Count it all joy when you face various trials. --James the brother of Jesus

Friday, December 07, 2007

My Theological Method

Here's another paper I've just finished. I'll be turning it in tomorrow. (I mean today. It's 3 a.m.) The paper is on my own theological method.

It is not easy to write about one’s own theological method. As Reformed theologian Fred Klooster puts it, “Most theologians do not make a habit of explaining how they go about doing theology; they simply do it.”[1] In fact, the idea of self consciously describing how theology should be done may even be repulsive to some. Some might say, “Why can’t we just use the Bible?” The idea of sustained reflection on the nature and priority of the resources used in the theological enterprise seems to be an exercise with very little profit. An increasingly individualistic evangelical subculture wants to discard tradition, experience, and reason, and simply get alone with Jesus and His Word.

Justification for Theological Method

While getting alone with Jesus and His Word is pious, and even reflects an underlying good motive, it is too na├»ve for someone who wants to take seriously the scriptural charge for leaders to guard the gospel. Peter commands believers: “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability” (2 Pet 3:17).[2] Paul instructs Timothy: “Take heed to thyself, and to thy teaching” (1 Tim 4:16); and “Hold the pattern of sound words which thou hast heard from me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee guard through the Holy Spirit which dwelleth in us” (2 Tim 1:13-14); and “O Timothy, guard that which is committed unto thee, turning away from the profane babblings and oppositions of the knowledge which is falsely so called; which some professing have erred concerning the faith” (1 Tim 6:20-21). He warns the Colossian church: “Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col 2:8). He commanded the Ephesian elders: “Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The Lord Jesus, Himself, warned His followers to “take heed that ye be not led astray: for many shall come in my name” (Luke 21:8).

Doing theology has too high of stakes not to examine critically how it is done. Jesus and the apostle’s warning to take heed to doctrine gives today’s theologian biblical warrant to reflect on the task. Without critically examining the task, the church may be vulnerable to instability, being deceived, or even being eternally lost. Sincerity will be no excuse; not all who claim to speak for Jesus are truly faithful to what he said. The salvation of each member of a congregation is in some sense guarded by his or her pastor, and depends on his faithfulness to his office as a steward of the gospel. An unexamined method that piously rejects being tested is vulnerable to falling prey to false teaching—and may be endangering the souls of countless trusting individuals. Therefore, it is right to take the time and examine one’s method for doing theology. In fact, any theologian who desires to be faithful to Jesus must do it, lest they find themselves in front of the Lord one day hearing, “Depart from me.”

The parameters of this assignment are different from many others. Typically a seminary assignment involves a detached perspective of writing about an outside subject exclusively in the 3rd person. In contrast, this assignment is not a dry detached exercise in parroting information about a specific outside subject—it is a critical examination of the author of the paper that is very personal. So, from this point on, I will reference myself and my own theological method in the 1st person.

Theological Resources

What place do I give in my theological method to each of the resources of theology? Scripture, tradition, reason, culture, and experience are all used—whether conscious or not. If one’s method is not examined to see what relationship these factors have to each other, then it is inevitable that the relationship will be determined by his own whim or by seduction from some outside source. Even a critical examination does not remove one from this danger, but it does at least let the theologian know that the danger exists and that he needs to beware of it.

Scripture

My conscious effort is to make Scripture my ultimate authority. It is easy to say that Scripture is the final authority. It is not so easy to live it. Everyone who claims to be an evangelical says that the Scripture is their final authority. In fact, everyone who is a Christian at all would make the claim that Scripture is at least the final authority in matters of faith and practice. So it does not really mean anything at all just to make the affirmation that Scripture should be the final authority.

Everyone has something different in mind when they make the claim that the Bible is authoritative. However, not everyone is going to affirm that the Bible has such authority that if it says that I should pluck out my eye, then I should do it. Not everyone will agree that the Bible has the authority to tell them to sell everything and move to the Sudan. However, that is exactly what the Bible has the authority to do. If one holds to an identity thesis (that the Bible is the Word of God), then one can see what Scripture claims for itself in this regard. The Word of God commanded Jonah to preach to a wicked and violent city (Jonah 1:1). The Word of God commanded Nathan to confront a king who had already murdered one man who stood in his way (2 Sam 7:4).

