|Page Two, Integrative essay on theology & the church for TEDS comprehensive exam (1997)
|Theology and the Church page 2
The purpose for the church's having been chosen, redeemed, called, and placed on a hilltop in plain sight of the
world, is now laid out :
So that YOU MAY ANNOUNCE THE EXCELLENCIES/VIRTUES OF THE ONE WHO CALLED YOU
The church exists to proclaim and glorify God in the world. It can only proclaim His excellencies if it has
an adequate theology (as throughout this essay reiterated). While anyone can read and, by the aid of the Holy
Spirit, understand the Bible, as affirmed by the Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, the NT itself
asserts that theological instruction is a particular gift to the church. And, in the Pastoral Epistles especially, as well
as other "late" General Epistles, "right doctrine" and "teaching" are enjoined throughout, and "false doctrine" and
"factious wranglers of words and false chatter" are the principle dangers to the health of the church.
Authority to teach what is correct, and to correct what is falsely or inadequately taught by some in the church,
is assumed and asserted by Paul to both Timothy and Titus, and by implication to those whom they, in turn, qualify
(2 Tim 2:2). The theological teaching office in the church is thus affirmed by the NT, and interestingly, the church
of the living God also is called "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" in 1 Tim 3:3, an interesting complementary
relationship which prevents professional theologians from thinking they may "do theology" apart from the church.
(The stale and lifeless theology of liberal churchmen who try to write theology in a vacuum, with no ready
connection to either Scripture OR Church, testifies to the vain futility of such exercises; whereas theology written
by churchmen up-to-their-elbows in the daily life of the living, breathing church is almost intoxicating in its veracity
and creative self-authenticating usefulness and vitality. (e.g. Calvin's Institutes, Barth's Barmen Confession or
sections of the Dogmatics, Helmut Thielicke's Evangelical Theology, etc.)
OUT OF DARKNESS
INTO HIS OWN MARVELOUS LIGHT.
Peter's expression is common throughout the NT for the image of our former state of darkness (= ignorance
and sin) and our present state of enlightenment (= understanding and redemption). Some examples are Col 1:13;
the whole book of John, but emblematically chap. 9; so Mark, by Bornkamm's redaction-critical understanding of
the two-stage coming-to-understanding of Peter (our present writer) prefigured by the two-stage opening of the
blind man's eyes; "enlightened" in Hebrews 6 indicates understanding the truth of the Word; etc.
The "darkening of the mind" is Paul's expression in Romans 1 for the results of reprobates' turning away from
God: when men turn from God He gives them over to this darkening process, where the "futility of the mind" (4x
in Romans 1) becomes their just punishment. Put baldly, when men are separate from God, they cannot think
So, it is logically sequential that redemption emphasizes not only forgiveness, but RESTORATION OF THE
MIND, enlightenment. When the Bible speaks of the new state, it is "leading the redeemed out of the darkness in
which they sat" (Isaiah 8, 61) as the light of the gospel dawns upon them. This gospel effect on the darkened mind
is also emphasized in 2 Cor 4.
What is the relationship then of Theology and the Church? It is clear that those who make up the people of
God have been called out of darkness ("the futility of the mind," with all its vain and vile resultant behavior) into the
light ("understanding of what is true, in God" = theology).
1 Pet 2:9-10's reference to the task of the church is to its job of proclaiming outwards what it has learned of
who God is. (tas aretas in 2:9 is also used in the plural in LXX for a metonymy of "the marvelous ACTS of God"
particularly in behalf of His people). Again, the church proclaims what theology teaches it.
In the first generations of the church Irenaeus claimed around 160 A.D. that "the church speaks as with one
voice, though her local assemblies in Libya, Germany, Gaul, Egypt, Greece, etc. all speak different languages,
there is only one doctrine held by all of us." (Paraphrased from Against Heresies). Tertullian said much the same
only a couple of decades later. But this unanimity (which of course did not really exist, or why would they have
had to write what they did?!) did not last.
Athanasius' five excommunications - and five subsequent recoveries! - illustrate well the divided state of
christendom over the 300 years of the christological and trinitarian debates. Yet as a later churchman would state
it in the 16th century, "the use of extra-biblical terminology is necessary to unmask the heretic, who otherwise
could hide behind his use of "our" biblical terms to mean something other than what the Bible itself means."
(Paraphrased from Jean Calvin's Institutes) Once Chalcedonian orthodoxy had been established, however, the
history of the church seems less a history of doctrine than of ecclesiastic political ambition.
Williston Walker's images of Gregory the Great (circa 600) accumulating power, of Charlemagne being
crowned by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800, as Emperor of a "Holy Roman Empire," of Henry IV standing
three days barefoot and "penitent" in the January snows of 1077 outside the German castle waiting for Hildebrand
to reinstate him from ex-communication so he could rule effectively, imprint themselves more upon our mind than
do, perhaps, the more pious images of an Eerdman's Handbook of Christian History with its frequent references to
those like Ambrose, or Bernard of Clairvaux, or John Hus, who "brought the faith back towards the truth," or the
triumphant images of Kenneth Latourrette's history of missionary expansion of the church throughout the world.
But the history of theology is robust and necessary: in this day in which--at this very moment! [Aug 1997] the
Executive Committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches is in session seriously considering whether and
how to respond to Pope John Paul II's invitation to the "other communions" to resolve the "continuing scandal of
the church's division" by recognizing the authority of the Papal See and the college of cardinals as the solution to
the "distressful disunity of christendom." Only last week 5 major American "mainline denominations" (Lutheran,
Reformed Ch. in Amer., Presbyterian, Episcopalian, UCC) signed a concordat which will permit communion
ordinances, priesthood and/or ordination, and other previous differences between them to be interchangeable, no
longer obstacles to organizational unity. Theologically naive evangelicals, as well, are moving towards similar
erasure of theological distinctives which make the church what it is in the world. This is not the time to admit the
theological dumbing down of the church as inevitable and normal.
When I was a decade in Africa I was astonished by the prospect of an enormous ignorant Church.
But at least it was a humble ignorance, willing and eager to learn. Here in America I have found an arrogant
ignorance. The post-modern spirit of many small-group Bible studies, of post-sermon discussion classes, etc.
belittles theological acumen and the years of discipline necessary to acquire it. It is really frightening.