A Paper Presented to Dr. Gerardo Alfaro Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for SYSTH 3103
by Nathan Johnson December 4, 2009
THE PURSUIT OF THEOLOGY
The pursuit of theology is a task as essential to humanity as life itself. It seeks to answer not just any question, but the most important, most intimate questions of reality. Therefore it is no surprise that men throughout history have sought to answer the most fundamental questions about the universe, reality, God, humanity, and faith. While scholars and skeptics alike have endeavored to address these questions and their works have filled many libraries, it is not to these questions that this project will turn. Rather, this author will attempt to probe deeper in a way, to look beyond the dogma and rhetoric to more fully understand the formation of ideas, thoughts, and convictions. It seems that there are at least as many theological methodologies as there are men who hold them, which makes this particular task simultaneously a drop in the greater theological bucket and the most important paper the author has written to date. As time and space limit his efforts to this modest work, he will then set his sights on understanding and outlining those theological convictions and underpinnings with which he is most familiar: his own. There are four primary areas that play instrumental roles in the development of almost all Christian theologians¶ personal doctrine and they will each be examined in this work. First and foremost, the author will examine the role of Scripture as it pertains to the development of a theological worldview. This will in turn inform the remaining three areas, the first of which being the role of traditional scriptural interpretation and practices
2 of the Church as seen in its history. Moving away from the established historical elements of theological development, the author will turn to its third pillar, human reason ± specifically as it relates to either bolstering or contradicting the previous two areas. The fourth and final area that influences theological methodology and its conclusions is in this author¶s opinion the most subjective and nuanced ± that of human experience.
The Role of Scripture Aside from Christ and the Holy Spirit the canon of Scripture is the most precious resource that God has given humanity ± largely due to the fact that the Scriptures are the sole authoritative testimony of the Triune God.1 This is not to say that the Bible is the only testimony about God or even the only correct testimony of God¶s attributes. Rather, in following the Reformers¶ principle of sola Scriptura, the canon of Scripture is the only work that stands in authority over all others and serves as a plumb line to gauge all other theological assertions. While the Bible is authoritative in theological matters, those who would use it for its intended purpose (the glory of God) must observe two key principles. The first is to take care to follow the Bible¶s own internal logic by understanding the metanarrative of Scripture as it relates to what God is communicating through the Scriptures.2 One cannot correctly understand or apply biblical teachings or passages unless they have an appropriate backdrop against which they view the piece in question. The second principle follows the first in that those who endeavor to interpret the Bible correctly must
Donald H. Bloesch, The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options, ed. by Robert K. Johnston, Wipf and Stock Publishers (1997), 82. 2 Clark H. Pinnock, Use of the Bible in Theology. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, (1985), 26.
3 not only understand what it is about, but must also stay true to that content and not twist the Word of God toward their own goals. The Bible is not a collection of postmodern essays that are up for relativistic interpretation ± rather it is a theological thesis given by a sovereign God to be read, understood, and followed for the glory of his name. This divine thesis, then, is not concerned with the human scientific disciplines (though there is some scientific content in the Bible), but rather it is of a theological nature. To evaluate the validity of Scripture from a the perspective of scientific research, historical content, psychological insight, or any other human pursuit is to force an inappropriate and unintended lens upon a theological work. The primary purpose of the Scriptures is to reveal God, specifically his glory in the person and work of Jesus Christ, for this is the focal point of all Creation and God¶s revelation.3 It is not as though such an understanding of the Bible is either common or easily obtained ± quite the opposite in fact. In order for one to correctly understand what God has said to humanity through the Holy Spirit¶s inspiration and human authors, they must have the Holy Spirit to interpret and illumine his own words.4 Therefore as a prerequisite, one must be a faithful Christ-following Christian both in their worldview and life pursuits in order to read the Bible with this confessional hermeneutic. Thus, the role of Scripture as this author sees it is as an authoritative voice amongst the din and clamor of competing theological worldviews, and it serves as a foundation upon which to build a cogent system of beliefs that are presented therein. These are not some haphazard arrangement of random scientific facts, but rather a
John 5:39; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4; Bloesch, 82, 84. J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, 22-4.; Bloesch, 100-101
4 detailed, coherent self-revelation of God and must be treated as such. In order to appropriately understand, interpret, and interact with such an incredible work, then, one must have the interpretational aid of the Holy Spirit.