The Bible has authority to tell the preacher, theologian, or prophet what to believe and what to do. This authority includes matters of theological method. For instance, Jesus spoke of the prophet Jonah saying, “The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32). Here Jesus treats Jonah as a historical figure, who in some ways typified what Jesus would be like. If one rejects Jonah as a historical figure, then one has to say that either Jesus was ignorant of this, or he was being untruthful. If Jesus is really my Lord then I must submit myself to him in all respect, and this means my mind and even my opinions must be submitted to what he says. If Jesus treated Jonah as a historical figure, then I would be sinning against my Lord to adopt a method of doing theology that allows me to deny the historicity of Jonah.

I understand Scripture to be presenting a world that is more real than the one that I live in (though essentially it is the same world). The biblical authors accurately presented mankind and its relationship to God. If I am to consider myself a Christian at all, then I have no place to turn but to the Christian Scriptures to learn about myself, God, and how I am to relate to the rest of His creation. If it seems, because of my experience or culture, that my world is radically different than the world that Scripture presents, then it is not the Scripture that is wrong, but my perception of reality. I live in a culture that immerses me in de facto Darwinism. I do not explicitly accept this Darwinism. In fact, I wholeheartedly reject it. However, it still has a very negative impact on how I view the world—in particular how the world relates to the biblical world. I have to beware of what the author of Hebrews warned: "Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God” (Heb 3:12). Every form of media screams at me to seek my own pleasure in this short life because this life is all there is. However the Bible presents a worldview that says there is a judgment to come and a paradise to be enjoyed that far exceeds anything this world has to offer. The only way to combat the inaccurate perceptions of the world that are presented to me every day (and thus, combat unbelief) is to constantly confront myself with the biblical world in the Scripture. This too is an aspect of theological method as it relates to Scripture. I must not only see the Scriptures as the source for propositional revelation (which it is), but I must also realize that the Scriptures are the source of my own life. I do not believe that this is in any way an appropriation of existential philosophy, but simply taking seriously what the Scripture itself says: “My soul cleaveth unto the dust: Quicken thou me according to thy word” (Ps 119:25).

Tradition

In my own theological method, I have a very positive role for tradition. I am unapologetically a Baptist. In particular, I am a conservative, Calvinistic, confessional, Southern Baptist. Each of these labels reflects a tradition that I am a part of. And there are many reasons why I am not ashamed to claim these labels for myself.

I am a Baptist for many reasons. One reason is that I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. That is where I was introduced to the gospel. That is where I came to embrace personal faith in Christ. Another reason is that I am forever indebted to the Baptist tradition. This is a tradition that has always been marginalized and even persecuted throughout Christian history. Men and women suffered imprisonment and even execution for the beliefs that have been handed down to me, and I want to honor them by taking seriously what they said. Finally, I am also a Baptist because I agree that what Baptists have traditionally taught accurately reflects biblical teaching.

I am a conservative. I understand this label as it is used in opposition to classic liberalism. I believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant, infallible, inspired, authoritative Word. I am indebted the “evangelical” movement of the 20th century and its reaction against Protestant liberalism. Protestant liberalism accepted evolutionary views, reduced the Bible to a human document, and reduced the gospel to simple morality. I believe that the reactionary “evangelical” movement is the continuation of the orthodox Protestantism of the Reformation, which in turn is nothing less than restored biblical Christianity. Neo-orthodox theologian, Gerald T. Sheppard, objects to identifying “reactionary groups . . . as representative of the orthodox camp.”[3] While I will affirm that the fundamentalist and evangelical movements of the 20th century are reactions to liberalism, I contend that they were right to react. Liberalism, and its antisupernaturalism, reduced Christianity to a sociological phenomenon that had very little to do with objective truth. Liberals, while desiring to contextualize the Bible and make it understandable to modern man, abandoned classical Christianity. Therefore, I am not ashamed to say that I identify myself as a conservative, and I aim to do theology within that tradition.

