Systematic Theology I - Lesson 3

Cultural Contextualization; Theological Systems

Issues of cultural Christianity, and the evangelical position of "contextualized normativity."

Bruce Ware
Systematic Theology I
Lesson 3
Watching Now
Cultural Contextualization; Theological Systems

Theological Prolegomena

Part 3

III. Cultural Contextualization and Trans cultural Normativity in Theology

A. The Issue

B. Two Extremes to be Avoided in an Evangelical Theology

1. “Cultural Christianity”

2. “Non-cultural Christianity”

C. An Evangelical Position: "Contextualized Normativity"

  • 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. 

III. Cultural Contextualization and Transcultural Normativity in Theology

A. The Issue


Cultural contextualization and transcultural normativity is clearly one of the major issues of our day; it has been for quite some time. It is not just unique to us right now, but for the past 30 or 40 years it has been clear that it is one of the looming questions that theologians face in doing their work of proposing doctrines for the church, formulating understandings for Christian communities, and the like. The big issues is the extent in which a given culture’s worldview affects and should affect how theology is formulated within and for that culture.

What is worldview?
A worldview is a given culture’s values, institutions, ethical commitments, life situations, and felt needs. All these things that comprise how a people interpret the world they live in is a worldview.

A culture’s worldview, their values, their shared experiences, their symbols, institutions and the like, affects and should affect how theology is formulated within and for that culture. Notice I say, “affects and should affect.” There is a broad, uniform understanding today that it is a given that culture does affect the formulating of theology. I don’t know if you share that view, but this is by far and away the common view that is held by intellectuals: in regards to formulating any kind of ideas, the culture affects how we do these things. I think that I would stand with the majority view on this point. It is unavoidable that culture is going to affect how theology is formulated at some level. To give you the most obvious example, speaking English. The Bible is written in Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. So there has to be some kind of cultural linguistic adaptation of biblical texts, in order to communicate them to another culture. Is this an example of how culture affects how theology is formulated? Absolutely, language is a big thing; if it weren’t such a big thing, if there was this one-to-one correspondence between terms, we wouldn’t have to bother learning Greek and Hebrew to know the English equivalent. So clearly some kind of translation takes place in just using a different language, but it is much more than just the language. It is using illustrations, and tapping into people’s core centers of values. To bridge that gulf between you and listener, you try to use things that are understandable. Where do those things come from? They come from their stock of common experience, and shared understanding in the culture. There is a level at which it is impossible for theology to be formulated in an “acultural” way. Imagine what that would be--a totally non-cultural theological formulation. The first question you have to ask is, “What language is this in?” If it is in a language, that language is rooted in a culture; then you have not succeeded in an “acultural” theological formulation.

At one level, we understand that all theology is affected by culture and worldview. My statement goes on to say, “and should affect.” This is not the descriptive question but the prescriptive question. The prescriptive question is the one that is most difficult for thoughtful Christian people to grasp and grapple with today. To what extent should a given culture’s worldview affect the way in which theology is formulated? This is what the issue is really about, this prescriptive question. What ought culture’s impact be in the formulation of theology? At what level should culture have input, and at what level should it not have input in theological formulation? I will give you some other questions to flesh this out a bit, other ways to state what this issue is. Is there a legitimate place for cultural input into theological formulation? If so, does this input only relate to the form in which theology is presented or also to the substance of theology itself? Is theology best understood as essentially transcultural (hence the title of this, “Transcultural Normativity”), in its content, or is its content determined, and radically shaped by the culture out of which it arises? Can one rightly attempt to produce a theology reflecting “Transcultural Normativity”?

Let me explain the term, “Transcultural Normativity.” Normative is the norm, the standard, what is viewed as correct or the norm for a society. Can theology rightly be understood as conveying a norm- a standard, what is right- that is transcultural? No matter what culture it goes to, it prescribes a norm for that culture, whether that culture understands it or not, whether that culture accepts it or not, whether that culture likes it or not. It is, nonetheless, a transcultural norm that comes to that culture. Can theology do this? Or is theology so much a product of a culture, that nothing transcultural can be conveyed by theology? Is it so much a product of the culture that any theological statement you make, any formulation that you construct, is a cultural product that is distinctive to that culture? Hence, no transcultural normative statements are possible. These are the questions that are before us these days.

