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The Nature and Function of Theology

by David F. Wells

David F. Wells is professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. An ordained Congregational minister, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Manchester. Among his publications are: The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Incarnation (Marshall Theological Library: Marshall, Morgan and Scott; Crossway, 1984); co-editor and part author with Mark Nofl, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, and John Woodbridge, Eerdmans Handbook to Christianity in America, (Eerdmans, 1983); The Prophetic Theology of George Tyrrell (American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion, Vol. 22, Scholars Press, 1982); The Search for Salvation (InterVarsity Press, 1978); co-editor with Clark Pinnock, Toward a Theology for the Future (Creation House, 1977); co-editor with John D. Woodbridge, The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, How They Are Changing (Abingdon,1975); Revolution in Rome (InterVarsity Press, 1972). The following is Chapter Ten in Robert K. Johnston (ed.) The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options (John Knox 1985.)


Two preachers articulate contrasting views of authority in a well-known woodcut from the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic is arrogantly wagging his finger at the congregation and saying, "Sic dicit Papa." The Protestant, his finger humbly pointed at the page of Scripture, declares, "Haec dicit dominus de." The artist, needless to say, was Protestant!

 Like so many other slogans, however, the Protestant Reformers' sola scriptura both revealed and concealed important issues. What it revealed was their conviction that Christian theology in its form and substance as well as its function in the church must be determined by God's authoritative Word, the written Scriptures. Given the sufficiency of Scripture, "whatsoever is not read therein," declares Article VI of the Thirty-nine Articles, "nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."(1) What the slogan concealed was the complexity of the process involved in understanding God's Word in the context of cultures far removed in time and psychological texture from those in which the revelation was originally given. It is this complexity which I wish to analyze in order that I may say how it is that evangelical theologians today ought to construe the significance of the sola scriptura principle for their work.

 The Nature of Evangelical Theology

 The nature of evangelical theology is determined for it by the nature of that Word of which it is the exposition and application. The Word of God is the unique, written disclosure of God's character, will, acts, and plans. It is given so that men and women who have come to faith through its teaching might learn to five in God's world on his terms, loving and honoring him in all that they do and seeking to make known to the world his law and gospel. That is the purpose of God's revelation and the task of theology is to facilitate this.

This facilitation begins with the recognition of the bipolar nature of biblical revelation. Biblical revelation was given in a particular cultural context but it is also intended to be heard in our own context. This revelatory trajectory, then, has a point of origination and a point of arrival. It is the fact of inspiration and the contemporary work of the Spirit which secure a consistency between its terminus a quo and its terminus a quem. The work of the Holy Spirit was such that the responsible human agents who were used in the writing of Scripture were able to employ cultural materials and, indeed, to shape the revelation in terms of their own understanding, but what God the Spirit willed should be revealed was exactly what was written, and the content and intent of this revelation were alike transcultural. The biblical revelation, because of its inspired nature, can therefore be captive neither to the culture in which it arose nor to the culture in which it arrives. It was not distorted as it was given, nor need it be distorted as we seek to understand it many centuries later in contexts far removed from those in which it was originally given.

The bipolar character of revelation is what Krister Stendahl appears to have had in mind in the distinction he has drawn between what Scripture "means" and what it "meant.(2) Unfortunately, however, this is a distinction which can be understood. Much modem theology is of the opinion that contemporary meaning is largely uncontrolled by and different from biblical meaning. What Scripture says, it is argued, is to be determined by the cultures in which it was given and what it means is to determined by, and not merely related to, our own modem culture. This approach destroys any meaningful understanding of the Spirit's work in inspiration and Muniination.

It is the task of theology, then, to discover what God has said in and through Scripture and to clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age. Scripture, at its terminus a quo, needs to be de-contextualized in order to grasp its transcultural content, and it needs to be re-contextualized in order that its content may be meshed with the cognitive assumptions and social patterns of our own time. This process, I suggest, is helpfully illustrated by the way in which our electronic media work. Prior to the electronic age there were only three factors involved in communication: the orator; the speech; and the audience. With the new media the orator has become the sending source and the audience is the receptor. The speech has become a message which now also has to be encoded by the sending source and decoded by the receptor. In all, then, there are now five components in the process. With a little adaptation this model might graphically represent the theological task(3) in this way

It is now my purpose to examine this process, focusing principally on the two poles or foci in the theological task. This I wish to do by redefining, for the purposes of this essay, my use of two words: doctrine and theology.(4)

 Doctrine and the Pole of Revelation

 Doctrine is what the Bible says on any subject. We speak of "the doctrine of the atonement," "the doctrine of Christ," or "the doctrine of God," and what we have in mind is the collective testimony from the various biblical authors as to what should be believed about the atonement, about Christ, and about God. The word doctrine is therefore being used in a way that is flexible enough to accommodate the variety of biblical teaching on these and other subjects as well as the factor of development in some themes as we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Our doctrinal categories can be neither artificial, so as to impose an order on the biblical revelation which is not itself a part of the revelation, nor wooden, so as to exclude testimony which does not fall within the prescribed pattern. The doctrinal form must arise from and faithfully represent the revelatory content which the doctrine is seeking to present. This question, of how doctrine should be derived, now needs to be addressed more specifically, first positively and then negatively.

