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Two Views of Theology

Dennis Bratcher

It is hard for anyone involved in any significant way in the Church today to escape the fact that much religious talk is marked by a level of rancor that seems incongruous from people who also talk a lot about the Prince of Peace.  Certainly, the Church has always been marked by differences of opinion and disagreements on matters of theology.  Yet, there have always been voices of moderation, calling Christians to focus on what unites them as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than what divides them into opposing factions.

John Wesley's sermon, On A Catholic Spirit, was such an appeal for unity in Christ in the midst of external differences.

 . . . "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God. He that does not love, does not know God; for God is love" ([1 John] 4:7, 8). "Not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another (verses 10, 11). . . .

4. But even though a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may. In this all the children of God may unite, even though they retain these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may help one another increase in love and in good works.

Yet the reality is that is spite of the call from Jesus and Scripture to be united in Christ and in love for one another, Christians often find themselves engaged in conflict with each other.  Once again, John Wesley understood this tendency of Christians to become embroiled in theological conflict and presented a case for unity in spite of conflicting opinions.

Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it), yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true. In fact, every thinking man is assured they are not, seeing humanum est errare et nescire: "To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity." This, therefore, he understands, applies to himself as well. He knows, generally, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particular opinions he is mistaken, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.

5. I say "perhaps he cannot know;" for who can tell how far invincible ignorance may extend? Or, which amounts to the same thing, invincible prejudice, which is often so fixed in tender minds, that it is afterwards impossible to tear up what has taken so deep a root. And who can say, unless he knew every circumstance attending it, how far any mistake is culpable, seeing all guilt must suppose some concurrence of the will. Only He who can judge and search the heart can know.

6. Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking that he desires they should allow him, and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He is patient with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question: "Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?"

This perspective of graciousness in dealing with others is well summarized by the dictum "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.”  -1-

So why is it that we modern Christians cannot seem to come to the point of admitting that we may not see everything perfectly, that some of our personal theological ideas may be flawed or even in error, and allow Wesley's "catholic spirit" to govern our interactions with other Christians?  Why do we find it so difficult to admit that some of our theological opinions may simply be wrong?  Why are so many so willing angrily to lambast other Christians about theological doctrines or ideas that are not even clearly presented in Scripture and have not been a part of the historic Church's confession?

There are various ways of addressing these questions.  Let me suggest only one among others. One difficulty is that modern people, especially in evangelical Protestantism, operate with two very different understandings of what theology is.  And of course, both of these perspectives carry over into how Scripture is viewed.

First, there is the "truth" understanding of theology.  That is, theology and theological systems tell us what is ultimately true in a philosophical, abstract sense. In this view, theology, and often doctrines, are the final statements of the reality about God.  Theology and theological beliefs tell us what is ultimately true, not only about God but also about all of existence since everything is related to God.  Theology is, therefore, also ontology, what is real and true.  In that sense, theology is unchanging and fixed because truth is unchanging and fixed. 

In this mode, the task of theology is to find out what is ultimately true and express it in theological systems, doctrines, and finally personal beliefs.  Those personal beliefs, then, are not really personal but a reflection of that larger absolute truth. And since what is ultimately true cannot change, the beliefs that are given such status also cannot change.  Once we have a systematized and logically coherent expression of truth it only requires belief, which is why many who hold this perspective associate salvation with correct belief.  Relationship with God depends on believing the truth, which includes a wide range of interconnected ideas that comprise the larger theological system. While not everyone who holds this perspective would agree, many would assert, openly or by implication, that salvation is a cognitive exercise of coming to believe the right things.

It is also why, for some, it is perfectly acceptable to kill others (literally or figuratively) who do not accept your theology. Examples are numerous in Church history, from Charlemagne, to John Calvin's despotic rule of Geneva, to the Salem witch trials, to modern fundamentalist crusades (see Neo-fundamentalism).

