we come to know truth. The critceria for canonicity is then discussed and why the canon is now closed (i.e., why no more books would be accepted into the Bible).
Why there is a need to know God, and "theism" (arguments as to whether there is a God or not).
Can God be known? The Doctrine of the Trinity (Scriptural basis; historical background; Monarchian heresies)
Continuation of the discussion of the Trinity and the church's rejection of Monarchianism
Beginning of the discussion of the attributes of God's character, and how the discussion is organized.
The related doctrines of God's self-sufficiency and his love. (The lecture begins in the middle of a sentence but not much content is missing. Point V., subpoints 1 and 2 were covered in lecture 14. See Outline tab.)
God's incommunicable attributes are those that he does not share with us: self-existence; self-sufficiency; infinity; omnipresence; eternity
Completes the discussion of God's incommunicable attributes by discussing immutability, the doctrine that God does not change.
Discussion of those attributes of God's character that he shares (to some degee) with his creation, beginning with his intellectual attributes (omniscience).
A continuing discussion of God communicable attributes, both intellectual (Omnisapience; truth) and moral (goodness; love).
Continuation of the discussion of God's communicable moral attributes (love, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness, justice) and the attributes of God's rulership (freedom; omnipotence).
The Scriptural teaching and issues related to this central question
Hyper-Calvinism, Process Theology, Arminianism, and Calvinism
Concluding discussion on Calvinism
An introduction to the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of humanity's origin (Adam and Eve)
Theories on the structure of the human soul (Monism, Dichotomy, Trichotomy) and the transmission of the soul (Creationism, Traducianism).
Sin is one of the most foundational and significant topics in Scripture. The doctrines of salvation and sanctification are meaningless without an accurate understanding of sin. The Old Testament teaches both the personal and corporate aspects of sin. New Testament teachings include the essence of sin and total depravity.
The facets of the Fall, theories of Original Sin, and God's triumph over sin
What value is there to attempt to know the unknowable or to try to understand someone that, by their own description, is beyond our understanding?
Even though we cannot know everything there is to know about God, there are some things you can know because he has revealed them to you. You can develop a systematic theology as you contemplate what you experience in nature, what you can read in the Bible and what you can know from history. This will give you insights into who God is, how you can have a relationship with him, and how you will live your life differently. Dr. Ware begins by giving you a systematic theology definition and explains systematic theology teachings and concepts that you will find in systematic theology books. He also helps you to learn both the inductive and deductive approaches in assessing various criteria so you can determine for yourself the validity of any theological position.
Some of the first lectures in Dr. Ware’s Systematic Theology I give you the core theological positions of major movements like Calvinism, Arminianism, Covenant, Liberalism and Neo Orthodoxy and help you compare and contrast their different perspectives. Also, since the Bible is the primary source for determining your systematic theology, Dr. Ware defines and explains key terms like inspiration, revelation, inerrancy, illumination and canonicity. God’s existence and attributes make up a major part of this class. The final lectures in Systematic Theology I focus on what the Bible teaches us about humans and sin.
The study of systematic theology is a mixture of science, art and faith. Join Dr. Ware as he leads you in understanding the core teachings of Scripture in a way that help you articulate your systematic theology, deepen your relationship with God and live out your life as a changed person.
This is the first of a two semester class on systematic theology. We recommend the book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem as a companion book for this class. Dr. Grudem also wrote an abridged version entitled Bible Doctrines that includes discussion questions that are helpful for using in a small group/classroom situation.
We start this course with a section on theological prolegomena, which is a fancy way of saying that we want to start with introductory matters. Prolegomena (words that precede, issues or topics that are introductory to a subject) is not a theological term per se, but it is a term that is used of those areas of theology that have to do with introductory matters. As you can see from the outline, the main areas that are talked about in theological prolegomena are:
1. The Nature of Theology
2. The Method of Theology
3. Cultural Contextualization (How do you do theology in a way that is aware of or sensitive to various cultures in which theology may be formulated?)
Those are the three main areas we will be looking at as we talk about prolegomena.
The Nature of Evangelical Systematic Theology (EST)
What EST Is
Evangelical Systematic Theology: The comprehensive study and coherent organization of what can be known primarily from Scripture (that is theology’s only final and ultimate authoritative source) and secondarily from any and all other relevant sources, about God and his relation to the created universe, in a manner that is understandable and applicable to contemporary audiences, to the end that God’s people are strengthened and satisfied in him to the praise and Glory of his name.