 Principles of Construction

 The process of deriving doctrine has three facets to it. These facets are not so much stages, distinguished from one another in a chronological sequence, as they are characteristics of a single process and as such always function together with each other in any healthy formulation. These facets or characteristics may be designated as the scientific, artistic, and sacral.(5)

The use of the word scientific in this context is undoubtedly provocative. It may conjure up memories of an earlier phase in American evangelical theology in which theology was customarily spoken of as being a science or a still earlier phase in which theology used to be described as the "queen of the sciences." Nothing so triumphalistic is in mind here! There is, however, an analogy between the two activities which is helpful to observe.

In both cases there is objective data which needs to be understood, organized, and explained. The explanation with the greatest plausibility is the one which best explains the most data. Whether one is dealing with scientific hypotheses and theories in the one case or doctrines in the other, the explanation must always remain subservient to and open to correction by the data being explained. Scientific theories cannot be sustained in cavalier disregard for the facts and neither can doctrines. Both the foundation and the parameters of any doctrinal formulation must be provided by careful, honest, skillful exegesis. Doctrine which is not at its heart exegetical is not at its heart evangelical; doctrine which develops a life of its own and blithely disregards what Scripture says is also blithely disregarding what God says. That is what it means to have an inspired Scripture and this is the import of the sola scriptura principle for doctrine.

It is a myth, however, to suppose that this process, either in science or in biblical study, proceeds merely according to external laws without reference to the inner fife of the interpreter! It is for this reason that, in addition to the scientific dimension, mention is here made of the artistic and sacral.

By the word artistic, what is in mind is the place of understanding and even of self-understanding in the construction of doctrine. For, in the nature of the case, the fruit of exegesis has to be constructed into a synthetic whole and that construction is significantly affected by the pre-understanding, the presuppositions, the experience, and the psychology of the interpreter. The ideal we need to hold out to ourselves, then, is that of faithful resonance between the realities being spoken of in Scripture and our own understanding of those realities. An interpreter whose grasp of the life and meaning of sin is shallow will, for example, almost inevitably understand the teaching of Scripture on sin in a shallow manner and the doctrinal structure which results will be correspondingly deformed. The interpreter's cognitive presuppositions and his or her spiritual capacity for understanding the truth of God are fundamental in the formation of doctrine.

This, however, leads naturally into the third factor, the sacral. Martin Luther declared that he had learned from Psalm 119 that the three factors indispensable to the construction of "right theology" are oratio, meditatio, and tentatio. What he meant was that our entire doctrinal endeavor must be understood in the context of knowing God, as an exercise in spirituality, as an expression of our love and worship of God. This is an aspect of the theological task, I dare say, which has largely vanished from most learned discussions.

Meditatio,(7) if I may begin here, is the reading, studying, contemplation, and inner digestion of Holy Scripture. It is the absorption of its teaching so that its truth is infused in our lives and its teaching becomes the means of our holding communion with God, receiving his promises and expressing our gratitude by obeying his commands.

Reflection or meditatio does not naturally recommend itself to us; as a matter of fact, since most of us are energetic "doers" and high pragmatists, reflection seems like a most unproductive pastime. The only kind of thinking we are really interested in is that kind which either solves problems or gets something started. Reflection by its very nature is neither outwardly directed at a problem nor does it seek immediate effects such as getting some project going. Why, then, should we imagine that reflection has anything to be said for it?

The answer is that the things of God are only partly involved with solving problems and launching projects, as much as we might like to think that the whole of spirituality is involved with these activities! God is our Eternal Contemporary standing in relationship to us through Christ not merely when we are solving problems or launching projects, but at every moment of our lives. God is not closer to us in our moments of activity than at other times; and the other times are not worthless because they are not spent in activity!

Reflection is, in fact, the soil in which our loves, hopes, and fears all grow. If we never took thought, we would never fear anything, love anyone, or hope for anything. Reflection is how the truth of God first takes root in us, how it is first to be "owned" by us as its interpreters, and how it owns us as we interpret it.

Oratio obviously includes praying as requesting but it is by no means limited to this, for prayer is a many-sided expression of a God-centered life. Being God-centered in one's life is essential to being God-centered in one's thoughts. This God centeredness is the sine qua non of good theology, for, without it, it is impossible to think our thoughts after God, which is what defines good theology. Prayer and theology, therefore, require the total orientation of the person-of heart, mind, and will -- to God. Theology without trusting, submissive prayer is no longer good theology; it is merely an academic exercise which may itself pose as a substitute for the process of knowing God. Where this happens, the means has become the end in a kind of perverse idolatry.(8)

Reflection and prayer are matters in which we engage; tentatio is something which occurs to us and, for that reason, I wish to say little about it. I merely observe that most of us slip easily into a loose godlessness -- however well hidden it is beneath religious language and the outward expressions of piety-unless we are kept in a state of spiritual tension by life's disconcerting experiences. The adversity which is encompassed by tentatio is what disciplines the spirit and, difficult as this may be, it is an essential ingredient in the writing of all profound Christian thought.

The construction of doctrine, then, is a complex matter in which there must be a constant and intense interplay between the authoritative Word through which the interpreter is addressed and the interpreter who hears this Word. It requires that we learn syntax, verbal forms, and conjugations and that we sustain a personal relationship to the God of that Word.(9) The divine address is verbal communication by which and through which God makes self-disclosures and, in that disclosure and address, elicits our "wonder, love, and praise." Doctrine, correspondingly, must not only capture and clarify what it is that has been communicated in Scripture but it must also bring us face-to-face with the Communicator. It, too, must elicit from us "wonder, love, and praise."

