Authority and Method in Theology
A. What is “Theology”?
Various definitions of theology have been given, some practical and some theoretical:
· Theology is “the science of living blessedly forever” (William Perkins, A Golden Chain ).
· Theology “is not primarily a way of thinking, but a way of living” (Henri Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal, 159).
· “Theology is intellectual reflection on the faith commitments we have as Christians as informed by Scripture, carried out in a specific historical-cultural context for the purpose of living for the glory of God” (Lecture at Regent College; cited in The Other Six Days by R. Paul Stevens [Eerdmans, 1999], 4). Theology is for “achieving God’s glory (honour and praise) and humankind’s good (the godliness that is true humanness) through every life activity” (ibid.)
· According to John Stott, “theology is a serious quest for the true knowledge of God, undertaken in response to his self-revelation, illumined by Christian tradition, manifesting a rational inner coherence, issuing in ethical conduct, resonating with the contemporary world and concerned for the greater glory of God” (“’Theology’ A Multidimensional Discipline,’ in Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in Honor of J. I. Packer, ed. by Donald Lewis and Alister McGrath, 17-18).
· Donald Bloesch (A Theology of Word and Spirit [IVP]) argues that “theology is the systematic reflection within a particular culture on the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture and witnessed to in the tradition of the catholic church. Theology in this sense is both biblical and contextual. Its norm is Scripture, but its field or arena of action is the cultural context in which we find ourselves” (114). Again, “theology is not an analysis of the vagaries of universal religious experience nor an exploration of the possibility of meaning in a meaningless world but an exposition of the particularities of Scripture that bring meaning to the otherwise desolate landscape of human existence” (115)
· Millard Erickson defines theology as “that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily upon the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life” (I:21).
· Theology, writes Thomas Oden, “is reasoned discourse about God gained either by rational reflection or by response to God’s self-disclosure in history. . . . Christian theology is the orderly exposition of Christian teaching. It sets forth that understanding of God that is made known in Jesus Christ” (The Living God, 5).
A good working definition is provided by D. A. Carson, who defines systematic theology as “the branch of theology that seeks to elaborate the whole and the parts of Scripture, demonstrating their logical (rather than their merely historical) connections and taking full cognizance of the history of doctrine and the contemporary intellectual climate and categories and queries while finding its sole ultimate authority in the Scriptures themselves, rightly interpreted. Systematic theology deals with the Bible as a finished product” (D. A. Carson, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology,” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983], 69-70).
B. The Possibility of Systematic Theology
There is a growing conviction that the very concept of “systematic” theology is obsolete and even dangerous. We read the Bible and discover a multitude of stories, individuals, assertions, parables, commandments, questions, metaphors, records of personal encounters with God, statements of belief, etc. From this vast array of data we are expected to extrapolate and develop “doctrines” or concepts about God and his relation to humanity that we believe are objectively true. There are many, however, who insist that such a task is impossible. Any attempt to construct a single theology that successfully integrates and harmonizes the variety of data found in Scripture is misguided. It is based on the false assumption that there is, in the midst of the diversity of Scripture, an underlying conceptual unity. Any attempt to construct a “systematic” theology cannot avoid ignoring, denying, subordinating, or in some way slighting some texts for the sake of others. There is no single “theology” in the Bible, only a multitude of historically contingent and culturally conditioned “theologies”, each of which must be given its own independent weight. Thus, underlying this suspicion of systematic theology are the following (unwarranted) assumptions:
· The Bible is replete with contradictory assertions
· The Bible embraces numerous and quite disparate or mutually incompatible “theologies” but no single theology
· The diversity in the Bible is more than linguistic or cultural or historical; it is conceptual
· The biblical documents are spread out over so long a time span that developments from one era to another have rendered obsolete the theology of the earlier documents
· The Bible itself reveals no consistent consciousness of a distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy
· The only kind of “authority” the Bible can exercise is a functional authority in local contexts
The validity of systematic theology must therefore be predicated on the following essential principles:
· The Bible in its entirety is inspired of God and therefore trustworthy and true. There are numerous grounds on which this assumption may be defended, but such is not germane to our focus.
