If we already have God's revelation in the Bible, someone may well ask why we need to study Christian doctrine: surely it is sufficient to be a Bible student without bothering about doctrine? Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is that anybody who studies the Bible is, in fact, really studying doctrine. A systematic discussion of Christian theology will take the student to many sources of knowledge and areas of thinking. Our purpose here will be the more modest one of attempting to set out the biblical teaching that forms the foundation of Christian theology.
Christian doctrine tells us what Christians believe about God. But before we can discuss what we believe about God, we must tackle the preliminary question of how we come to know about God, and to learn about his existence, character, and actions. This question is one of crucial importance, for the differences between the various theological positions Christians hold very often depend on differences in how knowledge of God is thought to be obtained.
Although we cannot by searching find out God, yet God has revealed himself to us in ways that we can understand. Since we are creatures made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), it is possible for us to have some understanding of the God who made us. God has revealed himself by means of human language, and so long as we realize that human language is a true, but inadequate, vehicle for communicating the reality of God, we can make some progress in understanding. God has graciously accommodated himself to our feeble and sinful minds by speaking to us in a personal revelation, and so we must remember that the person himself is greater than the revelation. Provided we remember that he is greater than our understanding, and that human words cannot do justice to him, we can still say much about him.
The story that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of how God created the world, how the world fell into sin and rebellion against him, and how God has begun a process of new creation that will continue until every trace of sin has been destroyed. Humans are the climax and crown of God's creation, for, unlike other creatures, they are the image of God (Genesis 1:26f.). The creation of mankind was quickly followed by the entry of evil into their heart. They were created with the possibility of choosing between right and wrong, between obedience to God and disobedience. But they made the wrong decision at the instigation of the tempter, and sin with all its dreadful consequences entered the world.
The central theme of Christian theology, that which gives it its Christian character, is the coming of Jesus into the world as its Savior from sin. His coming is both a revelation of the character of God as holy love and also the supreme act of love by which God reconciles sinful people to himself.
The next stage in the study of Christian doctrine is to consider the new life which God bestows upon those who accept Jesus as their Savior from sin. We shall begin by looking at two general words which are used to describe our experience as Christians; then we shall discuss four different aspects of Christian life; and finally we shall consider the nature of our response to God's gift of salvation and eternal life.
A person cannot become a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ, without at the same time becoming a member of the people of God along with all his fellow believers and sharing in the life of the church. Indeed, we could not have come to know Jesus without the testimony of other Christians, their work in translating and distributing the Bible, and their prayers for us. Jesus came not to save individuals in isolation from one another, but to found a new community of people who would build one another up in the faith and evangelize the world. We must now explore what is meant by the church and what are its functions.
The Last Things
Eschatology is concerned with God's final intervention in history to bring the present evil world to an end and to inaugurate the new world. But this act of God is not confined to the future, for God began his new creation in the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the church. Prophecies relating to the last days were understood to be in course of fulfillment in the early days of the church. In order, therefore, to understand what is going to happen in the future, we need to recapitulate some of the biblical story so as to put the future into perspective.