 Aberrations to Be Avoided

 There are, I believe, two major aberrations which have gained popularity amongst evangelicals in the last decade and which, in my judgment, seriously vitiate the process of constructing doctrine in a way that is in faithful conformity to Scripture. These are, first, the toying with Catholic and Anglo-Catholic notions of tradition and, second, the imposition on Scripture of systems that are alien to it.

The new concern with tradition is in part justifiable. There is no question that in much fundamentalism and evangelicalism, the Word of God is held captive to the parochialisms of this age, not to mention the personal eccentricities of domineering, authoritative preachers. The Word of God is often what they say it is, and unbelief is defined as disagreeing with their interpretations! These authoritarian figures often function as an ad hoc magisterium. How Scripture has been interpreted in the past is often dismissed as irrelevant. By a strange quirk of logic we have, therefore, come to repeat the errors we chastised the liberals and Roman Catholics for committing. On the one hand, by our historical amnesia we break our continuity with historic Christian faith as did the liberals and, on the other, we accord to some preachers a magisterial authority in interpreting Scripture not unlike Roman Catholics do!

The argument that tradition should have a major role in the interpretation of Scripture, however, usually carries with it a concealed assumption as to what authority is, where it is located, and how it should operate. The traditional Roman Catholic position on tradition.(10) involved two distinct arguments. First, it was argued that the way in which Scripture has been understood in the church must prescribe for us what Scripture is understood to declare because it is the Holy Spirit who has provided this interpretation. It is perfectly clear, though, that the Spirit has never given a uniform sense on what Scripture teaches, not even in the patristic period. Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium in the fifth century sought to address the fact that there was a welter of opinions within extra-biblical tradition. This effort was in a measure successful but it is interesting to note that in the Middle Ages Peter Abelard was nevertheless driven to write his Liber Sententiarum sic et non citing over one hundred and fifty subjects on which the early Fathers were in considerable disagreement with one another! It is this fact which, as in the early church so now, has been a powerful force in moving people toward the acceptance of the second part of the argument, namely, that there must be an authoritative church which will adjudicate finally, absolutely, and even infallibly on which interpretations should be seen as resulting from the Spirit's illumination and which should not. The argument for tradition as authoritative teacher becomes, almost inevitably, an argument for an authoritative church.

The Protestant Reformation is often perceived as having pitted the biblical Word of God against ecclesiastical tradition. It is true that sometimes the Reformers complained about the way in which tradition nullified the teaching of God's Word.(11) The real argument, however, was not so much with tradition as with a church which used tradition authoritatively. The Reformers opposed God's authoritative Word to this church which, in their view, had arrogated to itself an authority which was entirely illicit. They accepted tradition in the role of guide and counselor; they denied it could act as authoritative teacher.

In taking this view the Protestant Reformers believed that they were merely recovering the essence of patristic Christianity which needed to be affirmed against the later medieval development with which the church of Rome had become identified. Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer, not to mention a multitude of their successors, expressed the view that the Christianity of the first five centuries coincided with their theology and was at odds with that of Rome.(12)

Their confidence was not ill-founded, especially in their attiude toward tradition. In the early patrisdc period it was common to draw a distinction between the apostolic paradosis (tradition) and the church's didaskalia (teaching). The former, it was asserted by Irenaeus, Tertulhan, and others, was authoritative and the latter was not. And even didaskalia was distinguished from theologia.(13) The individual views of a teacher should not be considered the teaching of the church and the teaching of the church should not necessarily and automatically be considered the teaching of Scripture. Thus did Origen, for example, speak of theologia as the effort of the individual to "make sense" out of Scripture but he immediately asserted the tentative nature of any such interpretational In Gregory of Nazianzus the element of indirectness, of being one step removed from the original data, is identified with the word theologia and Pseudo-Dionysius employed it as a synonym for mysticisms

Two important changes occurred in this situation, however. First, with the passage of time the apostolic tradition, which had been the sum and substance of (the Apostles') teaching on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, became broadened to include extra-biblical, oral teaching which was supposed to have come from the Apostles. This was a deleterious development because canonical and non-canonical, biblical and non-biblical material was being indiscriminately blended. Second, as the church was troubled by heresy and schism from within and by the State from without, uniformity of belief and practice became a necessity. The means adopted to arrive at this end was to place great authority in the hands of powerful bishops and then, in the fourth and fifth centuries, in the hands of a central, authoritative church in Rome under whose leadership the others were expected to be subject. These two developments drastically changed the meaning of tradition. It now became a category broad enough to include extra-biblical beliefs and practices and then, as it was employed within an authoritative church, it became the means of achieving uniformity, oftentimes without reference to Scripture itself It was at that point that the early church lost the power to reform itself in the fight of God's Word, because at that point it had dislodged the Word of God from its functional authority and replaced it by pseudo-ecclesiastical authorities.

The longing for a tradition that will make sense out of our evangelical tower of Babel, the recoil from self-serving exegesis, and the dissatisfaction with the miserable and stultifying parochialism of much evangelicalism are entirely understandable. Our longing for order and security, made all the more intense by our involvement in a chaotic and changing world, should not, however, be followed naively down the road of tradition. The siren voice of authoritative tradition is really a beckoning call into an authoritative church. And once we arrive there, as the overwhelming majority of contemporary Catholics has discovered, we find that few problems have actually been resolved and many more have been created. The truth of the matter is that there are no infallible interpreters of God's Word in this world, not even in Rome. It is this fact which creates the space in our inner life to develop our own trust in God. In the midst of each exigency, we must learn to trust that the one who gave us this Word will also give us a sufficient understanding of it, despite all of our sins and prejudices, so that we can live in his world on his terms as his faithful children.