The Role of Tradition To say that the Bible in its canonical form is the only influence that goes into theological methodology would be a woefully ignorant of the role that Church tradition played in the compilation, establishment, and historical interpretation of the Scriptures. Since the human authors led by the Holy Spirit penned the words of the Old and New Testaments, the covenant community of believers has played an immensely important role in the formation of theology. The Apostles and their disciples, the early church fathers, and many others who established and maintained orthodox doctrine based on the Scriptures have contributed a vast amount of excellent content that helps draw out the theological concepts in the Bible and stitch them together in a cogent, readily accessible way. While tradition is an important aspect of theological pursuits, this is not to say that all of Church tradition and history are reliable or orthodox. The early councils and creeds combating heresies, the inappropriate teachings during the medieval period, and the drastic changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation all testify that the Church is not infallible as are the Holy Scriptures. Mere sinful men with imperfect motives and perspectives cannot and should not ever be exalted to the same level of authority as God¶s Word, as happened at the Council of Trent.5 It is, however, an excellent gauge of
Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Chicago, IL: Moody (2008), 566.
5 human thought and widely accepted orthodoxy, and can provide a particular type of theological context that no other aspect of theological methodology can. Therefore, using the Bible as a foundational and authoritative source, one can and should reliably use Church tradition that falls in line with the clear Scriptural, Spiritled interpretation of the Bible. Tradition is not a source of God¶s revelation, but it is a source of theology and can provide a continuity of doctrine. In other words, since tradition is a result of culture, history, and theology, it serves to unite historic teachings with those in the present, and also provide a foundation for future theological pursuits.6 In this way, tradition serves to smooth out the individual flaws and nuanced interpretations over time, leaving a more polished history of doctrine for contemporary theologians to consult, learn from, and participate in. In this way, those who are pursuing their theological convictions can use tradition and become a part of it rather than separating from nearly two millennia of established orthodoxy and blazing a new doctrinal trail. It bears observing that at this point in history is nearly impossible to divest oneself from any form of tradition or historical interpretation, and regardless one¶s convictions or opinions on the matter, anyone who does pursue theology falls underneath the umbrella of theological tradition in some form or fashion. Those who are skeptical of a human enterprise attempting to explain and delve into divine things should also realize that tradition must fall under the authority and clear teachings of Scripture if it is to be helpful in any way.
The Role of Reason
Richard L. Muller, ³The Role of Church History in the Study of Theology,´ Doing Theology in Today¶s World, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan (1991), 95.
6 Moving down the line from the authoritative and foundational Scripture and the contextualizing element of tradition, one is left with gauging the differences and similarities between the two, and must use their God-given faculties along with the urgings of the Holy Spirit to determine when Church tradition is in violation of the Scriptures. Therefore the next instrumental element of pursuing theological methodology is that of reason, including logic and the scientific disciplines. Though it is an area of limited and finite ability and input, it is nonetheless a vital component in the pursuit of theology. The very notion that modern human thought and reason are subservient to a divinely delivered set of Scriptures and the historical understanding of them is a direct affront to the inherent pride found in humanity ± particularly in recent decades.7 Therefore it is all the more incumbent upon Christ-followers to pursue their theology with humility, conviction, courage, great attention to detail, and dedication to excellence. In order to prevent confusion and unnecessary topics in debate, theologians must draw a firm line between the individual scientific disciplines and theology. Modern science as a whole does not acknowledge any theological basis for its research, therefore it must be examined on its own grounds. Theology, on the other hand, is not a scientific pursuit in light of the fact that it is a body of knowledge based on revelation rather than human investigative methods and efforts ± it is a different epistemology altogether.8 Moreover, while science can have many practical applications its main goal is the
Daniel L. Akin, ed. A Theology for the Church, Nashville, TN: B&H Academic (2007), 3. 8 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol.1, Waco, TX: Word (1999), 165, 202-4.
7 concrete analysis of theoretical realms; theology is quite different in that it is the direct application of practical information.9 While the scientific and philosophical disciplines are quite different in both their activities and their effects, there is an opportunity for collaboration and mutual edification. The benefit of theology for both other fields comes in the form of superior wisdom and knowledge and a set of assumptions and conclusions that rival those of manmade disciplines, offering a sort of checks and balances from a differing point of view. That having been said, philosophy has much to add to the field of theology in that its often severe critiques of Christian ethics and presuppositions challenge theologians to use precise language and excellent reason. It is not as though the pursuit of Christian theology is an irrational or unreasonable enterprise ± quite the opposite, in fact. Therefore Christian theologians must use employ excellent reason and philosophy in order to develop solid theology.10 So, then, working from the foundational element of Scripture and using Church tradition as a guide, those pursuing theological ends can and should utilize reason as a tool for contextualizing, explaining, defending, and spreading the gospel. Theology is not a field of precisely cut lines and clear boundaries ± therefore those who endeavor to do theology must use reason as they weigh the Scriptures against tradition and experience in order to maintain orthodox, Christ-exalting theological pursuits.