This is a long definition. I looked at several dictionaries and encyclopedias of theology, several theology texts, and tried to put together one that is both my definition and one that is representative of the evangelical tradition. Read the definition slowly and carefully so that you better grasp what the definition is.
Elaboration on the Definition
The Subject-matter of EST
Look at the definition and answer this question, what is the subject matter of theology? What is theology about? Theology is about God and his relation to the created universe. This is an important point that I want us to spend just a moment on. I think of all theology in this way. Think of a wheel with an axis in the middle, and the axis is God. From this axis a whole lot spokes come off, and they are all connected together at the center point. These are all the other areas of theology. Think of it. You are in a theology class, and yet we are going to talk about Christology at some point. We are going to talk about the doctrine of Scripture. But theology (theos logos) is the study of God. Why is it you take a class on the Holy Spirit, and you call it a theology class, a study of God class? Why is it you take course on eschatology (last things) and call it a theology class? All of these other areas are what they are because they are in some way connected to either God’s person or his work. All of theology is about God and his relationship to the created universe. So the center of theology is the doctrine of God. Everything else is connected to that and flows from that.
The doctrine of the church is so connected to who God is and what his purposes are. It is connected to his saving purposes, his design for his people, what he wants to bring about in their lives, and what mechanisms he uses to accomplish that. The doctrine of the church has everything to do with God and his works in Christ, by the Spirit, in his people, how he accomplishes that, and what the end is for it. It is about God; it is all about God.
The study of human nature is about God. The study of anthropological theology is a theology class. When we study about who we are, we are looking at a reflection of God as he has made man in his image. We understand God in his relationship to us as we better understand human nature as he created it be, what happened to us because of sin, what he has done in Christ to bring us back, and how life ought to be lived to his glory. All of this is connected to God and his work among us. So his person and work encompasses the whole of theology.
That is why when you study the doctrine of God, it is called theology proper. All other courses are theology courses, or theological areas of study, but this one is theology proper. It is the study of God per se (directly), his nature, his Trinitarian being, his attributes, etc. So theology’s subject matter is about God and his relation to the created universe.
The Sources of EST
Where does Evangelical Systematic Theology derive its information from in which to talk about God and his relation to the created universe? Is it Scripture only, according to the definition? No, it says, “primarily from Scripture (that is theology’s only final and ultimate authoritative source) and secondarily from any and all other relevant sources.” Some of you might think, “Wait a minute, I thought Scripture was the only source for theology? Don’t we in the Reformation tradition hold to Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone?” We do, but what does that mean? What did it mean for Calvin? Think of Calvin’s Institutes. Did Calvin only and always appeal just to Scripture in developing his theological understandings? It is a resounding no. He was well versed in theologians of the church who had preceded him. He quoted Augustine more than any other, and Luther did likewise. So here are these founders of the Reformation who upheld Sola Scriptura, but they certainly appealed to more than the Bible in doing their theological formulation.
So what does, Sola Scriptura mean? It means that theology and the church recognize the Bible as its only final, ultimate, non-negotiable, unquestionable, inerrant, certain word from which we derive our theological understanding. Let’s be careful when we talk about Sola Scriptura. Why are you in a class, if you believe that Sola Scriptura means the only thing you should have is the Bible as the instructor for you? Why would God give teachers to the church if the only thing is the Bible? That means here I am teaching you. You could read a book by Millard Erickson or Wayne Grudem. They are teaching you. You could read Calvin, Edwards or Luther. You could read these people; you are learning from them, and they are teaching you, but none of those sources, myself included (maybe myself mostly) would be ultimate. There is only one in your life, in the life of the church, and in the life of Christian people, that is ultimate. If what I teach conflicts with the teaching of the Bible, you take the Bible. And that is true for any other source from which you would gain insight or understanding or ways of comprehending theological truth. The Bible is the only final, ultimate source for theology.
