For those who have a high regard for Scripture, who affirm it as the immutable Word of the living God (as I myself do, and believe that all people should), there is a trap into which we can easily fall: the trap of mining the Bible for theological gems, extracting them, and then enshrining these ideas as unassialable truth. Certain doctrines nearly take on the authority of the Ten Commandments themselves, or we tack our cherished theological ideas onto the end of these, making the 11th commandment “You shall believe in the doctrine of eternal security,” and the 12th “you shall believe in a pre-tribulation pre-millennial eschatology,” or whatever else we believe. The real truth, however, is that we now see through a glass darkly — we do not have all the answers, and some of the “givens” of our theology may not be as iron-clad as we would wish them to be.
There is often talk of different types of theology — biblical theology, systematic theology, “practical”/pastoral theology, historical theology, etc. We gravitate toward the idea of a a pristine biblical theology, from which systematics and pastoral theology is then ideally distilled as we wrestle with tensions in Scripture and everyday life. The truth, however, is much more complicated, with all these various aspects of the theological endeavour intertwined and inter-penetrating one another, so that our concerns in life, what we have read of past theologians, and our preferred theological systems, all shape our biblical theology, just as our biblical theology provides a basis for a critique or reassessment of all other aspects.
Take, for example, the early twentieth century Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield. He wrote a book called Counterfeit Miracles, which, before the world-wide explosion of Pentecostalism, argued for a cessassition of miraculous spiritual events by the end of the age of the apostles. Likely he believed that the Scriptures backed him up, as would any Pentecostal who argues the opposite side, but I suspect it was not co-incidence that he penned this volume after his wife died. Maybe he could no longer believe in a God who could heal.
Then there is Augustine’s refutation of Manichaeism and Pelagianism, heresies around which the time he lived that were driving a wedge into the Catholic Church and endangering the unity of the body. Augustine, as were most bishops, was a fierce defender of the unity of God’s people, and so was purposeful in his refutation of those doctrines (which, to be clear, I do believe were in error). A certain concern for the well-being of the church propelled him forward in his mission to shut down these heresies.
And what about the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds, those documents which the greatest number of Christians (myself included) hold as the purest expresssions of orthodox doctrine? Built right into these are anathemas against those who would disagree with these creeds, because that divergent teaching was gaining a large following and was threatening even the political stability of the Roman Empire as various rulers were declaring their alliances with these various theological camps.
As one last example, there is John Calvin, whose Institutes of Christian Religion are rightly to be regarded as wise and discerning theology. Specifically, we tend to pull out from this his idea of predestination, which we come to associate with Calvin himself, and make that into a theological litmus test in judging Reformed orthoodoxy, but what was his purpose in formulating this doctrine? My history professor has said on numerous occassions that this doctrine was to reassure Calvin’s parishoners that they had indeed been chosen by God and were safe in his hands. It was a doctrine of comfort, not one of hell-fire and fear as successive generations of Calvinists have made it out to be. His unique situation as a sixteenth-century Swiss pastor shaped the way he approached this aspect of his theology.
I write all this to ask us to be more discerning in how we go about thinking and teaching about our Lord, and to caution us regarding the status we tend to grant certain doctrines. Not that we should not strive for certaintiy within our thinking and search out those immoveable foundation stones upon which everything else can be built, but let us never be so naive that we forget how our present concerns and what we have learned from other thinkers shapes and molds what we regard as truth.
Let’s be willing to be open to the fact that what we have come to understand as the clear teaching of the Bible may be tainted by our human experiences and emotions. And where there are legitimate differences between believers — e.g. Calvinism/Arminianism, Pentecostalism/cessassionism — strive to discover what you believe, but be open-handed with your doctrine in dialogue with others. Let’s each of us maintain a teachable spirit in our theology and be willing to admit, because we are human, our fundamental incompetence in plumbing the depths of the divine.