Second, there is the "testimony" understanding of theology.  This perspective takes seriously the meaning of the word theology, which means "God-talk," or "words about God."  This view sees theology as the way we express what we understand about God, yet using the language, metaphors, thought structures, imagery, and context in which we are located. This perspective admits that how we talk about God, whether in formal theological systems or in personal beliefs about God, is always conditioned by our location and its attending limitations.  That does not make theology less than true. It is only to say that theology is always and necessarily limited by our own range of vision.

It also means, as most actual theologians know all too well, that theology must change every generation, or even more often.  It is not that truth changes, but that how we understand and talk about truth changes.  That is, WE change. In this view, theology is not ultimate, never-changing truth that requires unqualified assent.  From this perspective, Truth in any absolute sense lies only with God.  Rather, theology is the best that we can say about God from our limited understanding and location. that calls us to engagement and response that goes beyond assent to a supposed absolute truth formulated by human beings. It calls us not only to believe in God, but to search for new and more relevant ways to express what we believe.

Those who hold the first view cannot admit that theology, whether from a particular tradition or theological system, or even in personal beliefs, is ever flawed. That is in spite of the fact that they declare absolute truth in theology at the same time that most would deny that humans with their fallibility can have any part in truth. It is the same logic that is used to argue a God-authored absolutely inerrant Bible, since human involvement in Scripture would render it less than perfect, yet without admitting the problems in fallible humans beings being able to even recognize the infallible apart from their own fallibility.  One writer labeled this kind of incongruity between asserting that theology done by humans is absolute truth while maintaining that human beings are too flawed to apprehend truth as "the doctrine of immaculate perception". -2-  For them, to admit flawed theology would be to admit that there is no truth. So theology, once expressed becomes an immovable touchstone.

Those who hold the second view accept a human dimension and tend to see the Faith in terms of ongoing relationship with God, even in covenantal categories.  Most would accept an incarnational model not only for theology but for Scripture (see The Modern Inerrancy Debate). That is, God works in and through human beings to reveal himself to the world, and entrusts human beings to bear faithful testimony to that revelation as God enables with his presence. That can apply to either theology or Scripture (which some of us believe is first and foremost theology).  Theology is, to use George E. Ladd's phrase describing Scripture, "the word of God given in the words of men in history."  -3-

Certainly, both perspectives have potential for problems, precisely because human beings are involved in both.  It is just that one acknowledges that human dimension openly and accepts it as how God works in the world (incarnationally). The other contends that because human beings are so prone to error, any such human involvement necessarily would render both Scripture and theology too contaminated to be of any value. So they assert a divine dimension to both Scripture and theology (which many would insist is really only Scripture) apart from human corruption, yet that can be easily apprehended even by flawed humanity. It is that dimension of "God said" applied to personal beliefs, without any acknowledgement of personal context, that causes much of the rancor in modern religious dialog.

Conceptualizing and expressing our theology in terms of testimony seems to be a avenue to avoiding such rancor.  We acknowledge that we express what we have come to believe and understand as true about God and His work in the world in terms of our present understanding of the world, our historical context, and our location within a specific cultural milieu, all of which shape both our perceptions and manner of expression.  We still affirm that our theology is the best expression we can give to our beliefs within those contexts and limitations, and that it expresses what is true about God.  Yet we also recognize our own limitations in apprehending absolute reality and ultimate truth, and that our theology, while expressing what is true, is limited by our own context and the limitations of our own understanding. As such our theology is not to be confused with the ultimate Truth. That Truth is God alone.  We do not quite understand all of God as much as some who advocate theology as absolute truth want to believe.

Notes

1. From Peter Meiderlin writing as Rupertus Meldenius.  Meiderlin was a 17th century German Lutheran who was trying to bring peace to the contentious parties within the church.   Phineas F. Bresee used the quote in a 1900 edition of The Nazarene Messenger. The saying became a descriptive catchphrase for both Methodism and the Church of the Nazarene. [Return]

2. This pun is commonly used among scientists to critique the assumption that empirical evidence can be considered apart from a human observer.  C. G. Beers, "A View of Birds", in Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, Vol. 7 1973, p. 49. [Return]

3. George Eldon Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism, Eerdmans, 1967, p. 12.  More recently, Kenton L. Sparks, God's Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, Baker, 2008. [Return]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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