Are there other sources? Yes. Take the example of Calvin; he referred to other theologians who preceded him. He was interacting with their understandings. He talked about the Trinity as Augustine developed the Trinity, using Augustinian terminology for persons of the Trinity. Where do you find three persons in the Bible? You don’t. So historical sources are one of the great benefits of studying church history. Yes, the people, the institutions, the events, the dates are of great interest, but to theology, what is most critically important is the theological development that happened in historical progression. The church faces another tough issue, struggles with it, goes to the text and works on trying to understand, as best they can, what the Bible is teaching on this issue. They come to a conclusion that Jesus is both God and man. Do we learn something; are we helped and assisted in our Christology by looking at what happened at Nicea and what happened at Constantinople? The answer is yes. Now, having been helped by that, do we then bow to the Nicene Creed saying the Nicene Creed is the ultimate and final authority for our Christology in the church? No, we don’t. This Book is our final and ultimate authority. If the Nicene Creed happens to get it wrong, so be it. We go with the Bible. I would like to see you demonstrate this, however, when you stand in a position of questioning what the church has held for 2,000 years. You better have some good evidence that everyone else got it wrong and you are getting it right.
This is one of the things that just astonishes me about open theism. There is a sort of chutzpah of a group of contemporary theologians to announce to the church that for 2,000 years they have all gotten it wrong in terms of God’s foreknowledge. It is astonishing (not that the claim is illegitimate) to make a claim like that. For example, my good friend Wayne Grudem wrote an article in JETs several years ago (it may be in his theology text also, but I can’t remember) where he called into question the part of the Apostles’ Creed that says, “He descended into Hades.” We read the Apostles’ Creed several weeks ago, and I noticed that phrase was missing. I was glad it was missing because I don’t think it was true. Whenever I cite the Apostle’s Creed, I just shut up on that phrase, “He descended into Hell.” I don’t think it is a biblical doctrine. Wayne Grudem wrote this article arguing that it is not a biblical doctrine. I agree with that; I don’t think it is.
So here is a case in point where, yes, there is great respect for the Apostles’ Creed, great respect for the Nicene Creed, and great respect for historical formulations, but the Bible is our only final, ultimate authority. It doesn’t mean that we don’t benefit greatly from other things that have preceded. We probably would have never thought of these things had we not depended on the hard labors of those who preceded us. But nonetheless, we still bow and yield to Scripture on it.
What other sources, besides church history (that’s the only one we have talked about here) come to mind when we think of how theology has benefited from other sources that have helped in its formulation?
Look at the heavens and behold the greatness, the majesty, the wisdom and the power of God manifest in creation. If I could do a zillion things in life, one of the things I wish I could do is be a physicist (I think I have got to have a much better brain than the one I have to do this). Physics is fascinating because of how much it demonstrates the intricacy, the magnitude, and the vastness of this universe. It is incredible; it is mind-boggling. Does general revelation assists in our comprehension of God, his work, and his relationship to people? Yes, it does so in ways that strict propositions couldn’t get across in the same way. You can read in the Bible words that describe the wisdom of God and words that describe the power of God. Then you go outside and look at a starry night. If you know what you are looking at, you marvel at the power and wisdom. The sun emits energy in every second to provide for the current energy needs of this world at this moment multiplied by a billion times - every second. That is just one average-sized star in the Milky Way galaxy, of which there are about ten billion stars. That is just our neighborhood. That is just around the corner, our block, this Milky Way galaxy. And then, across town, there are billions of other galaxies. They don’t know how many there are; they keep finding more. It is just beyond our comprehension the vastness, the magnitude of God’s power and wisdom manifest in creation. It is remarkable.
You can go big or you can go little. Look at systems, a cell. A cell is so complex. I have read articles that describe what goes on in every cell of your body, likening it to the major systems that enable a large city to operate, with its provision systems (its electricity and water supplies), with its waste disposal systems and with its intricate freeway systems. All of that is in a cell.
Does general revelation help us to understand something about God? Yes!
Human Nature (the way we are)
There is a sense in which the study of who we are helps to better understand who God is. One thing we learn is about God as a moral law-giver because he has written the law upon our hearts (we will talk more about that later; it is a very interesting conception and something to come to terms with). To study human nature before Feud and Skinner, there were the Puritans. The Puritans were insightful, careful students of human nature. If you don’t believe it, read. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks. You will marvel at the insight into your soul and human nature in that book. This Puritan obviously spent hours analyzing how he works, how temptation gets him and what God has provided to fight it.
We would not have the whole discussion of incarnation and Trinity and hypostatic union if we had not had Greek philosophy to give us terminology and conceptions to work with. Then the question is, do they reflect what the Bible teaches? That is an open question. But I would stand with the orthodox tradition and say, yes, three persons one nature is a very apt way of describing what the Bible teaches about Father, Son and Holy Spirit (we will come to that later). You don’t find three persons, one nature in the Bible. Where do we get these personae, ousia, hypostasy conceptions? Philosophy helped to provide ways of thinking. It is like tools to work with. Take these truths and see if they make sense given that understanding.