The second aberration has come in a multitude of forms but common to them all is a search for a key which will unlock the "real" meaning of Scripture, a meaning which, it is assumed, is presently obscure or hidden. This search has commonly taken mystical, rational, and literary forms, but it is the rational and the literary which are most common in contemporary evangelicalism.

The search for a rational key, in fact, often results in an imposition on Scripture of a system not arising naturally from it and is really a perversion of the truth of Scripture's unity. Examples of it are numerous but perhaps one of the most widespread and, I dare say, blatant is in some of the footnoted Bibles that litter the shelves of our bookstores.

If the purpose of these various footnoted Bibles, the most influential of which is no doubt Scofield's, was merely to provide background information so that the text might be understood better, then substantial objections would be hard to make. The truth of the matter, however, is that these footnotes invariably provide "the system" without which, we are forced to conclude, Scripture would be forever blurry.

If the Scofield "system" and others like it are plausible, they are plausible only at the level of hypothesis. As such, the system itself must always be exposed to the correction of the Word it is seeking to explain. The problem is, however, that the hypothesis has often become as fixed and unchangeable as the Bibles to which it is appended. There are a large number of lay Christians, for example, who, despite the far-reaching changes which some of Scofield's more learned disciples have worked into his scheme, still see his original, footnoted "system" as being as infallible as the Bible which it seeks to explain. The facts and the hypothesis have become identical. Once the hypothesis found its way into footnotes at the bottom of each page, the 44 system" became a way of understanding the Word, which understanding, in practice, is not itself really subject to correction by that Word as long as those Bibles are in existence.

It is one of the curious ironies of our time, however, that New Testament scholars who rail most loudly at the imposition of theological systems on the text are themselves often proponents of their own type of system. They merely substitute a literary system for a rational one.

This is nowhere more evident than in the current infatuation with redaction criticism. It has always been recognized, of course, that the authors of the Gospels each had a viewpoint in the light of which each made his paraphrastic selection of material.(16) The argument now, however, is that the sayings of Jesus had three contexts.(17) The first was the original context in which the words were uttered; the second was provided by the believing community which adapted his words to their lives; the third was provided by the redactor who adapted the saying, as heard from the community, for his own work which came to represent his "theology." What we should understand the Gospels to say, therefore, is not to be found primarily through an exegetical consideration of the text, but rather from a history which lies behind the text. The meaning of Christian faith is bound up in discovering what this history was rather than in what the text itself says.

There are two significant problems created by this approach. First, it holds the meaning of the text captive to the meaning of a history so shadowy that it cannot be said with any assurance what it was. The facts, in this instance, have been inverted. This history is at best only a clue to what the text says; the text is not supposed to be used as a clue to this history, for then the text would only be indirectly related to the meaning of the Christian faith. Second, it holds the meaning of Christian faith captive to the workings of the scholarly elite. The ecclesiastical magisterium is now replaced by a scholarly magisterium, for only they have the knowledge to uncover this history and it is only in this history that the meaning of faith can be found!(18)

We need to conclude, therefore, that it is dangerous to assert that God the Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures but somehow omitted to give us the key to understand them! Systems of understanding are legitimate and proper only to the extent that they arise from the biblical Word and are themselves disciplined by it. No one can legitimately impose a system on the Word. This applies both to rational systems, such as Scofield's, and to literary systems, such as those advanced by some advocates of redaction criticism. The issue the Protestant Reformers faced is quite as much ours as it was theirs: if we do not assert the right of Scripture to stand in authoritative relationship to every presupposition, custom, and tradition, every teaching, practice, and ecclesiastical organization, then that authority will be coopted either by an ecclesiastical magisterium or by a scholarly one. Magisterii of this type may imagine that they are invested with some form of infallibility but time will reveal how mistaken this assumption is. The Word of God must be freed to form our doctrine for us without the interference of these pseudo-authorities. It was for this that the Reformers argued and it is for this that we must argue. It is this contention that is heralded by sola scriptura, and without the sola scriptura principle an evangelical theology is no longer evangelical.

 Theology and the Pole of Culture

In the model which I have proposed, using electronic media as an example, it will be seen that theology is related to doctrine as the second step ("encoding") is to the first ("decoding") in the same process. Theology is that effort by which what has been crystallized into doctrine becomes anchored in a subsequent age and culture. It is the work of making doctrine incarnate. God's Word is "enfleshed" in a society as its significance is stated in terms of that cultural situation.

If doctrine might be represented by an object such as a chair, then theology would be the use to which that object is put, its effect on its surroundings and the perspective it gives on its environment. Theology differs from doctrine as what is unrevealed does from what is revealed, fallible from what is infallible, derived from what is original, relative from what is certain, culturally determined from what is divinely given. Doctrine cannot change from generation to generation, otherwise Christianity itself would be changing. Theology must change in each succeeding generation, otherwise it will fail to become a part of the thinking processes and life-style of that generation. The attempt to change doctrine imperils Christian faith; the unwillingness to incarnate doctrine in each age by theology imperils the Christian's credibility. In the one case Christianity can no longer be believed; in the other, it is no longer believable.

