A few introductory comments on the definition and function of theology……
Systematic Biblical Doctrine
That’s the title of the course I will teach this Maymester at the undergraduate level for Lipscomb University. I don’t particularly like it. Here’s why.
“Doctrine” rings hollow at best for most students (especially at the undergraduate level) and creates hostile suspicion for many. The word has a polemical ring in many ears such that it conjures up images of dueling antagonists engaged in heated debate where the loser goes to Hell. “Doctrinal error,” as the saying goes, “places one in danger of judgment,” right?
“Systematic” sounds, well, too systematic. It sounds like we are going to put the Bible into its “proper” order–an order that we impose through a preconcevived “system” (an order perhaps borrowed from some philosophical construct, cultural model or a previous scholasticism). This prioritizes “system” over text; it postulates an “order” to which the text must conform. This is onto-theology so that theology is shaped by a prior commitment to an ontology. Theology then becomes a form of philosophical anthropology, which means it is not theology at all but “anthropology in a loud voice” (so Barth’s critique of classic liberalism). It will override the text.
So, “Systematic Biblical Doctrine” sounds like a code word for imposing my system upon the biblical text in order to draw boundaries that define the “right” group. Consequently, I don’t like it. It is not what I think theology should do.
Rather, I proceed with a more narrative approach where theology is the exploration of the biblical plot–to trace the redemptive-historical work of God through Creation, Fall, Israel, Christ and Church into the Eschaton. It follows the plot line. Theology tells the story and seeks to absorb the contemporary world into the plot of the story.
Is there something systematic about theology? Well, of course. There is an order. But, it seems to me, that order is best understood as redemptive-historical plot, or drama, or story, or narrative. The order is not that of a “system” or a philosophical/metaphysical grid, but the order of a narrative plot in which we live or a drama that we perform.
The Function of Doctrine (Theology)
What image does “doctrine” evoke in your mind? Answers would probably range from meaningless discussions of unfruitful minutia of rationalistic projections by ivory-tower theologians to exciting visions of polemical engagements over distinctive points of doctrine. Both of these exercises could be called “doctrinal,” but both leave a bad taste in the mouth of contemporary Christians who are impatient with the impractical musings of theologians and fed up with the backbiting, abusive and sectarian character of heated exchanges.
Many are searching for something more significant. They yearn for pragmatic value instead of the perplexity of intellectual gymnastics and the haughtiness of intramural Christian squabbles. Students, like many church members, are skittish, suspicious and usually disheartened by any “doctrinal” discussion.
Homiletics illustrates the problem. Preaching, it is said, ought to be life-oriented, faith-building and practical. Doctrinal preaching is out of style and ineffective. Topical preaching is generally snubbed because, in part, it is usually doctrinal preaching, and it is much easier to sneak one’s doctrinal position into a series of texts in topical preaching than when expounding a particular text. Preaching is thought more effective if it is framed psychologically or in story or in exposition, but never “doctrinal”.
This rejection of doctrinal preaching is due in large measure to a reaction to a fundamentalist emphasis on polemics. There preaching generally focuses on peripheral issues which are unconnected with life. This is largely driven by a demand for “distinctive” preaching. What can you preach that a Baptist cannot? Or, what can a Baptist fundamentalist preacher say that distinguishes him from a Methodist? Thus, doctrinal preaching degenerates into battles over the Bible and skirmishes over distinctives or theological systems. A steady diet of such preaching does not strike at the heart of the central aspects of Christianity. As a result, controversy is highlighted without the illumination of Christianity’s center, the weightier matters.
On the other hand, sermons shaped by inductive storytelling or pop psychology have the tendency to offer secular advice in religious clothing. They remain superficial and fail to probe the deeper resources of meaning and application within the Christian faith (that is, they fail to be “doctrinal”). While this perspective is driven by the nausea of the popular culture with doctrinal preaching, without doctrine there is no substance. Without reflection on the Christian faith, there is no grounding in the story of God. This kind of preaching may produce a relatively healthy secular psychology, but it will foster a weak and immature faith; a faith easily tempted and seduced by the forces of humanism, materialism and pluralism in our culture. It will be a faith that adopts the values of its culture rather than challenging them.
Ellen T. Charry has argued that the function of Christian Doctrine is aretegenic, that is, it is “conducive to virtue” or it generates a virtuous life (By the Renewing of Your Minds [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977], p. 19). The purpose of Christian doctrine is character formation, spiritual formation. Theology should give the people of God an identity (a sense of calling and status) and equip them with normative ideas and values that shape them into the image of Christ. The function of Christian doctrine is practical—to build a community which images God. Thus, the goal is neither polemical victory (to glory in being “right” on every issue) nor theological ingenuity (to glory in a “new” idea). It is pragmatic. Christian doctrine should serve God’s intent to seek a people that share his values and holiness in communion with him.
