No matter what some people may think the study of Theology is of the utmost importance not just for academic Christians but all believers who seek to do the work of spreading the Gospel. The study of theology is a necessity because at its core “theology is faith seeking understanding” and it provides a framework so we can not only comprehend our faith but know how to communicate it to others effectively.
Theology today is the culmination of over 2,000 years of study, history, experiences, turmoil, and intellectual growth as men and women attempt to give human language to matters which are beyond human comprehension. Despite the opinion of some, theology provides several key benefits for the church and the believer: it provides a process of systematic reflection, it helps to decouple us from our cultural biases, it gives us an overarching framework to see the Bible through and it gives language to better communicate our mission. Theology then is a compliment to mission and not an enemy of it, for without understanding there can be no success in delivering the message found within our mission to the world. For at the heart of the matter is the truth that every Christian is a theologian.
It is A Process of Systematic Reflection
We must begin with the idea that “theology is a kind of secondary and systematic reflection of the faith that we profess.” Theology does not supersede or replace the Scriptures but rather it provides an array of tools to study and understand the scriptures in light of thousands of years of history. The ideas and spiritual struggles of previous generations continue to have value as human nature at its core has not changed and the great questions of life remain largely the same.
When used properly theology, and especially systematic theology acts as a processor of information much like a computer’s CPU. We can link together the different disciplines of study such as Biblical studies, anthropology, history and many other fields together in our search for understanding. It demonstrates not only how a verse was impacted by its history but also how history was impacted by a biblical verse or doctrine.
We could say that “basically, systematic theology is the reflection on and the ordered articulation of faith.” No matter what some people may think there is no conflict between faith and theology because it is theology which helps us to articulate our faith to other people. Yes, there have been times when the Scriptures and theology as a whole has been taken to the academic extreme but those excesses do not cancel out the mountain of benefits theology provides not just for the academic but also the average believer. The truth is that “we want Christian practice to be theologically grounded” but at the same time we also want theology to be practically grounded as we go from “from trusting God to understanding God.”
It Helps Decouple Us from Cultural Biases
Each generation of the church must wrestle with the idea of how to be relevant to the world around it and how to best communicate the gospel. While it can be tempting to either remain unchanged or to embrace new culture to an unhealthy degree, theology when applied properly can aid us in avoiding either of these extremes. The concept of apostolic continuity applies to this subject as no matter the changes in culture we are still bound to the core teachings of Christ. Although we must learn how to translate those truths into the language, place and culture we are in, all the while being aware that “all theological assertions are historically conditioned.”
When used properly theology can not only give us added language to communicate with but it also acts as a filter to strip out unnecessary doctrines, beliefs and traditions. Much like how the Protestant Reformation sought to eliminate what they saw as extra-biblical practices so modern theology acts in a similar manner. Proper theology then is the cure for Traditionalism which adheres to “lifeless conformity to past theological formations. Using dry language that has no meaning for people anymore.”
The study of theology could be looked at as the study of what is actually important in the scripture and how we can be free of superstitions or doctrines which are grounded more in culture, politics, history, experience than on the scriptures themselves. This is especially true because “the Bible doesn’t address all our questions directly, as systematic theological perspective helps us to understand the Bible.” As we see in our generation there are moral and cultural issues which were inconceivable thousands of years ago so theology must step in to provide guidelines and clarity on how to best live in this world which is so far beyond what the apostles and writers of scripture could ever imagine.
Theology Provides an Overarching Framework to Understand the Scriptures
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience provides for us a glimpse of the different facets of our faith and how all of them must be active in the life of a believer. So it is with theology, and especially systematic theology which seeks to bring all of the streams of study into a single river of understanding. Theology is a rational discipline according to Thomas Aquinas, as “Faith goes beyond reason” and “Reason has the role of building upon what is known by revelation, exploring what its implications might be.”
With all of the competing disciplines such as Biblical Studies, Philosophical Theology, Historical Theology, Practical/Pastoral Theology, Mystical Theology and Apologetics fighting for control of the primary interpretation of scripture it can be daunting to understand what a verse or concept is actually saying to not only its original audience but to us today. However, with systematic theology we receive the tools to glean from all of these other disciplines in order to produce an informed interpretation or understanding of a scripture or a religious concept.