B. Two Extremes to be Avoided in an Evangelical Theology

1. “Cultural Christianity”

The term “Cultural Christianity” is not my own. I first came across this term in a little book by Donald Bloesch. (An evangelical theologian of great stature, he is now retired from his teaching at Dubuque Seminary and is really a very fine evangelical scholar and theologian, a bit more Barthian than I would like personally and perhaps he doesn’t hold the same views that we do here at Southern on everything but certainly a friend in most ways.) He wrote Crumbling Foundations, and in it he uses this term “Cultural Christianity.” Here is what Bloesch and others who use this phrase mean by it. This is where theology is understood as the byproduct of someone’s cultural reflection upon their experience of the ultimate, of God, or of a spiritual reality. That experience they are reflecting on may be mediated by texts, like the Bible, or sacred Scriptures, but certainly there is nothing about those texts that are controlling in this process. So when theology is formulated, that theology becomes an echo or a reflex of the culture. It is giving a theological voice to prior cultural values and commitments. If you think about this, this is really scary, because what happens when “Cultural Christianity” takes place? What happens is “thus saieth the Lord” gets put in front of cultural viewpoints. So all of a sudden you have God saying what this culture says is right, or this is what must be believed, or this is what must be obeyed. Bloesch, in this little book, gives some notable examples of it. He is quite an expert on the Second World War and on religion in Germany. (He talks about that here and in his little book The Battle for the Trinity, which is mostly on feminism.) He talks about how in Nazi Germany leading up to 1940 Adolf Hitler realized he had a problem on his hands. What was the problem? He was leading a predominately Christian, Christ following nation, and he was avidly anti-Semitic. Jesus was a Jew. Hitler got a group of scholars together, who produced an addition of the New Testament, in German, that excised any hint or reference to Jesus’ Jewish lineage. So you could be a good follower of Jesus; you could be a good Christian; and you could hate Jews. This is cultural Christianity. This is, in this case, actually rewriting the Bible. It has sort of a modern sound to it, if you pick up what I mean by that. Rewrite the Bible because something in the Bible is offensive, or something in the Bible doesn’t match my culture, doesn’t match my values. So we rewrite the Bible to fit the culture’s values and then present this as the word of God.

The same kind of thing has happened with the Klu Klux Klan. Evidently the Klan is not dead. (My dad grew up in Georgia; I grew up in Spokane, Washington, so I am a Yankee. My dad grew up in Fort Valley, Georgia. He was dismissed from the Air Force at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington; met my mother and they have lived there ever since. So this Georgia boy raised his family in Spokane, Washington and taught them to eat grits and chitlins and all kinds of good southern food. I grew up quite southern actually, a long ways away from Georgia. My dad tells stories of the Klan when he was a boy, and these are not happy stories. These are wicked, vicious, hateful people who have done horrendously evil things to human beings in, in many cases, in the name of God and the Bible and justifying it from biblical texts. This is cultural Christianity. Apartheid in South Africa, I take as an example of cultural Christianity. The health and wealth movement, I take as an example of cultural Christianity. What is valued in our culture, what do we prize more than health and wealth? Think about it. Sitcoms, movies, and advertisements; think how much of the industry of the United States of America is devoted to health and wealth. What has happened, Jesus all of a sudden becomes a millionaire. This is really baffling to me how they can pull off that Jesus was rich with normal Bible-reading people. Don’t we have that little verse that says “Though he was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich?” (2 Cor. 8:9). Don’t worry about that. Somehow Jesus is a wealthy man. “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58). Well just a few little problems to work out. But health and wealth then gets advertised as the teaching of the Bible.

This is one problem. You notice what happens in this particular form. Its purpose is to give theological voice, with theological authority, with the authority of the church, with the authority of God, and the authority of clergy to values inherent in the culture.