The only ultimate final source is the Bible, but many other things contribute in shaping theology.
The Structure of EST
What is the shape of Evangelical Systematic Theology? How is it packaged, when it is done? Right at the beginning of the definition it says, “Evangelical theology is the comprehensive study and coherent organization.” It is systematic theology. It is coherent; it attempts to take the teaching of the Bible and ask, what does the Bible say about... fill in the blank. What does the Bible say about sin? What does the Bible say about Christ? What does the Bible say about human nature? What does the Bible say about the Holy Spirit? You fill in the blank, and systematic theology attempts to take from Scripture (and other sources and other sources which might help in formulating this) everything that is taught there and put it in a whole coherent statement. This is what the Bible teaches about sin or about Christ and organize that in ways that you wouldn’t find if you just read from Genesis to Revelation because the books of the Bible have a different purpose than this. They are meant to teach discretely in particular contexts. We have a whole Bible, and we take it as a whole and look for all of its teachings that relate to different things, sensitive to the context of each of those passages. However, we want to avoid proof-texting (I will tell more about that in a bit). We want to be faithful to what those texts say in their context, but nonetheless, we want to put them together. I don’t know what people are thinking who say things like, “Well you know, I just want to know what the Bible teaches in each passage on its own, and I don’t even think or worry about if one passage fits with another.” I have heard people say things like, “When I am in this passage I am a Calvinist, when I am in this passage I am an Arminian.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Do you think God, who inspired all of it, speaks out of two sides of his mouth? And sometimes it gets linked to authors; James says this but Paul says this. As if they can conflict with each other. The problem with these views is that we believe there is one Author ultimately responsible for the whole book, all 66 put together. This is one mind. You have to ask the question, does God contradict Himself? Does God have coherent view of truth? Maybe God is Ying and Yang, good and evil, light and darkness. Maybe there are internal contradictions in God. Do you realize that if you hold this view, it altogether undercuts Christian theism? We believe that God is good, not evil. He is truth not error. The law of non-contradiction is a universal law. People who deny it, by their denial affirm it. If they say, “You are wrong in believing the law of non-contradiction I am right.” Both cannot be right. That is the law of non-contradiction. Something cannot be both “A” and not “A” at the same time and in the same way. So God is a God who is light and not darkness, truth and not error, good and not evil. The law of non-contradiction is human nature, which is simply a reflection of imago Dei. It is a reflection of God’s own nature imprinted on the human mind, the human soul.
Remember this book is all by God; he is the author; he gets top billing on it. Yes, it is Paul’s letter to the Romans, but it is God who wrote through Paul to the Romans and every book of the Bible. So we have to ask the question of how do all of these things contribute to our understanding of various doctrines. They cohere. Maybe we struggle with how they cohere; that is fine, but they do cohere in the mind of God.
Coherence also means that when we present theology, we think deliberately about what ought to go first, second, third, etc. For example, we talk about the doctrine of sin before we talk about the doctrine of salvation. That makes sense. Just to give you an obvious sort of example. A coherent theology is one that attempts to build, to provide what is needed to build the next step and go beyond it. It takes Scripture’s teaching and it builds a coherent system from it.
The Setting of EST Setting
Where is Evangelical Systematic Theology to be done or presented, according to this definition? It is to be formulated in this coherent way in a manner that is understandable and applicable to contemporary audiences.
All of theology is contextual. It seeks to understand the context to which it is presented, the context in which it is understood and believed. Say you are teaching a first grade Sunday school class and you want to teach some doctrines to them (which is an awfully good thing to do). I started with my girls when they were two years old in bed at the end of the day. I went through all of these doctrines: the Trinity, the two natures of Christ and the doctrine of sin and salvation when they were just tiny little girls. And they loved it. I learned early as a parent that generally children don’t like to go to sleep, so if go to their bed and spend 15- 20 minutes with them, you will have their undivided attention. Which is unlike other times in the day, perhaps. If you serve in another culture, you have to think in terms of not just the language, but what are the metaphors, the analogies, the illustrations, and the ways that I can convey these truths in that particular culture.
It has to be understandable and applicable in those cultures. Context-oriented. Not context-determined.
