by J. Scott Horrell
Theological method is one of the most subtle and difficult of theological issues.
The theology student was rather relaxed during his oral exam until he was asked a hypothetical question: “Imagine that you have moved to the East African nation of Eritrea with the goal of teaching theology. Supposing its government might assume a more generous posture toward Christian faith, how would you do theology in Eritrea? Describe your theological method.” Floundering, the student proposed that he would start with Christian tradition and culture or, more precisely, he would try to interpret tradition in light of Eritrean culture.
When asked, “What do you mean by tradition?” he responded, “I mean Reformation theology, or maybe the teaching of the Councils of Nicea [Trinity] and Chalcedon [one person of Christ with two natures in hypostatic union].” The examiner suggested that half his students would be Eritrean Orthodox who do not accept Chalcedon, much less the North Atlantic assumptions of the Reformation. “So on what basis do you elevate one tradition as preferable to another? What is your foundation for defining and defending Christian truth?”
Theological method is one of the most subtle and difficult of theological issues. At first glance it may not be obvious, but how we do theology will in many respects determine our theological conclusions. Methodology is the switch in the tracks that leads one tradition to venerate Mary, another to ordain lesbian pastors and another to hold prophecy as the primary source of revelation today. Consciously or not, all Christians engage in theological method. We all do theology every time we make decisions related to our faith.
Evangelical believers profess that the Bible is the primary source of truth—indeed sola scriptura. We confess this, in part, because Jesus rose from the dead as God’s validation of all that our Savior is and taught. That surely includes his extraordinary statements about the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17-18, John 10:35) and about how the Holy Spirit would guide in the writing of the New Testament (Matt. 24:35; John 14:26; 16:13-14). At the center of the theological flower, with its many petals, is the Bible, God’s word given in a specific culture to humankind in every culture.
Nevertheless, even evangelical theological methods can vary substantially, as multiple recent books and debates attest. Eastern Christians such as Indians Sadhu Sundar Singh and Bakht Singh give strong place to intuitive understanding of God’s truth, similar to the Pentecostal emphasis on knowing our Lord through experience. Africans will often piece theology together as a mosaic or a parable, with strong appreciation for story within their community of faith.
Those in North Atlantic cultures have tended to do theology by logic-chopping rationalism, a kind of empirical deductionism, whether based on the biblical text or on a variety of sources. Wesley built theology from his quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. Baptist Stanley Grenz argued for a creative mixture of culture and tradition in light of the norming norm of the Bible. Around the world, evangelicals propose different methods for doing theology, some from contextual realities, some within their theological traditions, some returning to patristic studies of the early church.
Others look to philosophy, physics, biology, anthropology, sociology, political science or cultural studies as sources for doing theology.
The interview with our theology student continued: “If you were invited from Eritrea to an international theological conference in Chennai (Madras) together with believers from China, Papua New Guinea, the Middle East, South Africa, Italy and Cuba, what would be your basis for unity? Would it be a theological tradition? Would it be a theological method? The student had no answer.
Of course, theological traditions vary. Methodologies for doing theology differ as well. But at the center of world Christianity is the Bible. Spiritually, Christians are united through the Holy Spirit and love for the Son and Father; there is a commonality of regeneration and experience of the triune God. However, if there is a basis for dialogue that transcends our cultures, traditions and doctrinal persuasions, it is Scripture itself. All historic Christian traditions confess that biblical testimony is the starting point of their faith. Without the Bible as the touchstone, how does the growing church of Cameroonian pygmies talk at all with the Presbyterians in Recife? How do emerging believers of Mongolia talk with the Baptists in Texas or the Anglicans in Uganda?
On the periphery of the flower, from petal to petal, cultural expressions of Christian faith and the church can vary dramatically. The task of theology is to apply and to integrate Christian truth within the interpreters’ context, so it should not surprise us that contextualized expressions of theology might differ significantly from place to place. However, the center of the flower that unites true Christian faith is Scripture. In the Bible we have a common language, the bedrock truths of the church, the measure of all dogma, all tradition, all cultural theology, all Christian praxis, indeed, all methodology.
By affirming that the Bible is authoritative and absolute is not to say my understanding of the Bible is absolute. We all come to the text conditioned by our culture, history, education and experience. As I form basic biblical doctrine, I am already a step away from the text. I approach the text in my own language using concepts with which I am familiar. I may have the Holy Spirit to guide me, but I am not yet free of sinful disposition. My questions (and the answers I seek) are those nurtured within larger theological frameworks and the understandings of believers around me, whether high church, Baptist or Pentecostal. Therefore, I come to the text unable to see what another believer might readily see from his or her different background and experiences. I find I need the perspectives of other believers in other cultures and traditions to help fill out what I may be unable to perceive in God’s word. On the other hand, this is not to say we cannot have confidence in teaching the truths of God. But, like Apollos in Acts 18:24-26, we must both preach with boldness and fervor, yet also have humility to learn from Priscilla and Aquila.