Theology is neither metaphysical speculation nor polemical exchange, but the applied story of God toward the goal of character formation—to be formed into the image of Christ. As Paul told Titus, if we will teach Christian doctrine (stress the theology of Titus 3:3-7), then the Christian community will be full of good works (Titus 3:8). This is the kind of “teaching” that is “good and profitable.” A community is shaped by its doctrine; it will become what its doctrine is. Teachers and preachers pay heed. Doctrine must be aretegenic if it is to be biblical.
What theology does Paul have in mind? He summarizes it in Titus 3:3-7. If Titus would have a vibrant community of faith, he should stress this: (1) the triune work of God—the Father who loved us through Jesus the Son and renewed us through the Holy Spirit; (2) our utter fallenness and thus the need for redemption; (3) the divine initiative for our salvation, the motive that moved the divine initiative, and the divine work which accomplished it; (4) the nature and means of our salvation as our redemption is not only forgiveness by the grace of Jesus Christ but transformation by the power of the Spiorit; and (5) the creation of a community of believers with eschatological hope.
Stress these things, Paul told Titus, and the people of God will be dedicated to good works (transformed living in service to others). They will avoid foolish controversies and quarrels about the law (polemics will not be their focus). They will be God’s people who image Christ in a fallen world; they will be a people who live according to the age to come rather than fashioned by this present evil age.
Significance of Doctrine
My call in this class is to a renewed appreciation for the fact that doctrine is at the heart of our faith–our faith involves theological (worldview, metanarrative) commitments and our ethics are pregnant with theological meaning and grounding. Our communal reflection and teaching must reflect these theological or doctrinal commitments or our people will have no grounding or understanding of the deep roots of their faith. We must develop within our people the ability to “do theology,” to think critically about their faith in relation to their life, so that their lives might reflect the commitments of their faith.
This kind of reflection is necessary if we are to perform the story, that is, live within the story of God. If we do not provide that heart and push for that reflection, then another “heart” will drive our lives and decisions. Instead of participating in God’s drama, believers will, by default, adopt the cultural mores which subtly shape them. Without reflection on the narrative of God’s story competing narratives will shape us. Without critical reflection on our faith, we naturally adopt a faith (worldview, metanarrative) which is comfortable and suitable to the age in which we live. Critical reflection demands that we retune our ears instead of having them scratched by contemporary culture.
More specifically, I offer this definition of “Christian Doctrine”: “Christian doctrine is pouring God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ into our human experience so that we might embody the life of Jesus in the present.” I attempt to do this comprehensively (whole of Scripture–both Hebrew and Greek–applied to the whole of life), coherently (seeking the integrative and consistent character of God’s story throughout redemptive history but without straggling the diversity of that story by some strait-jacket harmonizing technique), contextually (we are situated, concrete humans living in specific cultural contexts) and Christologically (the culmination of God’s revelation through creation and Israel is Jesus the Christ, the eschatological Son of Man breaking into the present from the future). This is faith seeking understanding. Theology asks how our faith relates to our human experience; and in particular, how should we live in the light of what God has done in Jesus.
Theology, then, is intended to be critical; it is self-reflection. It is a search for understanding–to understand the story of God in Israel and, ultimately, in Christ. This critical reflection is necessary to ensure that our praxis is faithful to God’s narrative. Theology is the self-conscious effort to interpret reality through the lens of God’s self-revelation in Christ given to us in Scripture.
Christian Doctrine as Story
Theology is a narrative enterprise as it seeks to tell the story of God, explains its meaning and apply its principles to the contemporary world. Theology is fundamentally a secondary language in which the church speaks, but a necessary one. The power of its language (including its propositions) is drawn from the power of the story as it is given to us in Scripture. Scripture is the first order; it is the norm. Theology is second order; it attempts to provide a coherent and practical model of the first for a contemporary audience by way of application. It is presumptive to think that our model is an exact duplicate of the first. Our model does not bear the perfections of the first. Our model does not have the first-hand character of the first as a witness to the story. Our model is a retelling of the story; the first is the story.
In other words, as Stan Grenz notes, our model is not a replica, but an analogue. A replica would be a miniaturization of a reality in its exact dimensions, but an analogue simulates the structural relationships of the reality modeled. It speaks analogously–we are pilgrim thinkers that are ever trying to model our theology after God’s own narrative telling. Our theology does not equal Scripture, but it models it. This is the ongoing process of sanctification, as we seek to bring our thoughts in captivity to God’s thoughts.
This means that theology is always a human construct–fallible, subject to adjustment, and always stands under Scripture. This means that theology is reflection on faith; it is not to be equated with faith. Theology draws out the meaning of our experience of faith; but it is not a substitute for faith. It informs and guides our faith as we live it out in our specific contexts, but faith is itself the foundation for theology.
Theology is not absolute truth. God is the absolute Truth. We can apprehend truths about him as he has revealed them in Scripture. But as we attempt to narrate, understand and apply those truths, we do so as situated, fallible, finite human beings. We cannot absolutize our system–only God is Absolute. There is only one God and we are not “him.”