· The Bible is a theological unity.
· The diversity in the biblical documents most often reflects unique historical circumstances, cultural influences, issues of genre, diverse pastoral concerns of the author, as well as idiosyncratic styles and differing personalities.
· The fundamental laws of logic (such as the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle) are not the fruit of someone’s creative genius imposed on the text, but are intrinsic to the nature of God and the reality he has created. Logic is not the product of literary genre nor is it culturally adaptable. Logic is intrinsic to the nature of all knowledge and communication.
· Recognition of the principle of progressive revelation. No one denies that there is progress in revelation, even development of doctrine, but that does not necessarily entail that later insights and assertions annul or contradict earlier ones. The nature of the development could just as easily be growth in understanding and awareness. We must be careful that the truth of progressive revelation not be used “to exclude inconvenient components along that revelation’s alleged trajectory” (Carson, 82). The best analogy to explain progressive revelation is the organic one (the relationship of seed to plant). Carson explains:
“We are dealing with the growth of a single specimen, not transmutation into new species. It follows that systematic theology is possible, in the same way that the botanical description of a tree is possible. That there is growth and development in revealed truth within the canon requires, not the abolition of systematic theology, but treatment that is sensitive to the nature of the object being studied” (83).
· In view of the preceding points, there is nothing inherently objectionable in theological harmonization. The latter should not be employed in such a way that documents and assertions are forced into a theological mold which they were never intended to fit. It does, however, acknowledge the validity of the analogy of faith (see below).
C. The Analogy of Faith and Systematic Theology
Critical to the task of interpretation and especially to the discipline of systematic theology is a proper understanding and use of the Analogy of Faith (analogia fidei). According to the analogy of faith,
· No part of Scripture should be interpreted in such a way as to place it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture.
· No single statement or obscure passage in one book of Scripture should be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages in several books (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:29; Acts 2:38; 1 John 3:6).
There are five theological assumptions essential to the analogy of faith
· divine revelation is inerrant
· divine revelation is accommodated (It is the form of divine revelation, not its content, that is accommodated.
· divine revelation is progressive (cf. Mt. 5:17; Heb. 1:1-2; temporally subsequent revelation never contradicts earlier revelation; it may embellish and illuminate, but never alters the truth, of antecedent revelation)
· divine revelation is unified (notwithstanding differences of genre, theological emphasis, pastoral need, historical distance, etc., the many and diverse documents yield a unified message
· divine revelation is perspicuous (the coherency, rationality, and general clarity of Scripture; observe the difference between paradox, mystery, and contradiction
Degrees of the analogy of faith:
· positive and explicit
· general and implicit
Limitations of the analogy of faith:
1) The analogy of faith does not mean that a statement in Scripture lacks authority unless it has support in other statements (cf. 1 Tim. 5:3ff.; 1 Cor. 11 and the Lord's Supper)
2) Neither can we set aside a legitimate inference from a statement of Scripture on the ground that the inference is unsupported by other parallel statements.
3) Unless a statement in Scripture is clearly excluded by several other equally explicit statements, one positive declaration of God's Word is sufficient to establish either a fact or a doctrine.
The authority and value of texts in the analogy of faith vary.
1) The analogy of faith is stronger (but not necessarily more authoritative) when the doctrine is found in ten rather than in two texts.
2) The value of the analogy will be in proportion to the agreement of the passages on which it is based (be sure that parallel passages are truly parallel).
3) An analogy that depends largely upon obscure passages is of dubious value (don't interpret one obscure text on the basis of another obscure text).
4) The distribution of passages is also important. If the analogy is based upon texts derived from a single book, it will not be as strong as one based on texts found in both the OT and NT, dating from various times and coming from different authors.