There was a movement in the 1970's and 80's (it is not nearly as prominent now) that legitimized this as something that does happen, like Hitler’s production of this Nazi cleansed Bible with no Jewish reference to Jesus. Not only did they legitimize it, but there was a movement that championed for this theology to go forward. That was liberation theology. Liberation theology is a theology of Gutiérrez and a number of Latin American theologians who argued that since it is the case, that since it is descriptively true that theology is the by-product of culture (they took that as their given, the kind of thing that happened in Hitler’s Germany, the kind of thing that happen with the Klan), because that is the case, everything depends on your starting point. So you would have to start with, as Gutiérrez would argue with his theology of liberation, a preferential option for the poor. Unless you start there, you won’t end up with a theology that serves the purposes of the poor. You cannot do theology as a northern, white, middle-class male, particularly. A white northern, middle-class female wouldn’t work either. You couldn’t produce theology the way it needs to be done because theology has to help the poor and it will not help the poor unless you start in the context of the poor. As you analyze this, you realize what happens in liberation theology is the way that the poor are helped happens to be through a Marxist ideology. So Marxism gets introduced as the actual mechanism that gives theological voice to help the poor. So they rise up against their oppressor. They read the Exodus story in the most amazing way, as one of oppressed people who rise up against their oppressors and bring them to destruction, in some cases using violent revolution to bring this about, in order to produce a society of peace and harmony. That is the theology that will assist the poor. According to liberation theologians, it has to start here.

If you go this route, there is no such thing any longer as transcultural normative theology. It is gone. So now you have to use the plural; we can’t talk about theology singular. We have this plurality of theologies that is as diverse and mutually contradictory as there are cultures with their value systems which give theological voice to what they believe. So much for the faith, once for all, given to the saints, and passed down from generation to generation; it is gone. This plurality is an extreme that cannot be followed by evangelicals. It denies, absolutely, the transcultural authority that God announces through Scripture over every culture, the prophetic voice of God in this culture and every culture. What is authoritative, then, becomes the voice of the community. And, of course, for these liberation theologians, what became authority is making sure it works out the way they know it needs too. It is really hypocritical, in many ways, because these liberation theologians studied in Germany; they studied on the Continent and were anything but poor. They were middle-class people themselves, with a fair bit of wealth and it did seem to be a bit odd in that way. They wanted it to work out to the way they viewed a Marxist-oriented vision of the utopian society. But, in principle, what becomes authoritative is each community.

Quite frankly there is a theologian within evangelicalism who concerns me a great deal, and he is Stan Grenz. (He moved from Regent College to Truett Seminary, which is connected with Baylor.) Grenz’s approach comes perilously close to this “Cultural Christianity” model which he advocates as the model that ought to be followed within the church. He wrote this book Revisioning Evangelical Theology. (I was in a panel discussion at Northwestern College in Minneapolis about six years ago. On the panel, we were all presenting various things, and when it was all done we had this discussion time together. On the panel were Millard Erickson, Roger Olson, who is also at Truett (he is a very good friend of Stan Grenz), Grenz and my self. Grenz had made his presentation, which was very much down the lines of saying community with text and spirit are sort of autonomous, that is they work out for themselves what is their theological understanding. So I asked Stan Grenz, who was seated right next to me, “Dr Grenz could you give us any single doctrine of the faith that you view as necessary to be held by a community which claims to be Christian. If this community rightly claims to Christian, what would you say they at least have to hold onto? Can you fill in that blank in for me.” And I gave him several suggestions. Do they have to hold to virgin birth of Christ? Do they have to hold to deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, substitutionary atonement, the trinity? And while I was giving those examples to him, he was shaking his head, and he looked up when I was done and said, “I don’t think about it that way. The way I think about this is that every community is responsible to take the word of God and, by the Spirit, construct and craft the theological understanding that the Spirit leads them to, in their community.” So I said, “Suppose this Spirit-lead, text-reading community ends up Arian; they deny the deity of Christ. Is that a problem?” He would not face this question. He would just say, “We have to allow every community its roll of shaping theology for itself.”

