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FIRST LESSONS IN THEOLOGY
Theology is sometimes held in contempt. Even devout Christians, who should be its friends, may dismiss is as hair-splitting; and some of them contrast dead orthodoxy with pulsating Christian life. Its enemies are more severe. The Logical Positivists call it nonsense. Devotees of scientism call it bigotry. Political leftists attack it as a reactionary hindrance to social advancement. But before anyone can properly adjudge it as good or evil, he must know what the word theology means.
The English word comes from two Greek words: theos-logos. As bio-logy is the study, knowledge, or science of bios, life; and as anthropo-logy is the study of anthropos, man; and as sociology is the study of society, and physiology, geology, and the rest; so theo-logy is the study or knowledge of God (Theos).
Theology is not the only strange word the student must learn. He must be willing to meet and conquer federal headship, immediate imputation, premillennialism, and even Trinity. Some people are afraid of long words; but not everyone. The people of Germany seem to like them. One of their longest is Constantinopolitanischerdudelsachspfeiffenmachergesellschaft. It means a firm in Constantinople that manufactures bagpipes. The longest English word I can think of, if you rule out ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ on technical lexicographical grounds is, Antidisestablishmentarianism. It is even more useless than the German word.
Another technical term, though an easier one, is atheism. Atheists are people who assert that there is no God to study. They may say that atoms in space make up the sum total of reality. Or in more modern science the atoms may be analyzed into neutrons, or finally into energy. But whatever the analysis, these people assert that there is nothing else. Physical reality is all there is.
It is not surprising that atheists deride theology. Since they deny that there is any God at all, they naturally consider theology false, useless, and harmful. In this they are indubitably consistent. There is, however, another group who also can consistently object to theology. These are religious people who really believe in a God of some sort, but who are convinced that he cannot be known. Atheists deny God; mystics deny knowledge. The religion of the latter is based on, and limited to trances, indescribable experiences, or inexplicable emotions. In these experiences no knowledge is obtained. It is wholly a matter of subjective feelings. There are indeed some semi-mystics who allow a theology. Schleiermacher, a German theologian of the early nineteenth century, the founder of Modernism, constructed a “theology” based on feeling. Strictly speaking, it was not theology; it was the psychology of religious experience. God himself was not the object of study; feelings were. Emil Brunner, a Swiss theologian of the mid-twentieth century, also wrote books on theology; but his “theology” is not knowledge of God. God and the medium of conceptuality, are mutually exclusive. If we talk about God, he says, we are not talking about God. But he does indeed formulate a theory of religion and tries to find some sort of use for it. Then, of course, there are the purer and more consistent mystics who, though they may write literature, do not claim to write theology. These two groups, atheists and mystics, are probably the only two groups that can consistently object to theology. True Christians, because of immaturity and ignorance, may disparage theology, but their antagonism is not consistent with the Christian faith.
Another group deserving mention, presents a puzzling appearance. They indeed assert the existence of God and their theories can properly be called theology. They do not want to be known as atheists or as irreligious, but they define God as all that exists. Spinoza used the phrase, Deus sive Natura, God, that is, Nature. Some may use the term Pure Being, or Tillich’s phrase, the Ground of All Being. Thus God is the universe itself. He is not its Creator. Since they say, God is the All, these people are called Pantheists – another technical term.
Logically there is no difference between atheism and pantheism. To deny that there is a God and to apply the name God to everything is conceptually identical. It is as though I should assert the existence of cats and try to prove it by pointing to giraffes, stars, mountain ranges, and books: they are all cats, I would say, and therefore cats exist. The pantheists point to giraffes, stars, and so on, and say, therefore God exists. But this sort of argument has no more application to God than to cats – the small domestic animals that cry meow. Those who deny God, atheists, and those who say God is everything, pantheists, are asserting that nothing beyond the physical world is real. In Christian language, and in common languages around the world, God is different from the universe as a cat is from a giraffe, and more so.
Other people are agnostics. They do not assert that there is a God; nor do they assert that there is no God; they simply say they do not know. They claim ignorance. Ignorance, however, is not a theory that one has to argue about. Ignorance is an individual state of mind. An ignorant person is not required to prove by learned arguments that he is ignorant. He just does not know. Such a person needs to be taught.