Other principles related to the analogy of faith:
1) The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit (cf. Rev. 2-3 [the "angel" of the church] and the issue of church government).
2) The unclear is to be interpreted by the clear.
3) Historical narratives are to be read and interpreted in the light of didactic literature (cf. the relation of Acts to the Epistles; this is not meant to imply, however, that doctrine cannot be deduced from narrative).
4) Be sensitive to the nature of progressive or cumulative revelation:
· the analogy of antecedent Scripture (the meaning of a word or passage is to be determined in the light of that Scripture which has preceded it in the sequence of revelation)
· the analogy of subsequent Scripture (the more complete interprets the less complete; i.e., the NT interprets the OT).
All Scripture is organically interrelated:
seed ® sprout ® root ® stem ® bud ® flower ® fruit
The fruit will tell you far more about the seed than the seed will tell you about the fruit.
D. The Sources of Theology
A fundamental issue concerns the sources from which our theology is derived and by which its validity is verified. What propositions about God, information about human nature, etc. do we allow to inform and shape our system, and on what basis do we make such a decision? What do we mean by “source”? Do we mean a reservoir of truth-claims, a locus of revelatory concepts, or a resource of stimuli, categories, images, and words through which to express those truths?
· John Wesley advocated a quadrilateral approach to theological sources: (1) Scripture (when properly exegeted and interpreted, (2) tradition (the consensus of church teaching throughout its history), (3) reason (the discoveries of science, etc.), and (4) experience (both individually and corporately), again with Scripture holding priority.
· Stanley Grenz argues for a trilateral model. These three “pillars” or norms of theology “form an ordered sequence of (1) the biblical message [i.e., Scripture], (2) the theological heritage of the church [or, tradition], and (3) the thought-forms of the historical-cultural context in which the contemporary people of God seek to speak, live and act [by this he means culture]” (Revisioning Evangelical Theology, 93). On culture as a “medium” of revelation, Grenz writes:
“Because the life-giving Spirit is present wherever life flourishes, the Spirit’s voice can conceivably resound through many media, including the media of human culture. Because Spirit-induced human flourishing evokes cultural expression, Christians can anticipate in such expressions traces of the Creator Spirit’s presence. Consequently, in the conversation that constitutes theology, evangelical theologians should listen intently for the voice of the Spirit, who is present in all life and therefore precedes us into the world, bubbling to the surface through the artifacts and symbols humans construct. A cautionary note is in order here, however. Whatever speaking that occurs through other media does not come as a speaking against the text. . . . Hence, while being ready to acknowledge the Spirit’s voice wherever it may be found, evangelical theology must always give primacy to the Spirit’s speaking through the biblical text” (Renewing the Center, 210-11).
How does this differ from Thomas Finger who argues that “the extent to which theology is intelligible within the experience and thought-world of its context is also a standard by which its adequacy may be measured” (Christian Theology, I:54)?
· Donald Bloesch argues that “only when we come to the realization of the utter incompatibility of God’s self-revelation in Christ with the creative imagination of human culture can we determine how the biblical message bears upon the pressing issues that presently bedevil supposedly liberated human beings come of age” (35). He thus argues for a unilateral authority, namely, “divine revelation – but one communicated through various means” (210). Bloesch sees “revelation received through Scripture and tradition and elucidated by reason and experience” (210).
· To what degree, if any, is philosophical reasoning a source for theology? Bloesch draws a sharp contrast between theology and philosophy. “Philosophy might be defined as the attempt to bring all of reality under the domain of understanding” (38). “Theology, on the other hand, is the systematic endeavor to render a compelling and faithful witness to the truth of divine revelation” (38). The former focuses on reason’s effort to comprehend the meaning of existence and the relationship of its many parts. The latter focuses on faith’s reception of the divinely initiated revelatory activity of God in Jesus Christ. Philosophy is anthropocentric; theology is theocentric. Says Bloesch:
“I contend that every philosophy represents a rationalization for a false theology or religion and that true theology necessarily excludes philosophy – not its concerns, not even its language, but its world view, its metaphysical claims. . . . The relation between theology and philosophy is not one of synthesis or correlation but one of conflict and contradiction” (43).