What happens then, in the end, is that there is no transcultural normative faith for the Church. This is postmodernism. Stan Grenz has drunk deeply at the well of postmodernism and is committed to this notion of a sort of community exploration of truth. There is a portion of that which is true. But in the way that he is doing it, it leaves one with no absolute authority by which a person from one culture could say to a Christian believer in another community, you are wrong. How can you tell that person he or she is wrong, if you are not a part of that community? How can you say to a Jehovah’s Witness, “You are wrong.” How can you say to a Mormon, “You are wrong.” How can you say to an open theist, “You are wrong?” The answer is, you can’t.

2. “Non-cultural Christianity”

The idea is held that, somehow, we are able to present the Christian faith totally pure, with no admixture of cultural elements. When we present the Christian faith, we are presenting “the faith,” not our culture. This view, which seems to most people these days to be tremendously naive, was, in fact, a view held by the vast majority of Christian people in the late 18th through the 19th and even 20th centuries. One of the evidences of this was the missionary movement that went out. Please understand that I am a fan of the historic missions movement; they did, on balance, far more good than bad. They served the kingdom far more than any damage they did. But that is not to say that they did everything right. One area, clearly in retrospect, was not right. When they went into cultures, they perceived that what they were doing was bringing the pure and simple Christian faith, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, to another culture. What is the Christian faith? It is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). Fine. It’s, “Turn from your idols and serve the true and living God.”(1Thess 1:9) Fine. It is recognizing that God is triune; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Fine. It is sing with me John Wesley hymns; it is wear a white shirt when you come to church; it is build a building with a steeple on the top. This is a no brainier. This is just simple, pure Christian faith; there is no cultural admixture here. Yet, it was, in fact, riveted with cultural intermixing of theological beliefs. Now days, there is a whole discipline out there called ethnomusicology, where Christian people are sensitive to the native kinds of music that are constructed within the different cultures. They come to assist those people in writing Christian songs that fit the culture in which they live, rather than having them learn, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” sung like a westerner does or, “And Can it Be.” It just doesn’t fit many places.

On analysis, non-cultural Christianity does not exit; it is impossible to bring forth the Christian faith and avoid every admixture of your own culture. It is impossible to do this. Because number non-cultural Christianity doesn’t actually exit, it is just a figment in people’s minds, then what happens is that the people who attempt to achieve this, end up (notice the irony) actually committing the error of “Cultural Christianity.” They have wrapped their own understanding of the Christian faith in their culture and present what their culture says as what God says.

I am convinced this is the heart of much of the music wars that are happening in our churches. When you hear people say things like, “You know those choruses these people are singing these days are just really not true to the Bible.” But when you look at the lyrics they are texts right out of the Bible. A lot of the choruses are that way. Then you can hear people on the other side talk about these stale old hymns, “You really can’t honor the Lord or serve the Lord or praise the Lord with those.” It is really just preferences; it is cultural differences; it is taste differences in music; that is what it really is. But what do we do in our more extreme moments? We present the difference as if one is holy, and the other is unholy; one is with God, and the other is against God. That is what we do. In fact, it is not that.

So how do they justify taking their own culture and bringing it to another? I don’t think they believe that this is what they are doing. Actually, non-cultural Christianity is impossible. It doesn’t actually happen. There is actually only one extreme to be avoided. It is cultural Christianity. But cultural Christianity gets presented sometimes under the veil of non-cultural Christianity, that is, I am just bringing the Bible; I am just bringing the Gospel; I am just bringing the Christian faith; there is nothing of my culture attached to this. The problem with that view, because it is a naive view, is that what culture is attached to gets voiced as if it is gospel truth. Hence white shirts, buildings with steeples, and all kinds of things like this get voiced as if it is just the same thing as, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).

In many ways it like the upbringing in fundamentalist homes where the rules are all held at the same level. Don’t commit premarital sex and don’t play with playing cards are put at the same level, and the problem with this is that they shouldn’t be put at the same level. So questioning one, you begin to questioning the other. You can see this in some missionary settings where nationals, second and third generation nationals, who now realize that you don’t have to sing John Wesley hymns to be a Christian, then begin to wonder if you have to believe this other stuff. There is a tendency to go back to traditional religions among a lot of these people because they feel as though their own culture was robbed from them when they were asked to become Christians; they lost their own cultural identity. They had to step out of it and become western, so now they want to become African or Asian or whatever the case may be. And that means leaving the Christian faith and going back to their traditional religion. Or you wind up with syncretism. The point is that this cannot ever occur, this non-cultural Christianity, even though people thought it could, and people who think it can are susceptible to erring in presenting their own culture as the Christian faith.

