The preceding chapter demonstrates that there is more than one way to do theology. Systematic theology is organized by categories reflecting the questions people ask about God. But chapter two was organized by chronology, tracing God’s promise of eternal life by resurrection through twelve eras of biblical history, from Genesis to Revelation. The chapter serves as a crude example of biblical theology, which can be defined as…
“a discipline within Christian theology which studies the Bible from the perspective of understanding the progressive history of God revealing God’s self to humanity following the Fall and throughout the Old Testament and New Testament. It particularly focuses on the epochs of the Old Testament in order to understand how each part of it ultimately points forward to fulfillment in the life mission of Jesus Christ.”1
Both biblical theology and systematics are helpful ways of getting the big picture, helping people see the relationships between all the various things told and taught in scripture.
Sometimes one approach works better than others, but what matters most is the message itself, not how we package it. That is the attitude Paul had when he commented on some preachers who were preaching just to make things more difficult for him. Regardless of their reasons, he said, “the fact remains that the message about Christ is being preached, so I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18 NLT). Perhaps instead of complaining about all the different preachers, doctrines, churches, and denominations that exist, we should be thankful that God has not limited himself to just one way of getting the gospel message out to a dying world.
Unfortunately, however, some approaches to doing theology begin with presuppositions that determine beforehand what the message will ultimately be. The danger in these ways of theologizing is that they tend to bring their ideas to scripture, rather than deriving their ideas from it. Specifically, these approaches redefine scripture so that it agrees with 1) their own theological systems, 2) their own experience or preference, 3) their own problems.
There are a few particular doctrinal issues that seem to polarize Christians. The question of God’s sovereignty and human freedom in election, predestination and ultimate salvation is one such issue. Usually one is inclined to answer that issue from a Calvinist perspective, emphasizing God’s sovereignty, or an Arminian perspective, emphasizing human freedom. Some seem to have found mediating positions between these two apparently opposed concepts. Perhaps they have, but most of us cannot help but take one side and defend it. Yet, even as we do that, we realize that there are many good scriptural proof-texts that speak against the position we choose to defend. That fact should warn us against using our own chosen theological system as the means of measuring the validity of a statement in scripture.
Another problem about theological systems is that they tend to define biblical terms in such a way that only those who have knowledge of the system understand how the terms are being used. For example, the terms rapture, tribulation, and millennium are all legitimate theological terms deriving from biblical texts and concepts. Yet some theologians are hesitant to use the term rapture because it has become so connected with the adjective secret due to the influence of dispensational futurist systems that to use the term would seem to imply acceptance of that position. Likewise, the term tribulation is so connected to the concept of a seven year period where the Church is supposedly absent from the world that some of us are hesitant to use the term, lest we be associated with that presupposition. The term millennium is a legitimate theological term reflecting the 1000 year period mentioned in Revelation 20. This term as well has become so connected with a view concerning Israel that using it takes a great deal of explanation if one does not hold the view that Christ will reign as king of ethnic Israel during this time. One of the dangers of theological systems is that they tend to narrowly define these biblical terms, and anyone using the terms feels obligated either to agree with the system as a whole, or oppose it. That is unfortunate since systems tend to be mostly correct, but each of them contains a blind spot or two.
Personal Experience or Preference
What people believe tends to limit and shape their experiences and choices, but their experiences and choices also have a profound effect upon their beliefs. For example, some believers are happy in churches that are more formal, liturgical – what has been called high church. People with these experiences and preferences tend to adapt theological beliefs that correspond with those preferences. For example, they will tend to hold to a stark contrast between the clergy and the laity. Their views concerning appropriate worship will lean toward the practiced rather than the spontaneous variety. Others are more comfortable in the low church structure, which is less formal, and provides more room for spontaneity. These tend to adapt theological beliefs that correspond with those preferences as well. This is a rather mild example of how one’s experiences and preferences affect his theology.