Says Bloesch: “the deepest threat to faith lies not in philosophy but in the eagerness with which theologians rush to claim philosophical support for the claims of faith” (49).
Let’s consider more carefully the trilateral model advocated by Grenz and others.
(1) Scripture – The principle of sola scriptura will be addressed in a subsequent lesson.
(2) Culture – Whereas theologians must engage in an on-going dialogue with culture, as well as exploit its language and metaphors for effective communication, it does not provide us with conceptual truth nor is it a standard by which biblically derived theological propositions are measured. Rather, we listen to the Bible to know the truth, but we listen to culture to determine how it should be packaged, proclaimed, and applied to our life setting. Theologians must stay in touch with the flow of ideas in society at large, from pop culture to the latest philosophical musings of the academy. Culture is a platform for revelation, a conceptual and linguistic framework within which it is expressed, but not its source or its standard of truth.
(3) Tradition - Three perspectives on the role of tradition:
First, according to the view associated with Protestantism, the Bible and the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura) is sufficient to provide us with all truth essential for salvation. Whether explicitly or implicitly, everything necessary for faith and life can be found in Scripture. Thus Protestants reject the Catholic claim to an infallible ecclesiastical magisterium (or teaching office) and insist that the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. This does not rule out tradition in the theological enterprise, but reminds us that nothing can replace or supplement canonical scripture as the church’s constitutive and regulative authority. Any and all theological developments, conciliar decisions, and institutional programs must always and continually be tested and evaluated by the supreme norm of scripture.
Second, according to another view, revelation is found in two sources: partly in canonical scripture and partly in the oral tradition of the apostles passed down through their disciples. The Council of Trent, for example, asserted that the Catholic Church “accepts and venerates” apostolic tradition with the same “loyalty and reverence” that it gives to scripture.
Third, this view (characteristic of the RCC) argues that the Holy Spirit continues throughout history to inspire and illumine the Church regarding truth. Thus, in addition to scripture and oral tradition one must recognize both papal decrees and the findings of the ecumenical councils. Avery Dulles summarizes the findings of Vatican II on this matter by arguing that Scripture is insufficient and that tradition is necessary to gain “a sufficient grasp of the word of God, even though it be assumed that all revelation is somehow contained in Scripture. It is not from scripture alone that the Church draws its certainty about everything that has been revealed. Tradition is the means by which the full canon of the sacred books becomes known, and by which the meaning of the biblical text is more profoundly understood and more deeply penetrated” (The Craft of Theology [New York: Crossroad, 1992], 97).
The first view is the one I embrace. Thus, tradition is not an independent source of theology, as if to suggest that God speaks as authoritatively through corporate confession and experience as he does through Scripture. Rather, tradition is “a particular way of understanding Scripture which the Christian church has recognized as responsible and reliable” (McGrath, 24). We cannot read Scripture today as if it had never been read before. How the early or medieval church interpreted the text is not unequivocally authoritative for us, but it does provide an interpretive framework or theological boundaries that guard us from wandering beyond the parameters of authentic Christian faith. McGrath explains:
“Tradition is a willingness to read Scripture, taking into account the ways in which it has been read in the past. It is an awareness of the communal dimension of Christian faith, which calls shallow individualism into question. There is more to the interpretation of Scripture than any one individual can discern. It is a willingness to give full weight to the views of those who have gone before us in the faith” (25).
The communal judgment of the church, in any age, concerning the truth or falsity of a doctrine is not infallible. It must always be subjected to re-evaluation in the light of Scripture. The church can err in its interpretation of the text. Thus, the latter is always authoritatively antecedent to the former. Whereas tradition does not serve as the final arbiter of theological truth, it nevertheless plays a vital role in the construction of theology among protestants.