The Satisfaction of EST
This is the last phrase in the definition: “To the end that God’s people are strengthened and satisfied in him to the praise and Glory of his name.” This is my attempt to put into this definition this marvelous principle that many of you know because of the ministry of John Piper who has made this gloriously known to so much of the Christian church. God is glorified most in us when we are satisfied most in him. The end of theology is that all truth that we embrace is truth that finds its ultimate purpose fulfilled in the dual (and they go together) joyous satisfaction of God’s people and the resultant glorification of God who is exalted in this theology. So God is glorified most in us when we are satisfied most in him. This is the goal.
I don’t know what God would say exactly (I have a pretty fair idea) about a person who took a theology course, went through all of this study and had a hard heart toward God or was not moved toward a greater sense of awe and wonder. What would God say to a person who did not sense more deeply his or her sin and utter inadequacy before this God, who did not revel in the promises of God and have hope for the future. To learn this truth intellectually but not be satisfied, strengthened by it and moved by it, is tragic and probably worse than that from God’s vantage point. Maybe it is idolatrous or a perversion of what that truth is meant to be.
So that is the end, the goal: to find ourselves so satisfied and strengthened in him, that he is glorified through it.
Why Study EST?
Comprehensive Scriptural Vantage Point
Remember that I mentioned that all of the Bible is God’s word, so what theology attempts to do is to gather from all of the Bible what it teaches about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation, and the church. When all you ever do is look at what a particular book says about God, Christ, etc., if all you do is focus on what is taught in this book and then go to another book and look at what is taught in that book, then you have all of these discrete units out there (like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle). You have learned all of these things from the book of the Bible, but what you haven’t done is put the puzzle together. What systematic theology enables and demands is the putting of the pieces together to have the vantage point of the whole.
Another analogy might be if you have been driving out in the country and you see a sign that tells you there is a lookout ahead, that is, a vantage point. So you pull over, get out of the car, get your camera and get a picture of this beautiful valley stretched out before you. It is the vantage point where you can see the whole. If you looked very carefully and saw down in that valley a trail with people walking on it, they would see certain things up close that you couldn’t see, but you would have the broad perspective on the whole that they could not have. So there is a sense in which walking the trail and looking at all of the details on the way of the trail is like biblical exegesis. You are very careful to observe all the details of the text, as you are working through it. Theology says, lets take all of that, put it together and see the big picture that we gain.
One of the tremendous benefits of seeing the big picture is the big picture is powerful. It is awesome. The difference would be looking at a star-lit night through a straw and then you then you take the straw away and look at the whole thing. What theology allows for is the power, the magnificence, the beauty, the glory, the sweeping truths of Scripture about God, about Christ, about the Holy Spirit, about sin, about human nature, about his promises for the end of the age, all of these things to be put together holistically.
This is a tricky point because it can be misunderstood and misapplied. Theology functions as a guide or as a boundary marker for what are legitimate and illegitimate interpretations of texts that you come across in the Bible, texts that you are interpreting in various books. It is very helpful to know, as you are interpreting the Bible, whether an interpretation you are considering is inside or outside the bounds of evangelicalism, outside or inside the bounds of the Baptist convention or whatever the case might be.
As you interpret the Bible it is helpful to be aware that not every interpretation will fit a particular theological model. Please do not hear me to be saying, always interpret the Bible in the way that fits Baptist belief. I am not saying that because theology functions as an interpretive guide, that the guide ought to determine your interpretation. I am not saying that. I am saying that to not know theology is to interpret naively. It is to be a naive reader and interpreter of Scripture and not have a clue that you are actually interpreting the passage. When Jesus said, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28) and I think that means that Jesus was less in his nature than the Father, then that interpretation of the text is outside of orthodoxy. By interpreting that passage in that way, you are lining up with the heretic Arius. If you insist that is the interpretation, you know what you are doing in the process, and you realize that you are holding a view that has been judged by the church to be heretical. What a shame to be a Bible reader and not even know! This happens in our churches a lot. Every now and then when I teach adult Sunday school classes, I will give a theological quiz just to find out where people are. I have been amazed over the years at how many lay people are Pelagian. Pelagius held a view that we are by nature good people. We do not inherit the sin of Adam. We are born into this word with innocent, sinless natures and we only become sinners when we sin. So I asked a question for a Sunday school class, “Do we become sinners when we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners?” In one class, about 80% of the class answered, “We become sinners when we sin.” That understanding is outside the orthodox tradition, and you are, in fact, a Pelagian who was judged to be a heretic by the church. Isn’t it better to know what you are doing when you are reading the Bible and coming to these understandings?
