Christianity is a lifestyle as well as a profession. The apostles in the New Testament modeled that lifestyle, and encouraged their readers to follow their examples. They believed that people could be won to Christ because of the sheer attraction of a righteous life lived in the backdrop of a sinful world. But these same apostles insisted that to reflect true Christianity, their readers had to do more than just “walk the walk.” They also had to “talk the talk.” They had to know what they believed, and be able to communicate that faith to the watching (and listening) world.
Peter made this clear when he encouraged his readers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15 NIV). Behind this instruction is the assumption that Christianity is not only a lifestyle that can be lived, and a religion that can be chosen, but it is also a worldview that can be explained. The apostles did not ask their followers to believe some incredible and illogical philosophy that required a leap of faith and a commitment to that which they could never hope to understand. They expected every convert to accept their teachings based on the correspondence of those teachings to the scriptures upon which those teachings were based and the convert’s own experience.1
Since the Christian worldview is based on the unchanging truth of the Bible and backed up by real experiences, the doctrines that proceed from that worldview should be explainable and defensible. The true Christian should know what she believes, why she believes it, and why she does not believe the opposite. She should never hide behind ignorance pretending to be toleration. This is when she might have sincere convictions, but is hesitant to challenge others who disagree with her, because she fears she might not be able to prove her case.
A Christian generation who values tolerance above truth is like a rescue worker who throws out a life preserver, but then fails to hold firmly to it. Those who are drowning and need assistance will (of course) grab on to the chance for life. But as they continue floating out to sea, they realize that the assistance was only pretense. We are living in such a generation. We should not be surprised when the lost decide to try some other solution rather than grasp our ungrounded traditions. The problem is not with Christianity itself, but in our generation’s weak grasp of it.
The purpose of the following pages is to help today’s Christians get a firm grip on the faith they profess. A Christian should not only be able to affirm the statement of faith of his church, but he should also be able to explain it.2
If someone opposes him, he should feel confident enough in his position to engage in healthy debate. This confidence should come from his familiarity with the issues of the debate, not from debating skills or dominant personality.One of the tools which has helped Christians of past generations keep their grip on their faith is systematic theology. Systematic theology is the discipline that formulates comprehensive answers to the questions we all have about God, and those ultimate issues that he (and the rest of the universe) cares about.3 It comes with its own language: a set of categories and terms which help systematic theologians compare each others’ ideas. The categories and terms serve as a grid to help us evaluate the accuracy of our individual answers.
The primary categories used in this book are often called the loci of systematic theology. Each locus serves as a heading under which several major questions are posited, and then answered. The following chart represents how those loci will serve as the kind of scaffolding upon which this book will be built.
Prolegomena: This category answers questions about the task of systematic theology itself, other kinds of theology, and the ground rules for doing systematic theology.
Bibliology: This category answers questions about how God has revealed himself, especially about the nature of his written revelation: the Bible.
Theology Proper: This category answers questions about who (or what) God is, what he is like, and how he compares to the rest of the universe.
Anthropology: This category answers questions about who humanity is, the things that unify us (like our nature and destiny) and the things that make us unique (like race, gender, social and economic status).
Hamartiology: This category answers questions about the moral flaws within the fabric of humanity and their effect upon the universe. These questions include the origin, consequences and remedies for what the Bible often calls “sin.”
Christology: This category answers questions about who Jesus Christ is, what he taught, and the relationship he has to believers and unbelievers.
Pneumatology: This category answers questions about who and what the Holy Spirit is, what he does, and how the world and the Church is affected by his presence.
Angelology: This category answers questions about the other spirit beings who populate the universe, including Satan and the demons, as well as the elect angels who have remained loyal to God.
Soteriology: This category answers questions about what God has done to rid the universe of the sin problem, and what he is doing now in the lives of believers to get them ready for the sinless universe he plans.
Ecclesiology: This category answers questions about who and what the Church is, how the Church differs from the world, and our role within it.
Eschatology: This category answers questions about our destiny as believers, the return of Christ, and the ultimate fate of the lost.
The apostles encouraged their readers to have an answer available when questioned about their faith. Today believers have the same need: to be able to explain their faith in terms that match the questions people ask of them. In Peter’s day, some of those questions came from government or religious officials who attacked and persecuted Christians. We may experience
those kind of questions as well.4 But our hope is that most of the questions come from people who are interested in our faith because they are interested in us. Either way, the questions should not be ignored. They are our opportunities to testify of our relationship with Christ through faith.