This is, to be sure, a somewhat selective understanding of what is entailed in doing theology. In addition to the role which has been described briefly, it has been customary to see theology also functioning within doctrine in both a protective and a constructive capacity.(19) These tasks are not in any way denied, although they are not presently being discussed. The church, it is true, has always had to find ways of protecting its doctrine. Simple reassertions of biblical language by themselves have often proved inadequate. The Fathers who sought to ward off Arianism in the early fourth century discovered this to their chagrin. Arius agreed to all of the biblical titles and expressions used of Christ's divinity because each one could be interpreted in such a way as to ascribe to him a diminished divinity (which, in biblical terms, could not be a divinity at all). The Fathers at Nicea therefore reluctantly resorted to the use of homoousios which was not altogether felicitous but at least it was an effective discouragement to Arianism.

The use of homoousios and all other such protective terms are provisional and should not be seen to participate in that infauibifity which attaches to the Word they are protecting. The Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition are statements of extraordinary clarity and have been of immeasurable benefit in the life of the church. However, they are not divinely revealed and they, too, along with all other confessions, creeds, and statements of faith, must be subject to the correction of the biblical Word.

Theologians have likewise always found it beneficial to. develop terms, concepts, and organizing principles for the work of construction. Proponents of dispensationalism and of covenant theology, for example, have alike argued that Scripture itself provides a concept in the light of which its variety all makes sense. In the one case it is the principle that, in each of a series of succeeding ages, God has tested his people in terms of their obedience to a particular form of his revelation; in the other, it is the proposition that God's salvation is divinely initiated and established, that it is the same salvation throughout the Bible, and that it is the notion of covenant which articulates this. The first keys on the differences between the testaments and the second keys on their unity. These are large and ambitious forms of construction and there are many lesser examples of it in and out of evangelicalism. Gustav Aulen's contention, for example, that the New Testament teaching on Christ's death is teaching simply about his conquest of the devil -- the "classic motif" falls into this category as does Karl Barth's understanding of evil conveyed in his term das Nichtige or Karl Rahner's "supernatural existential." These constructive devices are in principle legitimate and need to be accorded legitimacy. But they, too, must be subject to the correction of God's written Word. Constructive devices of either an organizational or a conceptual kind cannot be allowed to impose an understanding on Scripture which is not supported by it and which does not faithfully commend biblical teaching.

It is the relational role of theology which is, however, at the focus of this essay-the way in which theology relates doctrine to each age in a vernacular which is native to that age. In this connection I wish to speak briefly again of the positive principles entailed and then of certain aberrations which need to be avoided.

Principles of Construction

What, then, is the basis on which this incarnating work should take place and how should it be done? In the nature of the case, answers to these questions can only be sketched out in a rudimentary way.

First, with respect to the basis it should be observed that, while it is true that there is a soteriological discontinuity between God and human nature, there nevertheless remains a revelational continuity.(20) There is a structure to reality, which is both moral and epistemological in nature and which, by God's own design and providential operation, is unaltered by human rebellion. This revelation is natural, in the sense that it is part and parcel of both the creation and human nature, and it is general, inasmuch as it is a functional component in all human perception and cognition. It is the common thread linking vastly different cultural and social situations. It is what makes Christian discourse possible within the diversity of languages, social customs, and cultural values prevalent on the earth. It is prevenient to the gospel and it is the sine qua non for communicating the nature of the Christian world-view.

With respect to method, it is worth pondering whether or not a legitimate distinction might be drawn between the content of evangelical theology and its form or between what Paul Lehman calls its "referential" and its "phenomenological" aspects. The latter, of course, is provided by the concrete situation which is being addressed, while the former is the biblical norm in accordance with which an evangelical theology shapes itself and before the God of which it stands accountable. In earlier evangelical theologies content and form were identical; the content of biblical revelation was crystallized into doctrinal form and this doctrine, it was assumed, would be self-evident to reasonable people. It may be increasingly necessary, however, to allow the concrete situation, rather than the biblical revelation, to propose the "doctrinal" loci or the organizing forms in terms of which biblical faith needs to speak, because the secularism of our time has so transformed the way people think that Christian faith is now in a cross-cultural situation. Such a proposal in no way invalidates the search for doctrinal forms that are consistent with the substance of the biblical revelation; it merely means that their discovery will constitute but a halfway house rather than the journey's destination itself These doctrinal forms will then have to be adapted to and translated in terms of the assumptions and norms of the American situation in such a way that the Word of God is preserved in its integrity but affirmed in its contemporaneity.

The situation that we face today is one in which the moral norms and cognitive expectations of the culture have also invaded the church. They form the foundation on which much doctrine is unwittingly built. The doctrine produces outward Christian activity-an informal code on what is "Christian" life-style (the agreed points of which are nevertheless being whittled down with each passing year), Christian activity in and out of church, and a Christian empire with organs of entertainment, education, and political influence-but it does not necessarily produce Christians who are, at the roots of their being, Christian. It does not necessarily produce men and women who have the capacity or the desire to contest the worldliness of our time or to flesh out an alternative to it. This doctrine, even in its most orthodox forms, can become nothing more than a mask which conceals the real operating principles in a person's life which may be worldly and secular. It is, then, the task of theology to expose these principles in the interest of securing a real adherence to the doctrine which is being given outward assent.(21) An orthodox veneer is, I suspect, something that happens to us almost unknowingly since we often do not understand how our culture has shaped us in the very depths of our being. This is especially the case in the way that technology operates in our culture.

Emil Brunner has asserted that we in the West are living in a unique moment.(22) Never before has a major civilization attempted to build deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations. Beneath other civilizations there were always religious assumptions-whether these came from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Christianity-and it was these assumptions which gave both legitimacy and stability to the social order. Beneath ours there are none. In their absence we have technology. Technology is the metaphysic of twentieth-century America.