Here is where the great caution comes in. Yes, theology does act as an interpretative guide. You are a savvy Bible reader. So when you interpret this passage and you realize, I am lining up as Presbyterian, I am lining up a Lutheran, I am lining up with Baptist feelings, you know what you are doing. Where the problem comes in is when your theological system is so dominant that you force passages to say what your system demands they say. I urge all of us (myself included) that we take to heart Sola Scriptura. We believe and practice the view that the Bible alone is the ultimate source and authority for our beliefs. If we come to the conviction that the Bible really does teach some view, some teaching, that is contrary to the theological position that we have been holding, then we need to move slowly, and don’t be rash. If you are convinced after careful diligent prolonged study that is the case, then you must readjust your theology to fit the text. Don’t read just the text to fit your theology. You will find that many of the positions that I hold are modified; they are modified versions of other things. Why are they modified? They are modified because I have not been convinced that, as stated, a position lines up with the text as I understand it. So I hold a very odd view on the question of the extent of the atonement, but hardly anyone out there holds it. Let me explain it to you. I hold this view because I am not convinced by limited atonement in the Reformed Tradition. I am also not clearly lining up with the unlimited view of the Arminian tradition. I think that in both cases there are problems with texts, so what do you do? You attempt to rethink. It is hard and fun. One of the greatest delights of theology is rethinking how this might be conceived of in light of these biblical texts. How do we make better sense of these biblical texts? How do we make better sense of this teaching of Scripture so that it all comes together and makes sense.
Theology is an interpretive guide, but it ought not be an interpretative determinant. It ought not be an interpretative constraint.
We live in a culture in which there are so many competing religious truth claims out there. Many people are trying to convince us that there are really not competing truth claims, but that there are just different facets of the same unified monistic view of ultimate reality. This is kind of a John Hicks pluralist view. You should read Harold Netlands new book that he wrote on religious pluralism. It is a great book Intervarsity just published and you will see that this is the case. In fact, there are competing religious claims in Buddhism, in Hinduism, in Islam and in Christianity. Consider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, the Christian doctrine of the atonement, and the Christian doctrine of salvation by faith in Christ alone by faith alone. These are distinctive doctrines that are contradicted in other religions of the world. They both can’t be true. These are mutually exclusive sets of truth claims.
What we have to do as Christian people is, number one, be very clear headed about what we believe. You are going into a market place of ideas, and if you are not clear about what you believe, what will be the tendency? What will be the most natural thing to happen to your understanding of Christian faith if you are not clear about it and you encounter all of these other ideas? There is a fancy word for this: syncretism. A blend begins to take place. It is neither grape juice, nor apple juice; it is grapple juice. You get this blend of so-called Christianity. And the blend takes place because you are not clear. You do not have clear understanding, or clear convictions. So Jesus becomes a savior along with others. He is a good moral teacher. This is not Christianity. This is some kind of blend of aspects of the Christian faith with some other views.
You have to be clear on what you believe and why you believe it, what your convictions are. You must be aware of the other views out there so there can be meaningful interchange between you and other advocates, other religious views. In this cultural context, the proliferation of religious views, it is all the more important for Christian people to be clear headed about what and why they believe what they do and be able to present it in a way that has integrity, truthfulness, and grace to their community.
Head, Heart, Hands, Habitat
There is a progression, which is the norm, in terms of how God expects his truth to make an impact. What does he want his truth to do? “My word will not return void” (Isa. 55:11). Its entrance point into us is our heads. You can’t feel deeply about something you don’t know for good or ill. Suppose I said to you right now, “I want you to engender warm, loving, fond feelings toward ‘blick.’” Go ahead; do it. Really generate warm feelings about this and how wonderful it is. You can’t do that because you don’t have a cotton-pickin’ idea of what “blick” is, and neither do I. Instead, if I had said, “rose,” think of “a rose.” It is easy to do because you know certain things about that, which you can bring to mind and allow your heart to respond to. The point is the heart responds to truth. The heart responds to knowledge.
Knowledge in itself is not the end that God has for us. It is the necessary means of impacting our hearts so that we love what we know. The more you know it, the better you know it, the more accurately you know it, the greater the possibility there is for your heart to grasp with greater passion, excitement, and zeal what that truth is. It is meant to move from head to heart.