A more extreme example can be found in the teachings of gay theology. Those inclined toward homosexual behavior have been with us for ages, within and outside the church. But in the past few decades homosexuals have demanded recognition as equals, both in the political realm, and in the church. Traditionally, the church has regarded homosexual behavior as willful sin, and excluded homosexuals from fellowship on that basis. Yet proponents of gay theology defend homosexual acts as proper, and gay marriage as an alternative lifestyle that God recognizes and blesses.2 These new theological positions are forcing the church to grapple with the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin that warrants exclusion. Some churches seem to be taking their cue from the politicians, and promoting tolerance as the supreme virtue. Others are taking a hard-line approach, and preaching against homosexuality. Still others are desperately searching for balance. Unfortunately, with issues like gay theology, balance is an illusion.
As stated above, experiences have a profound effect upon a person’s beliefs. This is especially so if the experiences have been negative. This accounts for the fact that some do theology from the standpoint of the oppressed, and focus on their oppressors as the target of their theologizing. Examples of this kind of theologizing include Black Liberation Theology, the various kinds of leftist liberation theologies, and radical feminist theologies. These various movements share a number of traits in common:
They identify with a marginalized group within society. For example, Anthony B. Pinn formulated his biblical research on suffering specifically because of the suffering felt in the African-American community. He did this because he “was and continue to be anxious to speak a liberating word to black sufferers.”3 To be fair, the process of contextualization requires a certain amount of identification with those to whom we proclaim the biblical message, but this kind of identification tends to present the marginalized as the focus of the message itself.
They focus on the sins and shortcomings of another group, which they target as the oppressors. They do not tend to focus on the sins and failings of the marginalized group. Thus Tatman complains that “if I tried to join a conversation at the Vatican about mass, my words would go unheard … because I am a feminist lesbian.”4 It is the theological and social conservatives that take on the role of tyrannical oppressors, denying Tatman the right to engage in theological discussion because of her marginalized status as a feminist lesbian.
If they appeal to scripture, it is usually apart from its original context, and select only those passages which foster their point of view. Thus the New Testament is a story of political struggle against unjust economic oppressors. This can be seen is Nadeau’s description of The Filipino liberation theology movement as tracing “their history back to the earliest resistance movements against the Spanish and late American colonization of the Philippines, and to the time of Jesus Christ and the early church that stood defiantly against social injustices.”5 Thus any social injustice revealed in the New Testament becomes an argument for a post-capitalist restructuring.
They adopt and redefine traditional theological terms like atonement, redemption, sin, and reconciliation to serve a socio-political purpose, rather than a traditionally theological one. Thus Hanway writes his A Theology of Gay and lesbian Inclusion to “equip you, Christian warrior of the Gospel of peace, to stand against those who use the Bible to resist change – even that change of which our Lord would approve.”6 But when we evangelical Christians reject homosexuality we are not using the Bible to resist change, we are defending the Bible’s right to define human social limits because God knows what is right and wrong. The true Gospel of peace was written to homosexuals as well as thieves and liars – and it speaks of a peace with God that is obtained only through repentance of sin, not acceptance of it.
Evangelical Christians recognize the importance of turning from sin and responding to God’s free grace. That is why we cannot afford to be sidetracked on issues that draw people’s attention away from their personal relationship with God, which begins with conversion. The important thing in our theologizing is not that it stays contemporary, but that it stays focused on God and his unchanging message.
2For summaries of tenets of gay theology, and conservative evangelical responses to them, see Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the “Gay Christian” Movement. (Eugene Or.:Harvest House, 1996); Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).
3Anthony B. Pinn, Why, Lord? (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1995), 10.
4Lucy Tatman, Knowledge that Matters. (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 23.
5Kathleen M. Nadeau, Liberation Theology in the Philippines. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), ix.
6Donald G. Hanway, A Theology of Gay and Lesbian Inclusion. (New York: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2006), ix.