Probably most people in the United States today are atheists of a sort. If you should ask them, they might say they believe in God. But they might as well not believe in God for all the good it does them. Unless someone mentions God to them, they never think of him; they never pray to him; he does not enter into their daily plans and calculations. Their lives are essentially no different from the lives of atheists and agnostics. They are practicing atheists.
But do all these technical terms, and more to come, have anything to do with prayer and ‘heart-felt’ religion? Doesn’t Christianity consist in singing gospel choruses to rock music and electric guitars? What good is theology, what good are pedantic terms anyway?
Young students are often impatient, and they unthinkingly brush aside even important matters. But their question concerning the value of theology is proper, pertinent, and important. It has three answers. The first is: God, if there be a God, is someone we should know. If we should know stars (astronomy) simply because there are stars, and copper and iron (chemistry) simply because they are there and useful to us, so too if God is there, and if he impinges on our life in any way, we ought to know him. This first answer needs further elucidation; but before continuing with it, and before beginning the second answer, the discussion will briefly consider how it might be possible to know God. Where do we find out about God? What is the source of our knowledge? To these questions there are two answers. Some people accept the first answer and reject the second; some people accept the second and reject the first; and some use both.
The first method of finding out something about God, according to a large number of respectable authors, is to study the growth of a plant, the motion of the planets, and the fall of a stone. Now, if it should prove possible to learn something about God by this method, it nonetheless has two disadvantages. First, it is a very hard method; and, second, not much can be learned this way. Suppose we can get a microscope and examine the internal phloem of the lykopersikon esculentum (L.). Oh me, oh my, these words are too long. Well, the study of botany is still longer; and it is not immediately clear what we can find out about God in tomatoes. Or, you may observe the motion of the planets. If you look at them very carefully, you will see that the squares of their periodic times are proportional to the mean distances from the sun. But you have to look very closely. This is not easy. If we should succeed in getting this bit of information, we may conclude that God is a great mathematician and that salvation depends on majoring in math. Such was essentially what the ancient Greek philosophical school of the Pythagoreans said. They believed that a happy life after death was the reward for studying arithmetic and geometry. A somewhat similar view is held by people today who think that all the problems of this world can be solved by science. But unlike the Pythagoreans they do not believe in a life after death, nor do they think that the laws of astronomy can prove there is a God. To convince them by deducing the existence of God from the laws of science would be extremely difficult and perhaps impossible. If by some other method we first know there is a God, the study of astronomy might show that he is a mathematician. But we would have to know God first.
There is a second method, different from the science, by which we may learn about God. Where the first method had two disadvantages, this second method has two points in its favor. Instead of being hard, it is easy; and instead of providing only a little information, it furnishes us a great deal.
This second method consists of simply listening to what God tells us. If God should say to some man, “I am the Almighty God, walk before me and be thou perfect” (as he said to Abraham in Genesis 17:1), then this man would know something about God and he could tell other men. Neither he nor the others would have to study science or mathematics. All we would have to understand would be a few short words, the longest of which is Almighty.
Each of these two ways of learning about God has its own name. The first is called natural theology. Its contents are what we can know of God by studying nature. It is the hard way. It may be an impossible way. However, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought he could prove the existence of God by this method; and the Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, copied him. But their arguments are extremely complicated. Of course the Psalms say that the heavens declare the glory of God; and the apostle makes the paradoxical statement that the invisible divine attribute of omnipotence is clearly seen in the things that God has made. Such verses as these, however, do not guarantee that Aristotle made no mistake. The apostle Paul does not so much say that men prove the existence of God by studying the stars, as he says that the omnipotence of a God previously known to exist is displayed in the stars. This omnipotence is manifest to men, not by means of a complicated argument, but because “God hath showed it unto them.” At any rate, in contrast with Roman Catholicism, Reformation theology, as found in Luther and Calvin, made no use of arguments from nature.
If the name of the first way to learn about God is natural theology, the name of the second is special revelation. It is the easy way of simply listening to what God says. There is no point in trying to prove God’s existence, for if he tells us something, he obviously exists. A non-existent nothing could not tell us anything. What is more important, if God speaks to us, in addition to knowing that there is some sort of God, we begin to learn what sort of God there is.