Then it moves to hands. We act out that which we care most about. This is the way we live. Why do you make the choices you do about what you do in your life, how you spend your money and how you spend your time. We act out what our hearts ultimately love. Jonathan Edwards in his book, Religious Affections, makes one of his most valuable contributions. He disputed a notion that was very popular in his day, that we act according to what we think is right. He said, no, we act out, and we do what we feel most. What has to happen is affections need to be changed, and then actions are the by-product. You will change your way of living when you are convinced in your heart that this is what you want.
When your hands act differently, your surrounding environment is affected. You are a person active in your environment. The truth is meant to enter us through our minds, correct misunderstandings, fill our heart with passion, and work itself out naturally (not hypocritically or in a forced way, but living it out). Our mouths speak from out of our hearts. We do what we love, and we avoid doing what we hate. In the acting out of the truth of God, the love of God, the grace of God, and the holiness of God, we make a difference in the society we live in, in the ways which God directs.
Ultimately, why study theology? There are great reasons for doing this. Ultimately, it because this is how God intends us to live as his people.
What is pluralism? Pluralism is understood in two ways. Pluralism, in a sense has always been the case. There have been a variety of religious views. You go back to Acts 17, and Paul walks through the city of Athens and saying, “I observe that you are very religious in all respects. While I was walking through your streets, I saw these idols” (Acts 17:22,23). First century Athens was incredibly pluralistic, sometimes called descriptive pluralism. It just is a fact. Descriptively true; there are all of these religions out there. But there is another kind of pluralism that marks our times uniquely. It has never quite been like this until the last 20 years or so. It is what some are calling prescriptive pluralism. That is, there cannot be any one right claim to religious truth. There can only be this variety of religious claims, all of which are equally true. That is prescriptive pluralism. This is one our biggest challenges today. Dr Mohler in discussion with Donahue on the Donahue show is really instructive. One thing you see on the tape is how intensely disdainful secular relativists are to the exclusive claims of the Christian Faith. Dr. Mohler said, “Jesus is the only way,” and Phil Donahue looked over to him on the video screen and he said to him, “That is so arrogant. So, you are telling me that you are above me; you are right and I am wrong; you’ve got the truth I don’t. That’s arrogant. You put yourself above everybody.” There you have it in a nutshell, folks. There you have the secularist mind, the relativist mind. This is prescriptive pluralism. In the good old days, it was descriptive pluralism, where competing truth claims, argued their case for this truth being true as opposed to this claim being false. But now, that is not permitted anymore; there is no arguing for the ultimate truth of one view over another because everyone is right, and nobody is wrong. Of course, the only people who are wrong are exclusivists.
EST in Relation to other Theological Disciplines
The most basic discipline for theological studies is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics are the principles for interpreting literature. The term hermeneutics is another non-theological term. (I was an English major in college and had a course in hermeneutics as an English major). It is principles of interpreting various genres, various literature. So you treat poetry in the way poetry ought to be treated. You treat history in the way history ought to be treated. You treat conversational language in the way that conversational language ought to be treated. You understand what the meaning is according to its genre and context. That is essentially what hermeneutics is. The Bible, as you know, is made up of 66 books with a rich variety of genres. There are all kinds of different literature in here, from apocalyptic to narrative to poetry of different kinds than what we are use to (it doesn’t rhyme at the end and there are different kinds of parallelism in Hebrew poetry). All of these are different kinds of genre. Hermeneutics help you to understand how to interpret the meaning of texts as they are intended by the authors. The reason this is basic is because, by the definition, what is the only final and ultimate authority for the church? The Bible. So in order to do biblical studies correctly, we have to approach the Bible and read it right. We have to get the meaning correct. So hermeneutics is necessary for interpreting Scripture correctly.
Biblical studies depends upon hermeneutics. Whether it is Old Testament studies or New Testament studies, it includes moving from English Bible study to also language-based study. You learn the language, the grammar, the syntax, you are able to notice endings, forms of words in doing exegesis, and it is all part of biblical studies. All the language acquisition does is to allow you to be a more precise careful interpreter of the Bible. For examples, you realize a word is a perfect tense. It is not an aorist; it is not a present; it is a perfect. So what does that mean in this context? Being able to observe the grammatical and syntactical structures of the text makes you a better interpreter, or at least allows for that possibility. Biblical studies allows you to get at the meaning of the text.