First, it reveals to us both faith and failure from which we can learn much. As the exploits of those listed in Hebrews 11 provide an example of faith and the rewards of obedience, so too the lives of Christian men and women during the past 1900 years serve to set an example for us of godliness and greatness.
But, secondly, we must also be careful in how we appropriate the insights of great individuals of the past. We should never challenge someone’s evangelical credentials simply because he/she fails to agree completely with an Augustine or Luther or Edwards or Wesley. We who are evangelicals must always view historical tradition as our servant, not our master. Our consciences are ultimately bound only to Scripture.
Thirdly, while historical tradition is not an infallible guide to biblical orthodoxy, it helps us meet the challenge of radical individualism. In other words, it alerts us to be cautious, even suspicious, of the novel interpretation, of the theological innovator who espouses a view or a call to action utterly disconnected from anything taught in or believed by the church in centuries preceding his/her own. We are thereby safeguarded, notes McGrath, “from the shallow individualism of theologians for whom innovation and ‘creativity’ – to use a word that has often come to mean little more than a determination to abandon traditional viewpoints – are of prime importance. If an evangelical theologian confronts us with a demand to ‘believe me!’ when offering us a radical new teaching, we can respond with an obvious challenge: Why has no one believed this before? Why, throughout two thousand years of faithful Christian reflection, has this doctrine never been taken seriously? Such a critical approach is liberating, as it frees us from the authoritarianism of maverick preachers and writers” (157).
Fourth, an awareness of tradition also “demonstrates how the interpretation of the Bible was governed, often to an uncomfortable extent, by cultural and philosophical assumptions” (McGrath, 149). In taking note of this we can avoid the danger of thinking that “evangelicals can read Scripture and reflect on it in a detached, objective, and culture-free manner” (149).
Fifth, and finally, the historical tradition of the church is, in a manner of speaking, a study of the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Abraham Kuyper, in speaking of Scripture, makes this point:
"It [Scripture] works also as a living seed that is sown, and which, according to the nature of the soil, germinates and brings forth fruit. Hence the task of the theologian is by no means ended when he has formulated, assimilated and reproduced the content of the Word in its state of rest; it is his duty, also, to trace the working of this principium, when the fountain is flowing. After it was finished, the Holy Scripture was not hidden in some sacred grotto, to wait for the theologian to read and to make scientific exhibition of its content; no, it was carried into the world, by reading and recitation, by teaching and by preaching, in apologetic and in polemic writings. And once brought into the world, it has exerted an influence upon the consciousness-form of the circle which it entered. Both its authority, and the consequent activity which it created, are no mean factors in the rise of an ecclesiastical confession and in the institution of an ecclesiastical communion. The Holy Scripture and the Church, therefore, are no foreign phenomena to each other, but the former should be looked upon as the mother of the latter" (Principles of Sacred Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968], pp. 571-72).
E. Observations on the Nature of Doctrine
Every movement in human history, every cause for which people have argued, fought and died, has been based on a set of beliefs about reality. Whether it be economic, political, religious, or philosophical, a system of beliefs, called doctrines, are asserted to be true and important. Doctrines simply seek to describe the way things are; they are a means of asserting what reality is and why and how we are to respond. In other words, doctrine makes truth-claims. Doctrine “claims to make significant and justifiable statements about the order of things, about the way things are” (Alister E. McGrath, Understanding Doctrine: Its Relevance and Purpose for Today [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], 19).
What is the difference between a “doctrine” and a “dogma”? Donald Bloesch defines “dogma” as “a propositional truth that is grounded in and inseparable from God’s self-revelation in Christ and communicated to the interiority of our being by the Spirit of God” (19). “Doctrine”, on the other hand, “is a propositional affirmation that represents the church’s continuing reflection on the dogmatic norm of faith” (19). Doctrines are therefore always subject to revision whenever and in whatever way they are shown to be inaccurate representations of the truth of the biblical text.
