ACST 4 The Necessity

 

Developing a good theology is not a waste of time. In fact, it is not too drastic to say that theologizing is the necessary first step in pleasing God. The author of Hebrews implies this when he says “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (11:6 NIV). Notice that this verse states twice that faith is a necessity for those who would please God. First, it states that without faith pleasing God is impossible. Then it restates that fact by saying that anyone who approaches God must believe.

The author of Hebrews then defines that faith by positing two propositional truths that make up its basic content: 1) The God of the Bible exists, 2) He responds to those who seek fellowship with him. The heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 all began with those two propositional truths, and lived their lives according to what those truths implied. While it was their faithfulness to God that made them examples for others to follow, it was their faith in God that made that faithfulness possible. The use of the subordinating conjunction hoti with the infinitive pisteusai specifically defines the nature of the faith being discussed, eliminating the possibility that saving faith can be reduced to mere dependence or trust in a person. That faith was not merely an ambiguous feeling of dependence, it was affirmation of two specific doctrines – two propositional truths.

Those two truths serve as foundations for all the propositional statements made in systematic theology, because they lead to questions that are only answered in God’s word, and those questions are broad enough to cover the entire theological grid.

exists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some theologians, however, are not content with this view of how God reveals himself. The Catholic Cardinal Avery Dulles suggests that God has ultimately revealed himself not through words or doctrines, but through symbols that contain more meaning than the words could ever convey. These symbols (like the cross, the Eucharist, baptism) are needed to supplement the doctrines because God continues to speak through the symbols, apart from what he has revealed in scripture.[1] The problem with this view is that the symbols tend to take on content of their own, aside from what is revealed in scripture. That content can even be (and usually is) contradictory to God’s word, and the devotee is forced to reject the direct teachings of scripture in order to embrace the “deeper meaning” of the symbol.

Evangelicals are not immune to problems in this area either. Sometimes the desire to affirm others who hold different doctrines leads the person in the pew to think that it does not matter what one believes as long as he believes something. Such thinking tends to downplay the role of propositional truths, and dilute faith into mere opinion. Faith that is mere opinion cannot address the relativism and pluralism of modern culture, because it is a part of it.

For example, biblical faith does not just believe in God the creator, it understands that God created (Hebrews 11:3). The difference between these two statements is that one can be a mere label, while the other is a proposition related to historical fact. While it may sound religious to affirm that one believes in God the creator, it makes no specific affirmation as to who that God is, nor how he created. It is a safe kind of statement to make in a pluralistic society because it leaves room for the hearers to interpret it, adding any details they like, affirming the statement. Such a statement may be politically correct, but it is theologically deficient.

Theologizing can be compared to translating. When translating a speech or document, the translator has to serve the interests of both the originator of the words and the audience who is to hear/read the translation. She (the translator) has to first understand the ideas communicated by the original, and then she must convey those same ideas in the language of the target audience. She has done her job when the originator is satisfied that his ideas have been expressed, without adding to or taking from them. But she must also use words which can be understood by the target audience. Only when both of these goals are achieved has she translated well. So it is with theologizing. Only when we have communicated God’s thoughts in the words of our contemporaries have we successfully completed the work.

Every modern translation of the Bible has to maintain a balance between verbal accuracy, and contemporary relevance/readability . The groups who work on these translations develop philosophies of translation to govern their approach to the work, and to maintain consistency. For example, the makers of the NET Bible wanted to “capture the best of several words: readable and accurate and elegant all at the same time.”[2] The makers of the New American Standard Bible aimed for verbal accuracy, but in their 1995 revision “when it was felt that word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern reader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom.”[3] The makers of Today’s New International Version likewise sought the same balance. On the one hand, “the first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers.”[4] On the other hand, they felt that contextualizing the Bible’s message in the modern gender-sensitive era required the “elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns.”[5]

Conscientious theologians are seeking to maintain the same balance, so change is to be expected. As theologians learn more about the content of the Bible through background and linguistic research, doctrines should change to reflect that accuracy. As theologians keep their fingers on the pulse of modern society, doctrines should change to reflect that relevance. The struggle of maintain relevance in the modern context while being true to the original ancient message explains why systematic theology is an ongoing task.

It also explains why believers should not be satisfied with simply following and defending their denominational traditions. Such traditions are helpful if they steer people toward the Bible as God’s message to humanity. They can be harmful if they simply take the place of the Bible. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day because “for the sake of (their) tradition (they) have made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6 ESV). Part of what that meant is that over time the theologians of Christ’s day had so narrowly defined how to obey God that the intended message of the scriptures had been lost. Modern theologians are in danger of the same mistake if they do not carefully examine their own presuppositions.

The reason theologizing can be done at all is that when our doctrines reflect that intended message of the Bible, they prove to be consistent with what the whole Bible affirms. Preachers who carefully exegete their texts discover this all the time. They find, for example, that what the prophet Joel told the inhabitants of Judah in the 9th century B.C. explains what God would be doing in the next centuries, and is consistent with what the Bible reveals about God’s plan.

 

Prediction

Fulfillment

“I will remove the northerner far from you”(2:20).

The Babylonians who invaded and exiled Judah were displaced by the Medes and Persians.

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten” (2:25).

The Jews were allowed to resettle Palestine and rebuild it.

“I will show wonders… and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”(2:30,32).

Jesus came to the Jews, demonstrated God’s power and gave his life to bring spiritual deliverance to them.

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. (2:28)

The Jewish believers at Pentecost were empowered to spread the gospel to the nations.

Therefore, when theologians read the fifth “I will” statement, promising a time when God gathers all the nations in judgment (3:2) they rightly conclude that God is not finished fulfilling his promises he made through this Old Testament prophet. God’s track record of keeping his promises, together with the similar language used in Joel 3 and Revelation 16 and 19,[6] leads theologians and preachers to assume that God will fulfill this last promise of Joel at what the New Testament calls Armageddon.

True theologians dare to get into the details of texts like this because their faith understands that God is who he says he is, and he will do what he says he will do. Their task is to properly interpret what God has said in his word, and pass on that knowledge to their contemporaries. When someone forsakes that message, and instead promotes some other means of knowing God (like a symbol or an esoteric experience) that person has ceased to be a true theologian, and has skipped the vital Hebrews 11:6 step in pleasing God.


[1] Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation. (NY: Orbis, 2001). “The doctrinal approach, though sound within certain limits, needs to be supplemented by the symbolic…” 205.

[2] NET Bible: New English Translation. (Biblical Studies Press, 2003), vii.

[3] New American Standard Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), ix. The English Standard Version (ESV). (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001) has a similar philosophy of translation.

[4] TNIV: Today’s New International Version. (Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 2005), iv.

[5] TNIV, vi.

[6] Notice, for example, the motifs of warfare (Joel 3:9-10; Rev. 16:14;), gathering of the nations (Joel 3:11-12; Rev. 16:14,16; 19:17,19), the sickle/sword (Joel 3:13; Rev. 19:15), and the winepress (Joel 3:13; Rev. 19:15).

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