C. An Evangelical Position: "Contextualized Normativity"

By “Contexualized Normativity,” I simply mean that the gospel ought to be viewed as the normative truth, once for all given to the saints. But that normative truth, transcultural, normative, absolute truth, has to be seen as appropriately wrapped up in the language and culture of the people to whom it is directed. It has to be in order to be communicated the right way.

In the phrase, “Contextualized Normativity," one is the dominate term and the other is the qualifier. “Normativity” is the dominate term. Don’t we care that the faith, once for all given, is in fact passed on to the next generation? Think of Paul in 2 Timothy 2:2.

2 Ti 2:2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (NASB95)

Don’t you see yourself as an inheritor, after all of these generations, of the same faith of the Apostle Paul? We probably have not gotten it all right: however, we have got to study hard, so that we can be corrected and get it as right as we can. Isn’t the goal to be as close as possible in our beliefs to what Paul believed, what Jesus believed, and what Peter believed. To be thoroughly biblical in our understandings, that is the normativity, we acknowledge that no matter who you are, whether Chinese, Indian, African, Canadian or American. Whoever we are, we see ourselves as having received the normative Christian faith that is to correct us, that is to be just as prophetic in our own culture as it is anywhere else. If we will have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear, and we repent of our sin, it ought to be just as prophetic here as anywhere else. But we have to recognize that we are not Africans, most of us, or Asians, most of us, that is, we have to recognize the distinctive cultures in which we live. We have to recognize that the normative faith has to be put in language, given expression, and connected with symbols or illustrations in ways that will convey it as faithfully as possible, in ways that are understandable and applicable to some contemporary audience; that is the goal. So that is contextualized normativity.

Class Questions:

There are geographical communities and then there are communities oriented around some particular ideal or notion that becomes prominent. It is true there can be communities that are subcultures; they are really excited about something, and so much of what they think has to do with some certain theme. The Health and Wealth gospel might be an example of that. They are part of the broader American culture, but it is a subculture within the American culture that has taken that notion as very central to their understanding of their relationship with God. What I am saying here is that we need to avoid, whether you are talking about general American culture or whether you are talking about subcultures, the problem of allowing any culture, our own included, our own most particularly, of dominating in our thinking so that what gets produced is just an echo of the values of that culture. It is probably the easiest thing in the world to do, to just assume that God’s truth must be just the same as mine. Most of us don’t like to entertain the thought that the way I was raise or what I learned growing up or whatever is just flat out wrong. We like to be affirmed and confirmed in our thinking that the way we understand the world is right. There is a psychological tendency toward cultural Christianity. So what must we do? We must be aware of this and be prayerful, humble, repentant people who before God say, “Lord God, open my eyes to see what your word really says, to chastise my own life, my own culture in ways that need to be corrected.” We all have to do that in this battle against cultural Christianity because that is the sort of default that most us will go to as sinners, unless we kneel humbly under Scripture.