“Beneath all the rhetoric about relevance lies a profoundly disturbing possibility – that people may base their lives upon an illusion, upon a blatant lie. The attractiveness of a belief is all too often inversely proportional to its truth. . . . To allow ‘relevance’ to be given greater weight than truth is a mark of intellectual shallowness and moral irresponsibility” (A. McGrath, 11-12).
Christian doctrine is unique in that it is an intellectual response to the historical activity and revelatory disclosure of God. Doctrine is rational reflection upon God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ. Foundational to the idea of “doctrine” is the fact that we need to be told what God is like. It is not ours to determine what kind of God we will believe and obey. It is God’s to determine to show himself to us. Doctrine is our effort to articulate what he has made known. Doctrine is the divinely authorized attempt to describe God in accordance with how he has revealed himself in creation, in history, in Jesus Christ and in the Scriptures. In doing so, doctrine also serves to expose false interpretations of reality, false concepts of God. It is the aim of doctrine to make sense of the individual’s and the church’s experience of God as he has made himself known in Jesus Christ. Or again, “doctrines are essentially the distillation of the Christian experience of God, in which countless personal experiences are compared and reduced to their common features” (McGrath, 43).
Doctrine functions in a number of different ways:
It identifies who we are
It articulates what we believe to be true
It provides a framework for understanding and interpreting the world at large
It defines whom we are to obey
It identifies whom we are to worship, and why
It enables us to respond to God’s revelation of himself to us
It draws a line of demarcation between the true church that seeks to obey Jesus Christ and the false church that would deny him
It provides a foundation and rationale for behavior, a standard for right and wrong
Other relevant issues:
· How does a doctrine come into being? How do we move from the text to theology? How do we convert a biblical narrative into a biblical belief?
· Not all biblical texts are equally clear. Thus, not all doctrines that seek to interpret those texts are equally clear.
· Not all doctrines are equally important. They are equally true, but not all truth is equally important. It isn’t a matter of some doctrines being “more true” than others, as if some doctrines are partially false. It is rather that some doctrines bear less impact than others on our capacity to know, love, and obey God.
· Sometimes doctrine matters too much. The disturbing thing about theology is the revelation of how Christians have done un-Christian things to each other in defense of doctrines that, in the ultimate scheme of things, don’t matter all that much. Roger Olson gives one example:
“Without in any way denigrating the Protestant Reformers and their great reforming work of the sixteenth century, I would argue that their failure to unite due largely to disagreements about interpretations of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper is a scandal and a blot on the history of Protestant theology. Of course Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other Reformers disagreed about other things as well, but that doctrinal issue seems to have been the all-consuming point of division that prevented Protestant unity” (17).
F. Subjectivity and Systematic Theology
At the same time as we exercise our God-given responsibility to interpret the Scriptures, we must be aware of the element of subjectivity that influences all interpretation. Interpreting the Bible is not to be compared to a man looking into a fishbowl, but to a fish in his own fishbowl looking at another fish in his! Whether we like it or not, we are all, in varying degrees, theologians before we are exegetes. We all bring to the text a measure of philosophical, moral, cultural, and thus theological bias. Some of the factors that affect our objectivity in studying the Bible are:
· personal prejudice
· hidden agendas (personal and theological)
· cultural conditioning
· historical circumstances
· socio-economic factors
· unconscious expectations
· educational background (the "wet cement" syndrome)
· ecclesiastical background
· personality distinctives
· occupational pressures
· pride (a disinclination to admit that one is in error)
· interpersonal relational background
Robert Fowler reminds us that there is today
“an increasing recognition that reading and interpretation is always interested, never disinterested; always significantly subjective, never completely objective; always committed and therefore always political, never uncommitted and apolitical; always historically-bound, never ahistorical. The modernist dream of disinterested, objective, distance, abstract truth is fading rapidly” (“Post-modern Biblical Criticism,” Eastern Great Lakes & Midwest Bible Society Proceedings 8 [September, 1989], 22).