From this larger unified framework of theology we also find what is needed to protect us from allowing experience, allegory, general revelation or philosophy from taking priority over the teachings of scriptures in not only individual lives but also in the larger church. These mostly personal matters can add color to our understanding of scripture but they are not the canvas of theology we paint upon.
Theology Gives Language to Our Mission
It is one thing for me to go out in the zeal of mission and say that “Jesus saves,” but those words are irrelevant if it is unknown what they mean. Does Jesus save me a seat on the bus, or does He save me 15% on my insurance by switching to Geico? Mission without theology is just empty activity. From the study of theology, we can give clarity to matters such as atonement and all of the other matters we desire to speak about in our mission.
Going about mission without a solid theological understanding reduces evangelism to an exercise in humanism which seeks to better humanity. As opposed to the revelation of the death and resurrection of Christ which is made all the more real through proper exegetical analysis which shows the prefiguration of Christ in the Old Testament and can explain the “bread crumbs” left by God over the centuries. Theology also shows us why we are in need of a savior and in our best attempts allows us to say what we are redeemed from, why God would do such a thing and why we can have assurance that these things are true. While the endeavor of mission can produce converts only the proper application of theology can produce disciples.
The tried and true systems of the Western Church no longer work, as systems and programs which worked for decades are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate. This drastic shift in Western culture is forcing the church to change at a rate it has not experienced since the apostolic age and the current rate of change increases each year.
In dealing with this tsunami of change we are forced to ask the question of what is the role of the Church in communicating the message of the gospel in a Post-Modern context? The answer comes not from tried and true methods from the Enlightenment Era but instead we shall see how the answer comes from the church letting go of its immovable institutional bedrock and embracing the era of plastic Christianity. A church which remains grounded doctrinally but is plastic and malleable in how it presents its message and interacts with the ever-shifting Western culture.
Living Under the Post-Modern Shadow of “Change” Culture
We can look at the concept of culture as being the culmination of all of the ways of living as humans (including language, media, myths, writings, knowledge, science, art, religion, laws, etc.).” Culture is based on experience, thought and the ebbs and flows of people, so it is no shock that culture changes its values, goals or identity over the centuries. However, the struggle being faced today is that culture no longer takes centuries to change. Through modern marketing, the revolution in technology, and the shrinking global village ideas and thoughts are instantaneous. Whereas before an idea would be put in a book, distributed and years or decades later it would be part of the communal consciousness, now that process can take less than a minute.
Through this instantaneous communication and sharing of ideas culture has become one of rapid change, where large scale celebrations, disagreements, and defining moments happen daily. The church overall has failed to adapt to this era of change and the juggernaut of technology and in many cases is still caught fighting the battles of the Enlightenment era. Which is no surprise because the church in the West is still marred by the death of Christendom.
The Unmourned Death of Christendom
“The iron grip of dogma has been loosened,” is how Newbigin summarizes how the Enlightenment era’s doctrines of Reason and Progress brought cultural emancipation from the institutional church. This shift in culture marked the end of Christian Europe as the people sought other sources such as the sciences to answer their foundational questions: “who am I,” “why am I here” and “where am I going.” We see that “a vast amount of what earlier ages and other cultures simply accepted as given facts of life are now subject to human decision,” and often those decisions were the opposite opinion of the church.
Unfortunately, the church’s reactions to Modernity consisted of withdrawal, accommodation, and resistance. This cultural retreat created a sociological vacuum which the patriarchs of the Enlightenment took advantage of and supplanted the church as one of the pillars of society. From that point on Christian faith was severely questioned or dismissed on the grounds that many of its claims could not be proven scientifically and that “Christianity’s historicity was not compatible with Modern historical criticism.”
There is a feeling that the church never mourned its diminishment in the culture and simply sought to do business as usual” until everything went back to the way it was before. Grief and change were substituted with isolation and programs leaving the church missionally unprepared for the next seismic shift in culture.
A Post-Modern Picture
From the embers of the Enlightenment and the age of Modernity came an unexpected shift in culture. Away went the intellectual imperialism of the Enlightenment and in came the emotional and relational age of Post-Modernity. Both cultures share a common thread of individualism, science and expression but beneath the surface are stark differences. In many ways Post-Modernity can be seen as a rebellion against the dogma of Modernity, which in itself was a rebellion against the dogma of the church.