This, of course, is the theme that has been developed at some length by Jacques Ellul.(23) Technology, he argues, is a metaphysic because it prescribes a world-view, it has its own ethic-what is right is what is efficient -- and it is its own justification. That being the case, it controls by right those who five in a society organized to cater for its needs educationally, industrially, and politically. It forms them into people of narrow vision and diminished humanity. They become small functionaries in a larger scheme of things, technicians who view all of life in a mechanical fashion. Life poses problems. Problems demand solutions. The solutions adopted are those that work, with little regard being given for what the long-range consequences might be, whether the means being chosen are best suited to the ends being sought or whether they are intrinsically moral or not. This mentality has become ubiquitous in our society.

Peter Berger has gone on to argue that it produces its own way of knowing.(24) It requires a quantifying habit of mind, the kind which reduces all knowledge to mathematical formulae and statistics. This is perfectly appropriate when divorce rates or demographic changes are being plotted, but it is peculiarly inappropriate when matters of intimacy are under discussion, such as the praxis of the bedroom or matters of complexity such as human motivation and the makeup of religious conviction.

The truth is, however, that once we allow ourselves to become technicians in our society we are thereafter required always to act and think like technicians in all circumstances.

The technological society in turn destroyed "natural groupings." A "natural grouping" is a small social unit made up of people whose fives are in some measure interlaced and who provide for each other a stable context in which the orderly transmission of values can take place from parents to children. The most important of these is the conjugal family, but in ethnic environments the extended family and the neighborhood are also included. There is a wholeness to the group, a sharing of lives at many different points.

These social groupings are being destroyed. Industrial development has brought workers into the great urban organizing centers and in the process has driven a wedge between a person's work life and his or her home life. It has produced extraordinary mobility which in turn has destroyed most functioning neighborhoods because their residents are so transient. It has reduced the family, in many cases, to being a passing convenience for its members. Its function is simply to meet the most minimal needs of shelter and procreation.

In place of the former importance of these natural groupings there has emerged a greater stress both upon the individual and upon the mass collective. The individual, increasingly emancipated psychologically from the binding family context and social matrix of a neighborhood, imagines that he or she is floating somewhat indeterminately in society, blessed by a "freedom" unparalleled in previous ages. This, counters Ellul, is an illusion. The place of personal responsibility within and accountability to a natural grouping is filled by the demands of the mass collective. Its process-the life of technology-is operating merely on the flat plane of what works and it asserts its total authority over the individual; it asks for its price.

That price is not only a loss of real freedom and responsibility but also the willingness to define what is of value in life in terms of what technology can deliver. In this connection, Daniel Yankelovich has argued, for example, that an astonishing number of Americans have accepted Abraham Maslow's distinction between "lower order" and "higher order" needs. Lower order needs, however, are not seen as being met merely by sufficient food and adequate shelter. They will only be met when affluence liberates us more or less completely from concerns of this type in order that we might experience more leisure and give ourselves more fully to discretionary and recreational pursuits. Thus has a view of human development been married to a psychology of affluence.(25)

It is in this framework, it is with these presuppositions, with these mental habits, and with these functional values and spiritual expectations that evangelical theology must wrestle. It is not enough to argue that people, according to biblical teaching, are made up of a mortable body and an immortable soul. The spiritual dimension to life has also to be seen as it is being shaped within contemporary culture.

It may be asserted, for example, that rationality is a part of the image of God. Rationality, however, is but a capacity. It is a capacity whose specific form and operations are, in some measure, a reflection of the socio-psychological environment in which it functions. The capacity is God-given but the content is culturally informed and shaped. The presence of this capacity provides Christian theology with its entree, but the particular cultural orientation which it has demands of the theologian that his or her proclamation be angled in such a way as to take account of these presuppositions.

Christian theology declares, then, that in Christ we are called to receive not only God's forgiveness but also the healing of our own mind as well as that of our humanity. This is nevertheless a meaningless affirmation if it is not cognizant of the fact that family life is under assault, that as a result many people feel alienated from their families and have never found viable substitutes, that their experience within our technological society has left them feeling a profound sense of dissatisfaction with themselves from which they urgently seek escape through drugs, sex, or recreation. They are people who feel as if they have been cut loose on a sea of relativity where absolute norms and enduring values have disappeared forever. It is people like these who need to rediscover their humanity through Christ; the human beings who are defined and described in our theological abstractions exist only as idealized, abstract specimens of humanity.

Contextualization, then, is but another name for describing the servant role of theology. The Son of God assumed the form of a servant to seek and save the lost and theology must do likewise, incarnating itself in the cultural forms of its time without ever losing its identity as Christian theology. God, after an, did not assume the guise of a remote Rabbi who simply declared the principles of eternal truth, but in the Son he compassionately entered into the life of ordinary people and declared to them what God's Word meant to them. But in so doing, the Son never lost his identity as divine. Christian thought is called to do likewise, to retain its identity (doctrine) within its role as servant (theology) within a particular culture.

Aberrations to Be Avoided

The contextualization of which this essay speaks is quite different from that in vogue in WCC circles and occasionally on the fringes of evangelical thought. "Contextualization" is here used of the process whereby biblical doctrine is asserted within the context of modernity. It recognizes that there is a twofold relevance to be presented, to the text as well as to the context, but it insists that the relevance to the modem context will collapse as soon as the relevance to the biblical text is lost. It is this insistence which is often lost in WCC discussions on contextualization. These discussions assume a disjuncture between doctrine and theology. The meaning of faith is cut loose from many biblical controls. Its substance becomes an amalgam derived as much from political ideologies (with which God is said to be identified) as from the Scriptures (with which God is thought to be loosely associated). In the one understanding of contextualization, the revelatory trajectory moves only from authoritative Word into contemporary culture; in the other, the trajectory moves both from text to context and from context to text, and in the midst of this traffic the interpreter, rather like a police officer at a busy intersection, emerges as the sovereign arbiter as to what God's Word for our time actually is.