So true Christian faith is like our flower, perhaps a sunflower with an inner core and an outer core prior to the petals. God is the root and stem that gives life to all else. Theological vitality derives from God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The center of the flower is Scripture, the objective revelation of God by which all belief and behavior is measured. Slightly out from the flower’s center is what many term doctrine—the expression of biblical teaching, our categorization and framing of what we perceive as scriptural truth. Basic biblical doctrine encircles God’s word and helps unify believers, while reflecting somewhat different approaches to, and understandings of, the text. Finally, radiating out from the center of Scripture and its basic doctrinal confessions are the colorful petals of our theologies—the many integrations of God’s truth within our lives, believing communities and cultural contexts. Christians will value some facets of reality more than others in forming theologies, from the mission-oriented theology of Malaysia’s Hwa Yung to the cultural sensitivities of Kwame Bediako, the rationalist apologetics of William Lane Craig and the emotional engagement of neo-Pentecostals like Reinhard Bonnke and Edir Macedo. That is to say, how we do theology may vary from culture to culture, church to church, even individual to individual—although surely some methods are more faithful to biblical methodologies than others. But for all true Christians, Scripture is the unifying center. It is the bridge to unity and to koinonia with Christians in contexts quite different from our own. It holds the beauty of the flower together in the life of God.
In doing theology, then, we need each other. The day of theological arrogance is over. We’ve learned that the “scientific methodology” of liberation theology was built on sand, but its challenge of praxis rings strong in the Bible itself. Baptist, Reformed and Dispensational theologies are learning that they yet have quite a lot to learn from others, including one another. The experiential theology of Pentecostalism may sometimes lack moorings in Scripture and doctrine but simultaneously chastises all others for their lack of New Testament faith and evangelistic zeal. Fundamentalist theologies must get beyond themselves as pretended absolutes of all truth, but their tenacity for the Bible and basic doctrine is to be admired. Academic theologies have sometimes withered useless in cells of their own making, but if they will apply diligence in service to the body of Christ, the church will have a stronger future. National theologies may rightfully de-Westernize theology and put to rest missionary impositions, but they must remain true to the Bible if they intend to be Christian at all.
What does the flower analogy teach us when we come to something as basic as the meaning of the cross? In classical Protestantism, debates over the past centuries have been carefully fine-tuned in defining terms such as repentance, substitution, justification and Spirit-baptism. Not always, however, have such concepts been strong bridges to communicate the gospel in cultures distant from Christendom. Missionaries have long perceived that different peoples may connect more readily with other soteriological themes, such as Christ’s victory over death, his dignity before unjust martyrdom, the removal of shame and guilt, the healing from sickness, the restoration of community or the breaking of demonic powers. Partially in response to missiological insights, various recent North Atlantic works have sought to explore afresh New Testament images of salvation. A few include: Alister McGrath’s, What Was God Doing on the Cross? (Zondervan, 1992), Morna Hooker’s, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: New Testament Interpretations of the Death of Christ (Eerdmans, 1994), Joel Green and Mark Baker’s, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (InterVarsity, 2000) and John G. Stackhouse Jr.’s, (ed.), What Does It Mean to Be Saved? Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation (Baker, 2002). To these might be added a long list of culturally-engaged soteriologies such as evangelical Ken Gnanakan’s (ed.) Salvation: Some Asian Perspectives (Bangalore: ATA, 1992) or the more ecumenical Leonardo Boff’s Passion of Christ—Passion of the World, trans. Robert Barr (Orbis, 1987) and Choan-Seng Song’s Third-Eye Theology (reprint Wipf & Stock, 2002).
Has the interpretation of Christ’s work on the cross simply become subject to cultural “felt needs”? Is there no doctrinal center to the gospel? Our illustration of the flower suggests that there will always be creative new ways of understanding God’s truth. In one sense, the health of the flower is demonstrated by the unfolding of new petals that bring bright color into the empty spaces of evolving cultures. Newness is not always heresy or heterodoxy. It can bring vitality to the church in any part of the world. At the same time, however, innovative interpretations of Christ’s death on the cross must be measured against Scripture. Newness may include a biblical insight or metaphor, but such newness must not exclude other teachings of the Bible nor elude Scripture’s greater balance. The center remains the word of God. The careful soteriological studies of Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1955), John Stott’s The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity, 1986), Bruce Demarest’s The Cross and Salvation (Crossway, 1997) and Derek Tidball’s The Message of the Cross (InterVarsity, 2001) need not be set aside.
Sound theological method in missions involves creative expression of the gospel that is designed to sink deeply into cultural consciousness. Cultural anthropology, the metaphors and stories of a people and the insights of sympathetic nationals are invaluable in the communication and application of the gospel. Yet as hearers place their faith in Jesus Christ, the communicator must lead believers toward fuller biblical teaching. We cannot simply say that one aspect of Scripture works and another does not. Instead, evangelical mission must lead to the whole counsel of God. What is not felt is not necessarily not needed.
As we lead new believers to the text, we also encourage them to do theology themselves. Mission includes preparing new believers to do theology in ways natural to their culture, while paring off that which methodologically may contradict the Bible (i.e., dependence on seers or other external authorities). Often the cultural insights of new believers from Scripture complement our own and lead toward greater comprehension of the meanings of biblical events or themes. The center remains biblical truth. Moreover, this faith, centered in the word connects national believers with the worldwide Christian movement. New believing communities come to realize that they have important insights to contribute to the whole, while also much to learn from others.
As the West African proverb reminds us, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.” Doing theology is an international task, even as we engage and apply theology in culturally distinctive ways. In this age of global communication, we need each other more than ever. On this long journey of service to our King, we need to gather together around the center of God’s living word.
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