Whereas the key terms of Modernity were enlightenment, reason, freedom and progress, the Post-Modern mindset instead utilizes the key terms of feeling, deconstructionism, anti-narrative, meta, liquid, holistic and participation. Post-Moderns are seeking out a truth which works for them in their own individual context but is also compatible with their larger community. They are marked by tolerance of other’s beliefs, a preference for practicality over theories and finding meaning through experiences. The aspect about Post-Modernism the church struggles with the most is how they believe that no single account of reality is privileged and that all are equally valid. Not only are all accounts valid but new ones are created at an astounding rate.
Looking Back to the First Century to Meet Today’s Needs
Newbigin rightly points out that today “we live in a pagan society and not a secular society” and we can argue that spirituality has reached a new peak of popularity. For instance, in Metro-Vancouver there are more metaphysical/spiritual bookstores than Christian bookstores. We see with Post-Moderns and their holistic approach a hunger for something more than cold empiricism, but they have also largely determined that the church cannot meet these needs. So, in many ways the contemporary church finds itself in the same place as the church of the apostolic age.
Two thousand years ago “the Fathers wrestled with these issues in their pagan multi-cultural world, so we must do so again in ours.” For the church to not just thrive but survive under this culture it must learn how to “be bilingual in their communal life… Congregations are responsible to learn the language of faith because they are created by the Spirit. But they are also responsible to learn the language of their specific setting because they are contextual.”
This was similar to the approach taken in the early Christian work the Letter to Diognetus which described Christians as blending into society in terms of language and dress but living by a higher code of conduct. Those early Christians were able to impact their culture because they knew how to navigate it. For contemporary Christians to have similar success they to must accept the culture they are in and learn how to relate to people within it. This is not a surrender to the ethics of the culture, but it is instead the acceptance that we must know how to speak its language, and how to empathize with its values.
A Three-Fold Plastic Church is the Answer
The impact of Post-Modern ideology upon the church has involved a systematic reorganization of how the church “does church.” This is a culture where the Bible is seen more as an object of reflection rather than something to study. Stories and inspiration has replaced facts and doctrinal basics as people are more concerned about what the message makes them feel rather than on how the message changes or challenges them. Finally, we see the church having to emphasize a more relational type of theology which is commonly expressed through small group meetings and ministry.
Through all of these forced changes the church has had to go through it can be difficult to maintain a sense of what the role of the church is in today’s society. What does become clear is for the church to maintain itself in this cultural season it has to learn how to let go of “what worked yesterday,” and begin to take on a more plastic (malleable) approach to ministry. An approach that is open to new ideas that may not work for more than a year or two. There must be a willingness to offer a variety of ministry options to meet the varied needs of communities which are become more complex each year.
Role of the Church
First and foremost, the church exists in the world as the primary presence of God’s glory on this planet. The church is the visible and invisible union of all those in covenant relationship with Christ who gather together to worship, pray, learn and receive the tools necessary so they can go out into the world and fulfill the Great Commission. Given that the “church no longer has a privileged position within North American culture, it is rediscovering its fundamental missionary identity to live as a new community demonstrating God’s redemptive reign in the broader society.”
The core role of the church is to act as a base of operations for the members of the Kingdom of God in each community. Traditionally the role of the church was seen akin to a stone fortress, engineered to withstand attacks while providing a visible place of safety and escape from the wilderness. But in our contemporary era it could be better to envision the church as an aircraft carrier. A mobile facility able to move where it is needed to deploy others to accomplish the mission of the Kingdom. A cultural shift in the view of the role of the church however must be supported from the top down, as in a healthy contemporary church “the pastor’s primary role is to train and equip believers to use their gifts and talents to help build the kingdom.
To move from a mindset of a fortress to an aircraft carrier the contemporary Western church must first embrace a plastic approach to it missional methodology. Secondly it must embrace and employ a three-fold style of ministry which utilizes the head, the heart and the hands of the people. By the head I am speaking of the need for education and proper theology as typically seen in denominations such as Presbyterians and Baptists. The heart speaks of the desire for social change, and humanitarian efforts seen among the Liberal Mainline denominations. Finally, the hand speaks of the evangelistic actions taken by the Pentecostals and the Charismatics who rely more on the moving of the Holy Spirit.