This development is actually part of a much more complex movement whose roots reach back into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The evolution of this movement has been analyzed well by Hans Frei.(26) What he shows is how under idealist, romanticist, or rationalistic impulses the meaning of the biblical narrative was no longer seen to be identical with the meaning of the text of the biblical narrative. The words, sentences, and configurations of the narrative were seen merely to exhibit a consciousness whose continuity with the modem consciousness was assumed but whose actual expression differed vastly from the modern expression of it. The continuity of Christian faith was therefore seen to he in the continuity of this consciousness rather than in preservation and affirmation of the same doctrinal content.(27)

This was, of course, the central proposition in both European and American liberalism and it has been affirmed in much recent Protestantism, even by those who, in other respects, are opposed to liberalism. A case in point is Rudolf Bultmann. It is, of course, his contention that the early Christians employed "myth" to formulate their experience of the post-resurrection Christ. The way they explained their experience was to employ the cosmology at hand which, in the first century, was one in which reality was seen to be natural and supernatural, in which there was a heaven and a hell, and in which miracles could occur. They had no option but to employ these conceptions. No person, Bultmann argues, can simply choose his or her worldview. World-views are given to us, prescribed for us by the circumstances, culture, and times in which we live.(28) New Testament Christians, therefore, were obliged to see Christ as a world-transcending, cosmic being replete with pre-existence, miraculous powers, and divine status. We who live in the twentieth century with its radical desacralization, its staggering redefinition of reality wrought by science and technology, cannot believe in the same figure or the same cosmology. What is important is not how this mysterious Galilean might have thought of himself or how the early church conceived of him but how his openness to the divine can be replicated in our own experience.

South American and Asian liberation theology has been fiercely critical of most existential theology, Bultmann's included. What seems most offensive about it is that faith is made identical with insight. Existential theologies are intensely private and inward Liberation theologians have charged that God becomes the alibi for not engaging with the world. And engagement with the world is precisely what liberation theologies are about.

It is ironical to note, however, that these theologies which have made an anti-Western attitude their watchword continue to echo the approach of much modern, Western theology!(29) What Protestant liberalism, Bultmannianism and liberation theology all have in common is the supposition that the modem context determines how we should or how we can read the biblical narrative. They all assume although Bultmann is unusually and refreshingly candid in this respect-that the interpreter's cognitive horizon limits or determines the cognitive horizon of the text.

What this means in practice is that the Bible is unable to deliver to us its cargo because the twentieth century has made us incapable of receiving it. As a description, this may be correct; as a theological prescription, it is disastrous. The interpreter is now no longer subject to the Word being interpreted but, in his or her own name and in the name of enlightened twentieth century consciousness, he or she redefines its content! This inverts the proper relationship between text and interpreter, committing the same kind of blunder as did the schoolboy who was startled out of an illicit slumber by his teacher's question and blurted out that science had indubitably proved all monkeys are descended from Darwin! It leads us in some cases to think that given our understanding of reality-and the assumption is that this understanding is well in advance of any that has pertained in previous ages. Scripture must be demythologized since it is dear that Scripture cannot be believed at face value in the twentieth century. It leads us in other cases into equating the substance of faith with a variety of ideological and political positions with which we (and it is assumed God) are aligned. To act in faith is to act politically.

The truth of the matter is that it is not Scripture which needs to be demythologized but the twentieth century! To take twentieth-century experience (in the case of the existential theologians) or political reality (in the case of liberation theologies) as an absolute in the light of which the meaning of faith must be redefined is to capitulate to the Zeitgeist at the very points where the Zeitgeist often needs most to be challenged. Accommodation of this kind is worldliness.

It is indisputable that the modem context affects the interpreter of Scripture psychologically and epistemologically. The context in practice often limits or distorts what Scripture is heard to say. Bultmann believes this is inevitable; that must be challenged. Liberation theologies see this context -- especially in its political makeup -- as providing the foundation on which the truth of the biblical Word can build, but all too often in practice this means that the political context yields the agenda for theology and that prevailing political ideologies determine how that agenda will be followed. And that, too, must be challenged!

The issue today, it needs to be said in conclusion, is no different in principle from what it was in the sixteenth century. The Protestant Reformers insisted that the Word of God must be free to speak unhampered by tradition or by the limitations of experience. In the case of the Roman Church, tradition had come to exercise a restraining role on biblical revelation; it was, Luther asserted, gagging Scripture. By the same token, some Anabaptists allowed Scripture (the externum Verbum) to be authoritative in practice only insofar as its teaching was authenticated by inner experience (the internum Verbum). The Reformers countered that both the church and our experience must alike be subject to Scripture, for it is through our willingness to hear the Word of God that we exercise our accountability before the God of the Word.

In a fallen world, authorities in competition with God and his Christ and his Word are precisely what one would expect to find. What one would not expect to find is these pseudo authorities being given aid and comfort within the structures of evangelical theology, but that is precisely what we have today. It underscores the contention of the Reformers, however, that reformation should not be seen merely as a past event but should always be a contemporary experience. In every generation the Word of God must be heard afresh and obeyed afresh if the God of that Word is to be accorded our obedience at the places where it really counts.