One way to form adequate responses to the world’s questions is to compare our answers to those of other believers. This is one of the major reasons for systematic theology as a discipline. By studying the theological systems of others, I can ensure that my own system is not lacking any vital component, and that it is both biblically accurate and experientially relevant.
There is no good thing in this world that does not have its opponents. Systematic theology has certainly had its share. The evolutionary atheist, for example, regards all religious talk as irrelevant, and a bi-product of primitive minds. He sees any attempt at a comprehensive theology as a waste of time, and a deterrent to what really matters in life – true intellectual and social progress.5
The industrial pragmatist agrees, not because theology is primitive, but because she sees it as a distraction from what really matters in life (which can be anything from self-actualization to cold hard cash).
The religious mystic also takes sides against systematic theology, because he seeks an experience of the divine which cannot and should not be explained. He thinks that explanations only get in the way of what really matters in life – the magical encounter.6
Curiously enough, some of the most ardent attacks against systematic theology come from Bible believing, church-going evangelicals. Some churches have been hesitant to hire trained pastors, fearing that a study of systematic theology at college and seminary would ruin them, making them incapable of just teaching the plain truth from the Bible. These same people would never dare go “under the knife,” allowing an untrained surgeon to operate on them, yet they think that
professional training of any sort is harmful for the preacher. They have more in common with the religious mystic than they would care to admit.
There is some truth in each one of these objections to the task of systematic theology. Some of the doctrines we have defended through the centuries are the products of human prejudice and tradition, rather that divine revelation.7 A good systematic theology has to dig deeply into the theological assertions of the past to make sure that their source is God’s word. Often the Church has been satisfied with its profession simply because it protected the status quo. We owe Darwin, Marx and Stalin and the like an apology for giving them good reasons to side against us. It is not that evolutionary atheism is right – but the traditional Church was not entirely right either.
The industrial pragmatist steps up to the plate with her own agenda, and convicts the systematic theologians of the sin of irrelevance because they don’t play her game. Life is a chance to work hard and make your own way in life, and all these theologians want to do is fuss over the meanings of the words in some obscure ancient documents. But, to be fair, she has a point as well. There is more to life than the constant pursuit of knowledge – even religious knowledge. Jesus criticized the Jewish leaders because they had their noses in the good book, but failed to look up when the Holy One himself walked by. He told them “You search the Scriptures because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39 NLT). The last thing systematic theology should do is keep us from living life, and in that regard the industrial pragmatist is right. But living life consists of so much more than getting on top, or dying with the most money.
The religious mystic is not concerned with explaining things. He just wants a relationship with the spirit world that works – that gets the job done. In that respect he also is a pragmatist. His beef with systematic theologians is that we are always trying explain what everybody knows is a mystery. If God were knowable, he would not be God. Systematic theologians present a God who can be contained within the confines of a creed, or a doctrine. To the religious mystic, that is
ridiculous. They are partly right. Most of our definitions of God are nowhere near accurate.8 Yet since God has revealed himself and given us the capacity to explain what we experience, it is not impossible to explain that experience. In fact, it is the only way for us to compare the various experiences that human beings have had, and claimed to be divine.
Last at bat is the Bible-believing evangelical Christian who is hesitant to listen to a professionally trained pastor. Perhaps he thinks the Holy Spirit refuses to work through a preacher who picks up a book now and then. Maybe he feels it is safer for his teacher to just open the Bible, point his finger at a passage, and then let the Spirit take over. He does not need to be confused by anyone else’s views on the good book. He should just let God work through him.
It is interesting that the authors of the Bible itself did not have that attitude. If anyone would have been justified with this attitude it would be those authors of the Bible whom the Holy Spirit personally moved to speak and write God’s word. Yet these authors were constantly quoting each other, and showing through logical argument and correlation that their words were true. The biblical authors were the first systematic theologians, and we do well to follow their example.9
Doing systematic theology well requires both the writer and the readers to have a common expectation when some key terms are used, so some preliminary definitions are in order. Here are a few terms that are going to be used throughout this book, and how those terms will be used:
A text is a passage of scripture that will be referred to as a means of making or supporting an argument. Some texts will be considered normative, which means that those texts are the ones anyone should use to prove his point as it relates to the question at hand. For example, John 10:10 is a normative text for Christology, since it describes Christ’s role as the Good Shepherd. It is not, however, a normative text for Angelology, since it cannot be proven from the context that Jesus was referring to Satan. The context is the larger passage, and the background of the text, each of which helps the reader understand the purpose of the text originally.