Typically, these three archetypes of ministry have been separated along denominational trench lines forged in the Enlightenment, leaving the church looking more like a WWI battlefield than the bride of Christ. If the church is to best reach the Post-Modern person, they have to offer all three of these ministry styles. No longer can we allow each group to use “the other’s one-sidedness to justify its own continuing lack of balance, and the division devastates the church’s witness and credibility. I believe that both types of one-sidedness are unbiblical and heretical.”
This is not a call for some ecumenical amalgamation but instead the reality is that each church must be strong in teaching the scriptures, they have to be outspoken through social actions and they have to be active in evangelism and the moving of the Holy Spirit. In many ways this three-fold approach is the next evolution of John Wesley’s Quadrilateral.
The church then must be a multi-dimensional church, working in all arenas at once while remaining malleable enough to not get comfortable in certain programs or approaches to ministry. This view of ministry is not impossible and a variation of this has been successfully demonstrated at Te Atatu Christian Fellowship in Auckland New Zealand, and in the concept of a “Shalom Revival” presented by Richard Sider where all three facets are employed simultaneously.
Agents of Reconciliation and Change
If the post-modern church can follow this malleable threefold approach to ministry, then it will be able to fully act as an agent of reconciliation and change. The church is called to embody in its life and witness the Good News to the world yet far too often it has instead hidden from painful matters in society and culture. The church in its unmourned state following the Enlightenment shied away from the world and became concerned only with the spiritual health of its remaining members. It then became increasingly silent on social issues, or in other instances became the perpetrators of injustices.
The church has felt safe in its preaching of the gospel but has forgotten that “right at the heart of salvation is the new redeemed community.” A redeemed community that is separate from the larger culture but at the same time there is a responsibility to allow the church’s higher ethics to better society. Rather than use the strength of the church to impose its higher ethics upon those outside of the covenant community.
This is where the church can act as agents of reconciliation, by first seeing itself as agents of community. Where community is prioritized avenues for reconciliation begin to be opened and a dialogue is possible either between the church and the larger community or by having the church play the role of mediator. This involves a shift in worldview from a concept of individual forgiveness of one’s soul to one which sees forgiveness as the source of healing of relationships. For if the church cannot model forgiveness, restoration, or social action, then the world in its fallen state will try to fill the vacuum.
Christians are to live by a higher standard and are obligated according to scripture, the examples of Christ and God’s very nature of reconciliation to take the initiative and call for change, peace, restoration and reconciliation, even if that means the church humbling itself publicly. The truth about the church is that if faithful it “will always challenge what is wrong in the status quo.” If our gospel produces no such change in Christians then what is the point of the gospel in society at large?
A Post-Modern Gospel
No matter what the culture may look like or demand “evangelism is the ultimate calling of the church,” and evangelism is simply the sharing of the gospel. For the Western Post-Modern they are looking for a gospel experience where a Christian models the ethics of Christ and is willing to listen to them before preaching to them an unfiltered message of repentance, sin and new beginning. Old tricks or tracts won’t cut it anymore, people are looking to see the message of the gospel demonstrated to them before they are willing to listen to it. Which is why the three-fold approach is so important as action, doctrine and witness all need to be demonstrated.
The core message of the cross has never changed, and we have to accept that mission and “witness is not about programs and method. It is about openly inviting others into the community of new humanity so they can experience the grace of God.” The gospel is a gateway to a new and higher way of living through the atonement of Christ and in our reconciliation with God. In response to this gift we have an eternal expectation but at the same time the members of the church have a temporal responsibility on earth. A responsibility fueled by the fact that Christ’s reign has been inaugurated (already-not yet) in the earth leaving the church as the visible evidence of his presence who go out to proclaim the message of the cross.
The church is the culmination of the people who have been changed by the Good News and have the responsibility to teach, witness, and offer acts of compassion to people in the world. The question is not which of these types of ministry the church will offer but whether or not they “are capable of integrating all three in a comprehensive, dynamic and consistent witness.” This is the purpose of the three-fold approach and the plastic mindset the church needs to utilize to best engage with Post-Modern culture.
“The church is not static; it is a living dynamic social and spiritual reality. This means that the organizational life of the church must be able to respond to growth, development and change.” For the church the rate of change it is experiencing is staggering but through engagement with society and partnership with the Holy Spirit perhaps the church will no longer lag behind but learn once again how to be at the forefront of culture change and not just the victim of it.
 Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 23.