I am a Calvinist. Of course, as a Baptist Calvinist, I reject infant baptism, I insist on immersion as the proper mode, I believe in separation of church and state, and I believe in congregational church government.[4] However, I am a Baptist who feels perfectly comfortable affirming the 2nd London Confession of Faith (1689), the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, or the Abstract of Principles.

I am confessional. Some would object to the idea that a Baptist could be confessional. “We have no creed but the Bible,” is the rallying cry for anti-creedal Baptists, and this statement has a long heritage in Baptist life as well. However, this statement goes against what Baptists have done in actual practice. As historian Gregory Wills states, “Baptists have adopted creeds throughout their history. They probably have adopted creeds more than any other denomination.”[5] Creeds and confessions have been understood to be a summary of Scripture truth, and have not been binding on the conscience of anyone. No one is forced to be a member of a Baptist church or to call himself a Baptist. Baptists have used creeds because they have recognized their “duty to appoint those only who will teach in accordance with Scripture truth.”[6] Confessions are a means of ensuring that the tradition held to in the church—believed to be handed down by the apostles—is handed down to future generations.

In sum, I believe that the gospel has been passed on from the apostles, through the New Testament, and received by the Church. In some periods that gospel has been understood more clearly than in others, but the fact is it has been received by us today. I have received it in the context of conservative Southern Baptist life, and I have grown to embrace the Baptist tradition, reflected in its confessional history, wholeheartedly. If I thought that Baptist confessions were unbiblical, I would leave them behind and not look back; however, I believe by conviction that what these confessions contain is nothing less than a summary of Scripture truth. Therefore, I embrace my tradition, recognizing that it is historically conditioned, yet believing it to be an accurate summary of what God has revealed in His Word.

Reason

I believe that Christianity is a reasonable faith. God has created His world in a way that is logical, orderly, and for the most part predictable. The universe functions according to a certain set of laws of nature and of logic. God is the one who has established this order and is not bound by it.

I believe it is safe to say that some things that are logically true about humans are logically true about God as well. For instance, the law of non-contradiction is a philosophical proposition that applies to God just as it does to human beings. I have made this statement before, only to be followed by a response from someone that it was arrogant to say such a thing about God. My answer to that criticism is that the charge of arrogance says only how my critic feels about what I said. It may in fact be arrogant to claim such a thing, but that says nothing about the truth or falsity of the claim which I made. Simply put, I believe what the catechism that I am teaching my children says when it answers the question “Can God do all things? God can do all His holy will.”[7] God can do anything that is not logically impossible. But he cannot cease to be God and still be God at the same time and in the same sense. He cannot make a square circle because by definition a circle does not have four corners. Making this assertion does not in any way limit God because it still affirms that God can do anything that he wants to do. What it reveals is that there are some things that we can know about the God revealed in Scripture. He has revealed Himself, and what He has revealed is trustworthy: “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Num 23:19), and “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18), and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and to-day, yea and for ever” (Heb 13:8). God is always truthful and He does not change His in His nature or will.

While I do believe that philosophy is necessary, in respect to the logic and order of the universe, I do not believe that Christianity can be bound to any particular philosophical system. Whether idealist or realist, Platonic or Aristotelian, Existential or Common Sense, philosophy is tainted by human finiteness and sinfulness. Rigid philosophical systems will usually end up distorting something about the world presented in the Bible in order to maintain consistency within the system. When too high of a priority is placed on philosophy, it will tend to dominate the Biblical text. The proper relationship between the Bible and philosophy must be that philosophy too, must bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ. Philosophy must be flexible enough to change, if needed, to adapt to biblical revelation.