However, we must not let the reality of an inescapable subjectivism in reading Scripture lead us to the conclusion that it is impossible to ascertain the authorial intent of any particular text. The lack of complete objectivity in interpretation should not be taken as an endorsement of hermeneutical pessimism, as if to say we must abandon hope of ever determining what the Bible truly means and how it legitimately applies to our situation. On the one hand, I agree with Stanley Grenz that “we simply cannot bracket our commitments, values, and worldviews in an attempt to approach the text as uninvolved, neutral observers” (Beyond Foundationalism, 85). On the other hand, this does not mean we must capitulate to contemporary forms of reader-response criticism.
G. Language in theology, or how shall we speak of God?
Two words are said to be univocal if they are used in an identical sense. In the assertions, “Al Gore was the Democratic candidate” and “George Bush was the Republican candidate” the word “candidate” is used in the same sense, i.e., univocally. Two words are said to be equivocal if they are used in an entirely different sense. In the assertions, “That animal is a rat” and “That man is a rat” the word “rat” is used in two different senses, i.e., equivocally. Two words are used analogically if their respective meanings are in some sense both similar and different. In the two sentences, “My home is in Chicago” and “A gopher’s home is underground” the word “home” is partly the same in both and partly different. “According to Thomas [Aquinas], no words that humans apply to God can be used in a univocal sense. While God is transcendent and infinite, the categories by means of which humans attempt to describe him are drawn from our human experience of the imperfect world” (Ronald Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions [Zondervan] 178). Therefore, whatever words we use to describe God are, at best, analogically true of him.
On the other hand, it is important to point out that regardless of what we say concerning God there must be a univocal element present. Gordon Clark reminds us that “all the analogies of common speech have a univocal basis. . . . Now matter how complicated, or what type of analogy, an examination must discover some univocal element. The two terms [in an analogy, such as “God and Solomon are both wise”] must be like each other in some respect. If there were no likeness or similarity of any sort, there could be no analogy. And the point of likeness can be designated by a simple univocal term of phrase” (Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things, 311).]
H. Other Essential Emphases in the doing of Theology
· Systematicians must maintain familiarity with and constantly draw from biblical exegesis and biblical theology. Indeed, all theology must be held accountable to the biblical text as interpreted historically and contextually. Theology starts with Scripture, is nourished and built up by Scripture, and is constantly subject to critique and reformulation should Scripture so demand.
· At the same time, theology is more than just “me and my Bible”. For the “me” who starts with Scripture is a thinking person whose ability to interpret the text has been seriously compromised by the Fall. This “me” is a person with a tradition, long-held and deeply-ingrained values and desires and expectations, who lives in and is thus shaped by a culture, who has a multiplicity of experiences, all of which profoundly affect “my” interpretation of the text and thus my theologizing.
· It is “vital to realize that truth is for people, and therefore, the pastoral function of theology is ultimately primary. Professional theologians should be winning their spurs as pastors no less than as scholars. . . . The supreme skill in the art and craft of theology is to link the theoretical and cognitive aspects of God’s revealed truth with its practical and transformative aspects in an unbreakable bond. For God shows himself to us and tells us about himself so that we may not just know of him but know him relationally in a life-changing way and taste the full joy of that knowledge in our fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (Packer, “Maintaining Evangelical Theology,” in Evangelical Futures, 184-85).
· Theology is doxology.
· Theologians must always be asking the question: how do my findings relate to ethics, spiritual formation, pastoral care, and most important of all, worship.
· Theologians must also maintain dialogue with both Roman Catholic and Orthodox voices. Also, contact and familiarity with non-evangelical theologies is essential, whether liberal, feminist, liberationist, etc.