The question could be asked, “Is there any truth to the notion that God particularly chose the Greek culture as the time for the New Testament to be written and for so much theology to be formulated? I don’t think God does anything just flipping a coin. You would think that he had some reason for doing this. On analysis I think this is confirmed. There are certain languages, western languages, Greek being one of the foundation languages that have a kind of linguistic analytic ability, a precision in understanding concepts which is not shared by language families in the east as much. Here is one of my favorite examples of this, an illustration. I have a good friend, Harold Netland, who teaches philosophy and missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Harold and I taught there together, and his two girls and my two girls are very close friends. Harold grew up in Japan as an MK (missionary kid) and spoke Japanese as a child growing up and so speaks it fluently. He went back to Japan as a missionary and became, in Japan, a teacher at a Bible college level. He expressed to me one day the frustration he had when was teaching some advanced level theology/philosophy areas of study (and remember he learned Japanese growing up, so he knew it as well as any Japanese citizen did) because trying to convey in Japanese the fine distinctions that he knew philosophically, he could not find the mechanism with the Japanese language in conveying them. He learned that he had to require that his students have a very high level aptitude in English before they take this are of study with him so he could explain, in English, what these meant. You wouldn’t have to use English; you could use other languages but English is one. English has an enormous vocabulary; it is a vacuum language; it has sucked words in. I don’t know how many more words there are English than any other close language in the world, but it is just astonishing how there is more vocabulary in English. What that does is it gives you more opportunities for precision because there are very rarely ever genuine synonyms; there are generally nuances of connotation in different terms. That gives you this range so that instead of just having a 1/16 inch drill bit and a ½ inch drill bit and a 1 inch drill bit, you’ve got 1/16, 3/8, 1/4. You have all of this range of words to pick from that can help you state with greater precession what it is you are trying to communicate. In reflecting on this, I thought, I bet this is the case that God intentionally picked this time, this people and this language because he knew how difficult the theological development of the next four or five centuries was going to be, and it would require a language that was fit to deal with these kinds of conceptions and work through these kinds of difficulties. Trinitarian issues, hypostatic union issues; these were huge difficult things that Greek language, Greek philosophy helped with.

Open theists do overplay their criticism that Greek philosophy has so infiltrated Christian faith. In defense of that, number one, Greek language and Greek philosophy was very helpful in many cases, and number two, you don’t find the early Christians (look at Augustine, how quick he was to reject Greek philosophical ideas that contradicted the Bible). It is just not the case that these early Christians bowed to Geek philosophy and reformatted theology to fit it. Granted there was some of that. This is cultural Christianity; what is going to be the natural tendency will be in that direction, but they were very careful to avoid excesses. I do think that at particular places, they perhaps violated Biblical understanding, but for the most part it was a positive assistance in what they did.

So what is the tension between contextualized theology and normativity? That is the huge question and big project that faces all of us who convey gospel truth, Bible truth to other people. But it is more pressing for those who as their vocation are taking the gospel, taking the Bible, to a vastly different culture. But if you teach a high school Sunday school class, you have to do contextualized normativity; if you teach first graders, you’ve got to do contextualized normativity. You name it, you have to do this and do it in a way that what is nominative stays nominative and the context helps you package it, shape it, annunciate it, illustrated it, and explain it.

Theological Systems Part 1

I am not going to give you a full scale extensive discussion of these systems of theology. We are going to look at Calvinism and Arminianism, Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. We are also going to look at a web of theological positions that mark the 19th and 20th centuries, and moving now into the 21st century of Liberalism, Neo Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism. My reason for having this at this point in the course is very simple. These are systems of theology that you come across constantly and ones that really do shape major portions of the church, so and I think it is important for us to have some hooks to hang our hat on and maybe a scarf or a coat. We need some hooks out there, so when we hear things, we can sort of peg this idea or this way of thinking or this interpretation of this passage with one these major theological systems of thought. So I am going to give a cursory, brief explanation on these, hoping of course, that you get much more than this eventually. But, at least, here is an introduction.

1. Calvinism and Arminianism

These two systems of theology are obviously named after the two founding individuals, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, about whom I will say more in a little bit.

A. Background and Precursors

The debate which took place between Calvinist and Arminians in the early 16th and 17th centuries was, in fact, a debate that picked up a much earlier debate that took place in the 4th century of the church, a debate between Augustine and Pelagius (and a group of people who followed his particular thinking).