The Role of Experience
James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology, vol.1, North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press (2000), 4-6. 10 Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol.1, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House (2002), 90-1.
8 The final major sphere of influence in the realm of theological methodology, namely human experience, has been met with opposition those who champion only the aforementioned two or three. Those who would say that theology is based solely on Scripture and boast a more µpure¶ or objective theology that has been untainted by flawed human experience fail to acknowledge that their very own experiences helped them reach their conclusion. While it is true that objectivity would be an immense asset, in the pursuit of theology it is simply not an attainable goal because no human exists who does not have memories, reactions, and emotions that sway opinions and perceptions of reality. The bottom line is that experience plays an instrumental role in all human pursuits and it must be acknowledged and accounted for so as to not take a more influential role than is appropriate.11 Experience is a personal understanding of and interaction a set reality. Perceptions of that reality differ as a result of the marring effects of sin (the µhalf empty¶ approach) and/or God¶s unique design for each person (the µhalf full¶ approach). This, however, is no excuse for a lack of common ground in experience. There are many contributing factors to a pair of individuals perceiving a given situation differently, but none of them change the fact that the reality is itself unchanged. Therefore in order to approach that constant reality from a skewed perspective, one must take both the skewed viewpoint and any skewing factors into account, thereby rejecting the notion of pure objectivity and embracing experiential nuance rather than fighting it. To bring this discussion out of the theoretical concepts and more into the practical, a person¶s worldview and culture drastically affect their experience which plays
9 into their perception of Scripture, traditional orthodoxy, and even reason.12 In the Christian theology realm, the broad tapestry of theological systems demonstrates this concept well. Liberation, charismatic, Reformed, prosperity, and the various denominational theological systems (among many others) are all results of culture influencing to varying degrees the perception of the concepts and teachings of Scripture. Similarly, different types of temptations, blessings, sins, and biblical mandates vary depending on the cultural perspective of the one facing the situation in view.13 As in all things, the key to redeeming the postmodern concepts of experience and relativism is following the Holy Spirit as he walks us through the Scriptures.14 In this way Christians are submissive to the clear teachings of the Bible, submitting their observations and understandings to the traditional orthodox heritage of Church history, rationally and logically reasoning through those convictions to reach a cogent, coherent set of beliefs with which to shape a biblical worldview ± which in turn dictates experience.
Conclusion When all is said and done, despite the debates, discussions, dissertations, and discourses, the pursuit of theology is an essential task for all of humanity. It seeks to answer the fundamental questions concerning the purpose of life, the reason for humanity, and the rationale for living under certain convictions. Being made in the image of God and having a soul, humanity inherently dwells on these topics and offers
Akin, 60. For example, a person living in West Africa would have a different understanding of gluttony or daily provision from God than would a person living in the United States. 14 Williams, 21-4.
10 through action, thought, and word, a living exposition and commentary on their belief systems. Therefore it is all the more essential for Christ-following, God-exalting Christians to accurately articulate and assert their worldview as understood from God¶s Word. In order to do this, however, Christians must understand the foundational role that the Scriptures play in their theological formation, the shaping and verifying influence that theological tradition has, the corrective and Spirit-led checks and balances of the rationality with which God has bestowed them, and the inescapable reality of experience as it affects theology. Theology must not be done for theology¶s sake or for bolstering one¶s reputation. Rather, the theologian ± no matter how scholarly or sophomoric ± must aim at one infinitely higher and more glorious than himself. The glory of Almighty God must permeate all that Christian theology is if it is in any way to reflect those foundational teachings found in Scripture ± the foundational source of revelation. Christ must get the glory ± he must become greater and we must become less.15
Akin, Daniel L. ed. A Theology for the Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007. Bloesch, Donald H. The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options. Robert K. Johnston, ed. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997. Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody, 2008. Garrett, James Leo Jr. Systematic Theology, vol.1. North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL Press, 2000. Geisler, Norman. Systematic Theology, vol.1. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2002. Henry, Carl F. H. God, Revelation, and Authority, vol.1. Waco, TX: Word, 1999. Muller, Richard L. ³The Role of Church History in the Study of Theology.´ Doing Theology in Today¶s World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan (1991), 77-97. Pinnock, Clark H. Use of the Bible in Theology. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1985 (18-34). Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.