Culture

Culture affects how I do theology in some significant ways. First of all, as an American, I am influenced by many democratic ways of thinking. The affluence of my country has affected me in ways that I could not begin to perceive. This is similar to the old saying that “a fish does not know what it means to be wet.” I am used to a certain standard of living. I am used to a particular way of life that is common to North America, but rarely found anywhere else. I do not experience the kind of persecution that believers all over the world face every day. This aspect of culture, while beneficial in many respects, gives me a disadvantage as a theologian. I could easily go through my entire life giving very little attention to what the Bible says about poverty, classism, and other forms of suffering. So, it can be very beneficial to experience cross cultural missions in order to have my eyes opened.

The Bible places a high emphasis on these types of human suffering. The Torah states: “If there be with thee a poor man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in thy land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother”(Deut 15:7). The Psalmist says, “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: Jehovah will deliver him in the day of evil” (Ps 41:1). The Lord Jesus spoke of the basis of the final judgment saying,

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me (Matt 25:41-45).

Jesus thought that the attention that people give to the poor was significant—to the point of being an indicator of one’s eternal destiny.

I place this emphasis in a section on culture because this is a point that the culture which I live in is prone to overlook. Most Americans are comfortable with living the American dream. Get an education. Get a good job. Live in the suburbs with a two story house and a picket fence. Retire at sixty-five and move to Florida where you can enjoy the rest of your life a the beach. This is what my culture values—to its peril. I intend to be aware of this tendency and challenge people to embrace a biblical dream of what life should be. In my theological method, I want to challenge comfortable American Christians to give their lives away in service to Christ up to the moment of death. I want to challenge American Christians to go to hard places and be willing to suffer and die. This is an emphasis that is counter-cultural.

Experience

Experience is what has given me much internal motivation for the theological task. I was saved as a young child, and I’ve been in church all my life. I come from a traditional conservative church, so it is not hard to imagine why I have ended up where I do in other areas of method. One might say that my experience has driven me to the views that I hold on all of life—not just theological method.

Experience is important to theological method for one basic reason. The theologian does not study an exclusively outside subject as an objective observer. The theologian (if he is really a theologian at all) has an interest and a relationship with the subject of his study. The theologian’s quest is not just to know about the forces that explain the universe, but to know the infinite personal creator God who made all things from nothing. The theologian has a vested interest in his study, because he knows that accurately reflecting the truth about reality is essential not just for this life but for eternity.

For example, the theologian does not study original sin as an abstract concept but as someone who has been affected by it. He also does not study sin as a philosophical category, but as his own ultimate problem in life as a sinner. This has been my own quest in theology. I simply do not study theology in order to know more information, but to fight against my own sin and to know the One who can set it all right again—and has in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

It is hard to completely separate any of the resources from one another. Each of the resources in some way affects how I understand all of the others. The parts affect the whole, and the whole affects the parts. With that said, I strive to submit tradition, reason, culture, and experience to Scripture in a way that Scripture submits to nothing. One might say that all the other resources are bound to submit to Scripture, “but the Word of God is not bound” (2 Tim 2:9). I recognize that I am historically, philosophically, and culturally conditioned by my experience, but that is no hindrance to doing faithful theology. God is faithful, and though I am limited in my perceptions, and I will undoubtedly be wrong frequently, it is His revealing—not my grasping for Him—that needs to be trusted.



[1]Fred H. Klooster, “How Reformed Theologians ‘Do Theology’ in Today’s World,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essay’s in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, eds. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas E McComiskey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1991), 228.

[2]All Scripture quotations are from the American Standard Version [ASV].

[3]Gerald T. Sheppard, “How Do Neoorthodox and Post-Neoorthodox Theologians Approach the ‘Doing of Theology’ Today?” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essay’s in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, eds. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas E McComiskey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1991), 440.

[4]Paige Patterson, “Happy Southern Baptists and the Tricky Track,” 1-2 [on-line]; accessed 5 December 2007; available from http://sbctoday.com/files/ trickytrack.pdf; Internet.

[5]Gregory Wills, “Baptists, the Bible, and Confessions: The Need for Statements of Faith,” The Southern Seminary Magazine, November 2000, 13.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7]Thomas Nettles, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life, (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 1998), 86.

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