At first it may seem strange that knowledge of what God is, is more important than knowing there is a God. It may seem strange that his existence is less important than his nature. Nevertheless, this is the case, for two reasons. First, we have seen, a few pages back that pantheists identify God with the universe. The mere fact that they use the name God for the universe and thus assert that “God” exists, is of no help to Christianity. The late Professor Wieman insisted on the existence of God; but for him “God” is not even all the universe – he or it is only some parts of the universe. Christians are not so much interested in the existence of God as they are in what kind of God exists.
The second reason for not being much interested in the existence of God is somewhat similar to the first. The idea of existence is an idea without content. Stars exist – but this tells us nothing about the stars; mathematics exist – but this teaches us no mathematics; hallucinations exist too. A predicate, such as existence, that can be attached to everything indiscriminately, tells us nothing about anything.
When God speaks, he tells us something about himself. He tells us what sort of God he is. If then our knowledge of God does not come from mathematics and astronomy, but consists in what God has told us about himself, theology as a formal study of God will be essentially a survey of what God has said. He told Abraham that he was Almighty. Almighty means omnipotent. We are now no longer scared of long words like omnipotent. It simply means that God can do anything. But God did not tell Abraham everything about himself, either on that one occasion or on all the occasions taken together that God spoke to Abraham. To find out what sort of God God is, a student must collect and summarize all that God has told us about himself.
The mention of Abraham may lead us several paragraphs back to the question of an impatient student who asked concerning the value of such an abstruse subject as theology. There are three answers. The first answer was only started. Even at the cost of a little repetition, it may be worthwhile to retrace our steps and begin again.
First, God, if there be a God, is someone we should know. Everyone likes to receive information about their best friends, at least if the information is good news. We even want to hear bad news, such as an injury or accident, though it saddens us. If now someone like Abraham is a friend of God, news about God is welcome; and more welcome in proportion as God is a better friend than one’s classmates. To put it in a more Biblical way, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” There is more in this verse than appears to a hurried reader; but enough appears to show that one cannot be a Christian without theology – a knowledge of God.
This first point in answering the question about the value of theology is so overwhelming that any other reasons seem trivial and unnecessary. However, the American temperament, more activist and “practical” than the relatively more contemplative European mentality, may be further impressed by the necessity of theology for evangelism. To say, “Christ died, for our sins, according to the Scriptures,” is to talk theology. In fact this verse sums up a great amount of theology; and only knowledge of what is “according to the Scriptures” can insure a Biblical evangelism. Then too, when a Christian tries to evangelize college students, he meets all sorts of objections. It is fatal to dismiss these as hypocrisy, even though sometimes they are; but more often they are the deep seated opinions that have been inculcated by a humanistic education. The college student has been taught that science conclusively refutes all claims of miracles, and that it is no more possible for a man to rise from the dead than for a cow to jump over the moon. Science has put a man on the moon; maybe science sometime in the future will discover how to raise the dead; but it has never happened yet. Unfortunately some “evangelists” avoid this objection by dropping Christ’s resurrection out of their “gospel.” Either they never mention it, or as is the case with the dialectical theologians they existentialize it and define resurrection as that happy feeling of confidence when one rises out of the depths of frustration. Students under such instruction, if they had a college course in religion, believe that the Pentateuch is a compilation of several authors (dating perhaps from the time of David onwards) botched together by an unknown editor about 500 B.C. These students are possibly behaviorists in psychology, and one college girl said openly in class, “Well, I am only an animal.” In view of such evangelistic challenges it is unfortunate if the Christian knows the Bible less thoroughly than the college student knows his humanism.
There is a third reason for studying theology, a broader reason of which the second was doubtless only a part. The religion of Modernism which flourished from 1875-1925 was initiated by Friedrich Schleiermacher about the centennial year of 1800. Many Americans, people who had never heard the name Schleiermacher, came to disbelieve the Virgin Birth and the vicarious Atonement because of his influence. The great thinkers, either in theology, philosophy, or science, set a pattern that millions of people will fall into in the following century. The works of a Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, about 1840, through Karl Barth from about 1920, and Emil Brunner a few years later, have produced in America as in Europe a “Christian Existentialism” that is far more existential than it is Christian.
