There are a million (that seems not a great exaggeration) essays on the web about why Christians should study theology. At the same time whenever we read the Bible we are doing theology. By our nature, we organize our thoughts into systems. We are always doing theology at some level. These explorations are here to encourage us to add some extra rigor to our work. Our thoughts and ideas, after all, need to be in line with the Bible’s teaching. There are many theological matters to study and at times it is overwhelming. Some are complicated, some seem simple. Still, they are unavoidable.
One example is the doctrine of the trinity. Is it taught in the Bible? Yes, it is. Is it specifically “systematically” taught in the Bible? That is, does the Bible have a section which outlines this teaching? No, it does not. The process took about 300 years with numerous arguments against a variety of errors and heresies to refine the doctrine and the exegesis that accompanies it. The doctrine of the Trinity is part of historical theology.
All of what we are theologically has a history, like the trinity doctrine. The Bible, likewise, is the history of God’s revelation of Himself and with that His Son and the great things He has provided. Our history is rich with stories and truths to each and learn from. Yet we prefer live in the present and in the moment. While it is oh, so easy to criticize the unbeliever for living for today it appears too often that the believer will set aside his theological heritage.
Let’s not avoid doing this type of reading. Of course not everyone is a scholar or academic and much of this information is tedious and boring, without apparent relevance to life today. But that’s the error we need to fix. Today is today because of yesterday. The goal is to keep history in its proper perspective, to be aware that we got to this point through a series of events and ideas, of successes and failures. The better we understand the past the better we can deal with the present and prepare for the future.
How this works – an example
The area of apologetics is of great concern to me. When I introduce people to the field one of the first readings I ask people to pick up is J. F. Hurst’s “History of Rationalism” from 1865. In his work Hurst surveys the affect of a secular movement on church life. The movement affected, and continues to affect, how Christians think. The way we think has a lot of history behind it. But things have changed in church life because of this movement. One of the fruits of this is the independence of the individual versus both the church and the state. It is a sort of radical individualism and libertarianism that has affected church life.
One example of this change is the “calling” that a person receives to ministry. A calling used to be a church function. A person would be noticed by church leadership. Then the person would be encouraged and trained for ministry. Of course there were exceptions, but the general rule was that calling was a church function. Ministry was about reinforcing and growing the church.
Today (post-WWII America, that is) sees calling as something individual. People announce their intentions to the church and ask the church for money and prayer. The modern para-church ministry is often guilty of stealing money and people from church life to build their organization and staff without regard for those who give to them. They separate themselves from the church in a wholly unbiblical fashion
I can find a dozen or so individuals who are out there to start their own ministries. Why? Because God has apparently called each one to this work. Often, after a couple of years, this effort fails. But if God has called them, why are do many fail? The tendency is to blame God. “It was God’s plan for this to happen” is repeated over and over. Few if any want to take responsibility for their failure to understand calling. Far fewer recognize that the origin of this individualism.
Those who succeed may take a pragmatic approach. They thank God for their success. But what they still fail to realize is that their individualism and personality may have created a distortion in their relationship with the Lord and the fellowship of believers he established — the church, the ekklesia. They separate themselves from the church and work from a pragmatic reference, that success verifies a calling.
Where did this individualism come from? It has been part of the world’s rebellion against Christianity for the past 500 years. Let’s call it “libertarianism.” It’s the idea that the individual is solely responsible for his relationship with the Lord, and that apart from the church. After all, the church cannot get between me and God — “there is only one mediator and it ain’t the church!”
A multitude of sources for this can be identified. Kant made knowledge a personal subjective matter. He iterated a relativism that affects not only public morality but also private knowledge. It shows itself in this way: “if I sense God’s calling, then who is anyone else to question my knowledge and relationship with God?” Whether we say it out loud or in the quiet of our minds this individualism find a place in most churches. Yet represents a rebellion against Him and the fellowship of believers that He set up.
I trust you get the idea now. All that we are is history. We do not have original thoughts. These come from the things we have learned. Theology is the same. Our theology comes from what we have learned. For a sense of purpose let’s make this an eschatological point: We cannot pass on what we have not learned and what has not affected our minds and passions. Unless we are willing to become self-aware we will continue to follow the theological trends of the world around us. The term “sheeple” is common in political circles but sometimes is deserving in church circles as well.
Today, it seems, we view evangelism through the lens of revivalism. People are asked to pray a “sinner’s prayer” or something similar. A tract is used which declares some individual benefit, some “wonderful plan” for the individual. It’s not about becoming part of a fellowship. It’s about going to heaven as the result of some formula. If this language sounds familiar it’s because it was part of American evangelical thought in the 1800s.
Many evangelicals are either dispensational or premillennial. That is, the kingdom has not yet come. But sometimes we have this tendency to try to establish the character of the kingdom through law. We act like do-gooders who are working to improve society. It is thought, and taught, that God’s law is best for society and sometimes that includes the provisions and ordinances of the Mosaic law. Of course we do not see that rule in any New Testament plan for the church. Where did that come from? Before the first World War, for a couple of centuries, the goal of the church was to establish or prepare God’s kingdom. This is postmillennialism. Though few hold to that idea today it has been easy to hang onto some of its treasured artifacts. It is difficult to break a habit. We like to hold onto nice ideas from the past even though we have adopted a different system.
Just two hundred years of church history says a great deal about who we are. The more history we read the more we understand ourselves. With the proper attitude, the more this understand can help us correct ourselves and fix our errors.