A doctrine is a group of interrelated assertions that are made in conjunction with a particular question. One doctrine can be used as evidence for another, as long as both doctrines are independently attested to by the texts of scripture. Doctrines themselves are the result of human effort, and are never considered inspired or authoritative in the same sense as the texts of scripture are.10 In this book, every doctrine is related to a higher category, or locus. As
previously mentioned, the loci serve as headings under which several major questions are posited, and then answered.
This book is entitled An Advent Christian Systematic Theology. The title reflects the fact that the author is part of an Evangelical Protestant denomination which has doctrinal positions and distinctives. As would be expected, some of the chapters in this book deal directly with those doctrines which have been developed and promoted by that tradition. Most of the chapters, however, deal with doctrines that Advent Christians share in common with the wider Evangelical community. All Evangelicals should appreciate most of what is said in this book, but it is asking too much for even most Advent Christians to adhere to all of its positions.
1 This was also the approach the apostles took when sharing their faith with unbelievers. When on trial before the Roman governor Festus, Paul appealed to him by saying “What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25).
2 Charles Hodge said that the task of the believer who does systematic theology “is to take (scriptural) facts, determine their relation to each other and to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency. Systematic Theology. Online: http://www.dabar.org/Theology/HodgeVI/Int_C01.htm.
3 John H. Leith insists that “Christian theology must … be written in dialog with culture and with an awareness of living religions.” Basic Christian Doctrine. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 18.
4 A recent trend that comes close to this is the publishing of books that deny that Jesus was who the church says he was. These books include fiction, like the popular Dan Brown’s Davinci Code.(NY: Doubleday, 2003) and lesser known nonfiction works like Barry Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian. (NY: MacMillan, 2008), which argues that Paul reinterpreted the Jewish
sayings of Jesus according to his own mystical vision, inventing Christianity.
5 So the science fiction author Robert A Heinlein seems to imply when he argues that theology is “searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there.” “Theology Quotes” Online: http://en.thinkexist.com/ quotations/theology.html.
6 Acts 8 tells the story of a Samaritan named Simon who wanted to purchase the experience of laying hands on the people and them receiving the Holy Spirit. Peter rebuked him. His name became synonymous with trying to purchase a position of ecclesiastical leadership (Simony). He is also a good example of the religious mystic, who is more interested in “show” than in “know.”
7 So Leith argues that the “first task of theology is always to maintain the integrity of the faith itself.” 18. Thus Protestants are hesitant to adopt the Catholic practice of judging every scripture or new teaching by what they call the analogy of faith, that is, “in the context of the one, whole, and indivisible faith of the church.” Gerald O. Collins and Edward Farrugia, A Concise Dictionary of Theology. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 8. Protestants see this as backward thinking. The theology of the church – any church – should be judged by the scriptures, not the other way around.
8 Romans 11:33-34 “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (RSV). The Adventist revivalist H. L. Hastings pointed out that the Bible does contain many mysteries, and these cannot be fully understood even
by Christians. But he also shows that the Bible contains many duties which are not as hard to understand. He asserts that “the duties of the Christian may be performed, while many of the mysteries are but dimly seen.” Fireside Readings. (Boston [by author], 1896), 15.
9 Warren Wiersbe illustrates this when he explains that the “Gospel writers recorded the historical facts of our Lord’s suffering and death. It remained for the writers of the New Testament Epistles to explain the theological meaning of this event.” The Bible Exposition Commentary. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996), Mt 27:27. W. MacDonald and A Farstad state that
Romans is “as close to a systematic presentation of Christian theology as will be found in God’s word” because it addressed the issues that the Roman Church faced by integrating the teachings of Christ and the Old Testament in his answers. Believer’s Bible Commentary. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Ro 1:1.
10 This is why Michael Scott Horton in “Theology Quotes” insists that “Theology, not morality, is the first business on the church’s agenda of reform, and the church, not society, is the first target of divine criticism.” Thomas S. Warren II has pointed out that many within the church are simply pressured into adhering to a particular doctrinal position having never “studied the issue at all.” Dead Men Talking. (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2005) 42. We trust those pastors, teachers and family members to give us right information. But if they are deceived, that trust is misplaced. It is better to put our ultimate trust in God himself, and search his word for truth.