These men and their theories are no doubt a wrong place to begin a study of theology; but after some first lessons in the Biblical system of thought, it is capitulation to ignore them. Only from strong students of theology can there arise another Athanasius to defend the Deity of Christ, an Augustine to maintain the doctrines of grace, and a Luther and Calvin to reject tradition and mysticism and defend the first principle of “Scripture alone.”
It should now be clear that the methodology of the present volume is Biblical. Neither natural theology derived from science, nor mystical theology derived from so-called ‘religious experience,’ plays any part. The content of this theology comes entirely from the Bible. The importance of methodology cannot be overemphasized.
To illustrate: Assuming that there is a God of some sort, many people, even glibly, make statements about him. One such statement might be, God loves everybody. Another statement, made in conversation by a Presbyterian elder, no less, was that Hinduism has “redemptive value.” The statement itself does not contain the word God, but it reflects a belief as to what God is and how he operates on a world-wide scale. People are making statements about God all the time. In talking with such people the basic question to ask, especially for the Christian who disagrees with the statement, is, How do you know? How do you know that God provides redemption through Hinduism? How do you know anything at all about God? How do you know? An atheist will put the same question to an orthodox Christian. He will say, You believe there is a God; how do you know, what is your evidence, why should anyone accept such a notion?
In the history of Christian theology many authors at the outset have tried to answer the atheist by constructing an argument that validly demonstrates the existence of God. Aquinas’ attempt was mentioned a few paragraphs ago. But though this seems such a logical place to begin theology, reflection shows that it is hardly helpful, from a Christian viewpoint, to prove merely the existence of some sort of God or other. Every serious mind wants to know what sort of being God is. Is he a person who loves everybody? Is God a person at all? Spinoza had an argument more complicated than Aquinas’; but the God whose existence he claimed to have proved was just the universe itself. Suppose a Hindu proved the existence of Shiva. In this case the proof of God’s existence would be the disproof of Christianity. This is why the Westminster Shorter Catechism, right near the beginning, asks, What is God? Not just any god will do.
This is one reason why methodology must be carefully considered. Is it the right method to begin with sensory experience, or with a mystic trance, and conclude with the type of God that later appears? In particular, will anything at all appear later concerning sin, atonement, resurrection, and so on? The Christian needs a method that arrives at all this. He needs a single method. Two methods produce a bifurcation that cannot be unified. Theology then would be schizophrenic. A theory of knowledge must cover all knowledge. If it does not, and if a person uses two methods he cannot answer the question, Where should the one be used, and where the other? He cannot use theory number one to define the place of theory number two, nor conversely, and hence he has no ground for choosing one rather than the other at any point. This means that he really has no theory of knowledge at all. What theory then will give us the knowledge that Christ was raised for our justification?
After World War I Karl Barth introduced a theological method that captured many seminaries and produced a voluminous literature. The method may be somewhat difficult to describe, but Barth unequivocally states what it is not: “In dogmatics it can never be a question of the mere combination, repetition, and summarizing of Biblical doctrine” (Church Dogmatics, I, 1, p. 16; Thomson tr.).
The two pages of immediate context are confusing. If Barth meant merely that the books men publish on theology are not infallible, an orthodox theologian would agree. But since Barth holds that the apostles, even in their official capacity, made a number of mistakes, this is not what he could have meant. On a later page he says, “The fact that the theology we favor is purely and solely evangelical [thought the present writer would never recognize Barth as evangelical], we can as little discuss and account for, as for the fact that we are baptized and believe” (p. 37). This sentence combines two incongruent parts. The fact that we believe, if not the fact that we were baptized, cannot be accounted for, except by a reference to God’s regenerating power and his gift of faith to us. But the fact that the theology we favor is evangelical, if it is indeed evangelical, requires a different form of accounting. This accounting can be nothing else than the method Barth forbids dogmatics to use: viz., exegesis of Scripture and logical systematization. Without this, no liberal can prove that he is an evangelical; with it he only proves that he is not an evangelical; nor can he justify his choice of which Scriptural propositions are true and which are false, let alone which non-scriptural doctrines are. For an evangelical, in the historical sense of the word, theology is – of course not “the mere combination, repetition” of Biblical texts, but – certainly a summarizing and especially a logical arranging of the main Scriptural doctrines.