 

NOTES

 1. On the question of biblical authority in Reformation theology much has been written but especial note should be taken on A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word: Martin Luther, Doctor of Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969); Kenneth Kantzer, "Calvin and the Holy Scripture," in Inspiration and Interpretation, ed. John F. Walvoord (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, I957), PP. 115-155; Roger Nicole, "John Calvin and Inerrancy," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25, No. 4 (December 1982), 425-442; and Philip E. Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), PP. 9-44.

2. Krister Stendahl, "Biblical Theology, Contemporary," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 1, (New York: Abingdon, 1962); PP. 419-420.

3. The original idea was borrowed from Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver's The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, IL: Univ rsity of Illinois, 1949) and used in David -Hesselgrave's Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, I978), pp. 28-37. From its context in missions, it was appropriated for theology.

4. This distinction was first suggested but not at all developed in my Searchfor Salvation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity press, 1978), PP. 39-40.

5. See John Warwick Montgomery, "The Theologian's Craft," Concordia Theological Monthly 37, No. 2 (February i966), 67-98.

6. See, i.e., Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1, 21 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960); L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 1, 5 (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, I947); and H. 0. Wiley, Christian Theology, 1, 16 (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1940).

7. On the significance of oratio, meditatio, and tentatio, I am indebted to comments made by Paul Holmer at Yale, the essence of which were developed later into his study The Grammar olf Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1978).

8. A similar perspective is presented in Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962,), pp. 6-41.

9. It was, of course, the contention of the neo-orthodox theologians in particular that if revelation is personal-and they insisted it was-then it could not be propositional. The price which they paid to secure its personal aspect (which was the denial of its propositional nature) was both unnecessary and unwise. This particular issue is reviewed helpfully in the essays by Gordon H. Clark, "Special Revelation as Rational"; Paul K. Jewett, "Special Revelation as Historical and Personal"; and William J. Martin, "Special Revelation as Objective"; in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, I958), PP. 25-72. It is powerfully developed, negatively and positively, throughout the first three volumes of Carl F. H. Henry's God, Revelation and Authority (Waco: Word, 1976-1979).

10. The essential elements in the traditional understanding of tradition were left intact by the Second Vatican Council but it was made a more fluid reality to be defined as much by the people of God as by the magisterium. See G. C, Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, trans. Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 89-111; and David F. Wells, "Tradition: A Meeting Place for Catholic and Evangelical Theology?" Christian Scholar's Review, 5, No. I (1975), 50-61.

11. See, i.e., Martin Luther, Works, volumes 26; 52, ed. jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, I955-i963); and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, volumes 20-21, ed. John T. McNeill, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, ig6o), III.xviii-xix; IVxx, xxiii.

12. "If the contest," Calvin declared, "were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory-to put it very modestly-would turn to our side" volume 20, "Prefatory Address to King Francis," 4 (P. 18)

13. Occasionally didaskalia and theologia are equated or used interchangeably as in Ammon., jo.1, 8; Dion., Ar, d.n., III, 3; Max., Prol Dion. These are, however, the exceptions. Cf. Just., Dial., xxxv, 8.

14. Or., De Princ., 1, 2-8, 10.

15. Greg. Naz., Or., xxviii, 2.

16. This position was advanced even in the "pre-critical" period by Calvin. This general approach is well represented by Ned Stonehouse's The Witness of Luke to Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951) and The Witness ofmatthew and Mark to Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958).

17.  This argument and the reasons for it are clearly explained by Norman Perrin, Nat Is Redartion Criticism? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969).

18.  See further the fine essay by D. A. Carson, "Redaction Criticism: On the Legitimacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool," in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), PP. 119-146.

19.  James 1. Packer, "What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution," Tyndale Bulletin, 25 (1974), 3-45, esp. 3-16.

20.  The most illuminating discussion of the issues at stake is probably to be found in the exchanges between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth. Brunner's position, in my judgment, has much to be said for it at this point. See Emil Brunner, Natural Theology: Comprising "Nature and Grace" by Emil Brunner and the Reply "No!' by Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel (London: G. Bles, 1946). On the question in general see G. C. Berkouwer, General Revelation. Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955).

21. Cf. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1963), PP. 3-4.

22.  Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, 1, 1-14; II,, 1-15 (New York: Scribner's, 1948-1949).

23  Ellul's principal work is his The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), but see also his The Technological System, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Continuum, 1980). Ellul's thought is helpfully analyzed in C. George Benello's essay, "Technology and Power: Teclu-iique as a Mode of Understanding Modernity," injacques Ellul: Interpretive Essays, ed. Chfford G. Christians and Jay M. Van Hook (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1981), PP. 91-107 and Michael R. Real's essay, "Mass Communications and Propaganda in Technological Societies," in the same volume pp. 108-127.

24.  Peter Berger, Facing Up to Modernity: Excursions in Society, Politics and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1977).25.  Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Random House, 1981).

26. Hans W Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974). Some of the same points are echoed, albeit more stringently, in Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-Critical Method, trans. Edwin W Leverenz and Rudolph F. Norden (St. Louis: Concordia.Pubhshing House, 1977).

27.  The present employment of Scripture in theological discourse is analyzed by David Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).

28.  Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Jaspers, Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion Without Myth (New York: Noonday Press, 1958), PP. 3-10.

29.  Jurgen Moltmann, "An Open Letter to Jose Miguez Bonino," in Mission Trends No. 4: Liberation Theologies in North America and Europe, ed. Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 59-62.


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