Biblical theology is the first level of a synthetic understanding of biblical teaching. Before theology, Biblical studies is predominately analytic. It analyzes texts, so that you read passages, you exegete passages, and you work through trying to follow the flow of passages. You analyze the meaning of texts in their contexts. Biblical theology is the first level of synthesis. You take a particular genre, for example, the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and ask, “What are the main theological themes taught in the wisdom literature?” To do that, you are doing Biblical theology. It is synthetic because you are not asking, “How does David develop his line of thought in this Psalm? You are not working through a text. You are asking, “What are the main theological themes and how are they developed in the wisdom literature? So you look at Job, you look at Psalms, you look at Proverbs, you look at these wisdom books and ask, “What are the main themes that you find there? I notice that this concept of the fear of the Lord keeps coming up. What might that mean in the wisdom literature? So then, you look at all the places where fear of the Lord is used, you analyze how they are used in their context, and then you synthesize. You make generalized statements about what the fear of the Lord means in the wisdom literature. That is just one example of genre. It could be apocalyptic literature, or it could be narrative literature. Biblical theology can be focused on different genres.
Other than genre, one of the other main ways biblical theology is done isby authorship. A Pauline theology, as Dr Schreiner has recently written, is a Biblical theology. It seeks to answer the question, “What are the main theological themes emphasized by Paul in his letters?” The answer to that question may be different than, “What are the main theological themes developed by Peter in his letters or Luke in his letters or Isaiah in his book or Moses in the Pentateuch?” The emphasis on the themes of an author focuses on how a particular biblical author makes his point. Why is it that you find such emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writings in Galatians and Corinthians, and there is there little of it in Peter by comparison? It is not that Peter doesn’t believe in the Holy Spirit; he has other things he emphasizes. Allow Paul to be Paul and allow Peter to be Peter. But when you are done writing your theology of Paul’s letters and your theology of Peter’s letters, these are not going to contradict each other nor will they be identical either because they have different emphases. It is similar to the four Gospels; they are not identical Gospels, and they have different emphases in them. You could write a theology of Matthew that would be different from a theology of Mark. They are not going to contradict each other if they are done right. Remember there is ultimately one author behind both, God; but he is working through the individual interests and emphases of each author.
Systematic theology builds on Biblical theology. Now the endeavor is to take all of the Bible¬¬ (Paul, Peter, John, Luke, the whole works) and ask the question, “What does the Bible teach about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit?” It attempts to bring everything together relying on the work of Biblical studies, and Biblical theology.
Church History/Historical Theology
Where does church history fit into this? I don’t put it into the foundation of theological formation. I rather put it over to the side. It functions in the role of assisting theology in thinking carefully, and in formulating carefully, but it doesn’t provide in the same way as the Bible does. In a sense, historical theology is the key discipline as it is different form church history. Church history is history about the church. It is dates, places, times, institutions, and events. Historical theology is theology. It is theology as it was developed historically. How did Christology come about? How did the church’s understanding of the two natures of Christ come about? You look back and see how historically theology developed. This is a tremendous value to our study of theology.
Apologetics seeks to answer the question, “Why do we believe what we believe?” Systematic theology answers the question, “What do we believe?” Theology answers the what question. Apologetics answers the why question. You go into the world and confront people, and you believe Christ is the only way; why would you believe that? You believe that the Bible is the Word of God; why would you believe that? You believe that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth; why would you believe that? In light of evolution, why do you believe in creation? When theology goes public, it faces questions. Apologetics is the discipline that seeks to answer the why question regarding doctrines of the faith that are stated in systematic theology.
Additionally, when theology goes public it encounters issues that have to be faced and answered by thoughtful people. What about sexual behavior? Does it matter if you sleep around or not? Heterosexuality, homosexuality, so what? Is there actually a norm by which people’s behavior is judged to be right or wrong? What about bioethics? What about reproductive technology? All of these questions are raised by the culture and have to be answered by theology. We can bring theological insight and understanding to these questions of the day.
Another thing that happens when theology goes public is that it shares its understanding of the gospel of Christ with people who don’t know what that is and need desperately to hear it. So missions and evangelism is the result.
Practice of Ministry
As you can see, theology is the centerpiece. All throughout church history it was understood as the queen of the sciences. It is, in one sense, the result of all biblical studies. It is the capstone of the theological studies disciplines, and it is the platform for ministry in the world.
Blessings on you.