The method used in this book and the theology that necessarily results are Biblical. The principle is to take the Bible as a revelation from God. In it he gives us the information he wants us to have. Our task is to collect this information, “understand” it in a preliminary way, and then systematize it. Unless God be irrational, we cannot be satisfied with disjointed, unrelated data. To understand the data in more than a preliminary way, they must be fitted together, systematized, organized. Wallpaper, a keg of nails scattered around, a kitchen sink standing on end, a heap of bricks, and some bags of cement are not a house. They must be put together, if we want something to live in. So too a Christian may have memorized a few or even many verses from several books of the Bible, he may know which is the shortest verse and the longest chapter, he may even have some elementary knowledge of the Atonement, and yet his mind can be largely the confusion of building materials scattered around loose. Well, it is good to have building materials. Indeed, they are indispensable. But it is better to live in a house.
Contrasting with the concept of theology here maintained is the very first paragraph of The Evangelical Faith by Helmut Thielicke (William B. Eerdmans, 1974). “To do theology is to actualize Christian truth, or, better, to set it forth in its actuality and to understand it afresh thereby. To that extent theology is by nature, and not merely in its pedagogical implications, historical. It has nothing to do with timeless truth. Hence there can be no timeless or supertemporal theology (theologia perennis).”
That an author, like myself, must understand theology afresh, is hardly worth saying. Of course my father knew some theology and I as a young man had to begin afresh. Knowledge is not transmitted by heredity. Furthermore, it goes without saying that I was influenced by my father, by the books I read, and by whatever other factors there may have been. But it does not follow that this “has nothing to do with timeless truth.” The aim of every orthodox theologian is to arrive at some timeless truths. In doing so, he may make some mistakes. But if he learns that God justifies some men by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, he has grasped timeless truth. Even the mere historical statement that Christ died in the first half of the first century is a timeless truth. My learning it, the pedagogical implications as Thielicke calls it, does not make it temporal, relative, or doubtful. It is the truth, and it is the truth we learn.
But Thielicke’s meaning is not exhausted in such pedagogical trivialities. What he has in mind is a completely different idea of what theology, or at least Christian theology is. On page 66 he writes, “Part of the intellectual honesty of adult man is that in the area of faith he will accept no truth-claim that conflicts with scientific knowledge.”
To this we immediately reply that so-called ‘scientific knowledge’ is no fixed irrevocable discovery. Virtually none of the physics that I was taught in my undergraduate days is now taught in physics classes. Science is tentative; it constantly changes. What is taught today will be discarded within a decade or two. The theories of light are a well-known example of scientific change. The theory of phlogiston is by now forgotten. As Einstein has replaced Newton, so a succeeding genius will replace Einstein – as he himself knew so well. Therefore Thielicke’s proposal to test every theological truth-claim by the physics of the day is foolish. It is more than foolish. The idea that science can decide in advance what God can and cannot reveal is utterly unchristian. Furthermore, his branding Christians as dishonest because they believe God instead of swallowing the presently held laws of physics is arrogant.
At this point it may prove wise to consider an objection that some reviewers are sure to make against the present volume. But it is not an objection that first year seminary students are likely to raise. The objection is that so little attention is paid to the great theological developments of the last half of the twentieth century.
There is very good reason for these extensive omissions. Briefly the reason is that they have little to offer in the advancement or explanation of Biblical theology. Karl Barth has already been cited. If a student wants to know what God said, the best source is not a man who believes that the apostles erred even in their official capacity as canonical writers. Now, it is possible and it is true that once in a while Bultmann or someone can come up with useful analyses of a verse or two. Indeed the neo-orthodox commentators are better than the old modernists. The modernists had some respect for the Bible, and they tried to twist the Bible to make it mean what they believed. But men like Bultmann are quite willing to make clear the exact meaning of a verse; for though the meaning accords with historic evangelicalism, Bultmann dismisses it as mythology. On the other hand, so pervasive are their existential presuppositions that one must wearily wade through a swamp of nonsense to find these good examples of exegesis. It is hardly worth the time.