1. Pelagius (in Rome ca. 383-410)

Pelagius came from the British Isles; we don’t know for sure what his home was (perhaps England or Ireland most likely). He was from a fairly wealthy home and was able to travel down to Rome. His purpose in going there was to be educated in law; that was what his father’s desire was, so he went to Rome for this education in law. When he came to Rome, he became very serious about his own Christian faith and met a number of Christians there. Growing enormously in his faith, became convinced, as a zealous young Christian, that he should live in a commune (this was before monasteries, before the monastic movement had been founded). He was an early monk of sorts as he wanted to live in a community of like-minded people. He sold most of his possessions, lived very meagerly and lived and taught in this community of like-minded Christians. He was a very committed Christian man. One of his most cherished convictions was that God had given human beings one of the greatest gifts that God could give: the human will. He was astonished with what capacity for volition there was in a human being, that we could choose to do right or wrong, choose to obey or disobey, choose to believe or disbelieve. God gives us truth, and we do what we can do with that. For him, this whole notion of volition became quite dominant in how he understood the Christian faith. He became an early sort of revivalist preacher; he was very concerned about holiness. He believed that people could change the way they were living; they didn’t have to live and lead unholy and unchaste lives. They had a will, and God gave them this volition to be exercised to choose to live holy lives. He also believed that it helps if you surround yourself with people who make the right choices, so you are confirmed in seeing examples of holy living and having a support group from those who make the same kind of choices that you make, good choices, holy choices. He had insights into this sort of small group understanding of how we could help one another in accountability. He saw many of these things very early.

Where this lead him, theologically, is down a path that became very problematic. What about sin in the Christian life? Pelagius argued some key points that follow:

a. God is righteous.

He had a very strong conviction of God’s holiness and God’s righteousness.

b. The law is good; the law is holy; the law is right.

So God is right, and his word is right.

c. God has given us free will to obey the law.

God gave us free will for this purpose, to obey the law, to live out the holy life that he has called us to.

His gospel message to people was you can do what God calls you to do. You have been given the capacity in your volition to carry out the commands of God. It is up to you whether you do it or not. In one sense, he is a precursor to the positive thinking movement that we have seen in our age, with the emphasis being, ”Just think right about these things positively; think rightly about them, and you can do it.” You know the little engine, the train, who says, “I can do it, I can do it.” That is Pelagius. He was very confident in human ability because God had given free will by which we could do these things.

He also felt that sin was only of our own doing. He absolutely abhorred the notion that we come into this world already affected by sin. He thought if this is the case, then how can God be just in holding me accountable for things I have never done and for failing to do things I can’t do because of sin? He held to the notion that we are born into this world innocent. You go to a hospital and that is what the little babies look like, innocent, but then you take them home and you find out differently and in not very long. Do I have a witness here from parents? I remember our daughter Bethany (whom we just took to Moody last week); I believe she was 7 or 8 months old when she received her first spanking. It was a spanking on the hand, but she was headed toward the fireplace and the fire poker was just gritty. We had a home philosophy of child-proofing our home of anything that would be lethal or dangerous, but we did not follow the theory of moving everything out of sight. Instead, we wanted to teach our children to obey. So here is the first case, Bethany is on her knees crawling toward the fireplace poker and the fire is going too. I say, “Bethany,” and she doesn’t pay attention, so I snapped my fingers and said, “Bethany.” She looked back at me, and I said, “Don’t touch the fire poker.” She looked at me and heard me say that and she turned her head around and deliberately headed straight for it. So one more time I snapped my fingers and said, “Bethany, do not go to the fireplace.” And the same thing, she turned her head and went straight for it. This was test number one, so I was behind her and met her when her hand went out to grab the fire poker and I slapped it. And she looked up at me horrified. That was her first taste of daddy’s discipline. She was 8 months old. You know what I saw in her face when she looked back at me, and I had told her don’t do this, I saw flagrant rebellion in her eyes, at 8 months; it is amazing. Pelagius had the notion that people are born into this world neutral and innocent, so when they sin, that is when they become sinners. If this were not the case God would be totally unjust. Remember, God is righteous, he is just, and he would never hold people accountable for something they couldn’t avoid. So why do we sin? For him, for Pelagius, it was because we either observe other people doing it and so we follow this custom of other people or (it is really an and) we get into a habit; it is habitual sin that we get into. So according to him, we sin and we do these things on our own, but the good news is that we can also use our will to get out of it. We can use our will to act obediently; we can use our will to follow in the path of righteousness. So Pelagius was strongly committed to the notion that by nature we can live the life that God has called us to. Saint Augustine had a different idea about how we can live righteously before God.

Blessings on you.