Other authors are even more useless for our purpose. For example, James H. Cone has published three volumes, the last being, God of the Oppressed. It is a volume of so-called black theology. The title indicates and the content makes it certain that for him black theology and some other kind are not the same. This resembles the medieval theory of two-fold truth: what is true in philosophy is false in theology and conversely. That is to say, Cone’s black theory resembles two-fold truth, if he will admit that there is any truth at all in white or yellow theology. Naturally the author is not greatly interested in the Bible. Sociology, a particular form of sociology, is his canon. On this basis a wealthy American, like Abraham and Job, simply cannot have God’s truth. That eighteenth and nineteenth century slavery was reprehensible, and that injustices have been perpetrated even since 1865, does not justify the proposition that “any theologian who fails to place that question at the center of his work has ignored the essence of the gospel” (p. 9).
For us the essence or center of the gospel is the Atonement; the basis is the Trinity; the source and only source is the Bible.
Other contemporary works on theology may not be so perverted, but they are equally anti-Christian. One of them wants to replace verbal proclamation with music. Others are more mystical. But all reject the Scripture and put their whole trust in some form of experience. Since the present volume aims to give the main points of Christianity, it is only occasionally profitable to refer to theologians, better, religious philosophers, of this type. We do not aim to satisfy their values and assumptions; our contest with them is the contest between two incompatible, antagonistic religions. We do not intend to cooperate with them in a search for God’s message. Indeed, we cannot cooperate because their starting point and ours are different. What they appeal to, we reject; and the Scripture we appeal to, they reject. What we can and must do is to preach the message to them and pray for their regeneration.
With these preliminary remarks on methodology, remarks that the next chapter will expand and explain, remarks too that apply in a general way to all orthodox textbooks on theology, something about the present volume in particular needs to be added.
Written on an elementary level, this attempt has at least two defects. First, none of the great subjects receives adequate treatment. A minister’s personal library should contain several volumes on the Atonement alone. Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God extends through a thousand pages. And eschatology offers more books than anyone can bother with. The beginning student may not believe it, but the present volume is very elementary.
Yet even an elementary theology can and ought to discuss some opposing views. A student will never have a satisfactory view of the Deity of Christ without knowing something about Athanasius’ struggle against Arius and the resulting Nicene Creed. This book is not a history of theology; but who can write a chapter on justification by faith without paying his respects to Martin Luther, and his disrespects to the Pope and the canons of Trent? Such material is not only historically interesting, it is necessary logically. It is simply impossible to discuss the Atonement or Baptism conscientiously without considering objections and opposing views. Negative and positive are correlatives. To know what something is, one must know what it is not. A cat is not a dog. An even number is not an odd. And a completely wrong idea of the Atonement actually helps the student understand the truth.
The second defect of the present volume is similar to the first. To keep the discussion on an elementary level, a great deal of, let us say, philosophy has been omitted. But be it known that theology and what is commonly called philosophy are inseparable. Any discussion that eliminates philosophical problems simply hides beneath its ambiguous lines. Most unfortunately, however, the greatest philosophical difficulties occur in the early sections of a book on theology. There they are right at the start. This easily discourages the young student. For example, the ontological argument for God’s existence, which Aristotle formulated in less than four hundred words, has produced more than four hundred volumes of exhausting analyses. Students may well skip such material at first, jump forward to something easier, and return to these matters later. If newlyweds, beginners in adult life are buying a house, they must of course be interested in the dining room, the bedrooms, the kitchen, and even the wallpaper. And they may look at these first. But it would not be wise to ignore the foundation, even though they may look at it last. In building the house the foundation comes first. If buying a house already built, the examination of the basement may come last. So too a beginner in theology may consider the foundation less exciting than the wallpaper. If necessary then let him skip it and start with sin or salvation. He can return to God later on. He better had!
Now, to approach the end of these introductory remarks, the author directs the reader to the numerous Scriptural quotations in the following pages. Their purpose is not to give an exhaustive list of all the Scriptural passages on the particular subject under discussion. It is rather to remind the reader of many others by means of the quoted samples.
The actual translation more or less follows a general rule. If the quotation is simply to jog the students memory, and this is usually the case, the words will be those of the King James Version. When it is not the King James Version, the motivation is some point of meaning, some emphasis, that the King James did not sufficiently bring out.
Thus endeth the Introduction. Or, better, the introductory remarks on methodology will now be expanded in Chapter One.