Michael J. Anthony
We begin our rather daunting task of understanding the nature of God with an honest confession: we cannot say that we can actually understand the eternal God with our finite minds. Indeed, we proclaim that God is incomprehensible and too vast to be known. We recite the words of Job's friend Zophar, who declared, "Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?" (Job 11:7). We feel inept trying to answer Isaiah's question, "Who will you compare God with? What likeness will you compare him to?" (Isa 40:18). It seems a rather unlikely task actually to understand everything there is to know about God. Even the apostle Paul, to whom the Lord personally appeared, could not conceive of fully understanding Him: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways!" (Rom 11:33).
Yet God can be known by us. In Jer 9:23-24 the prophet exclaimed:
This is what the Lord says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight."
Accordingly, while confessing that God is incomprehensible, the church has affirmed that God reveals himself and can therefore be known by the community of faith—at least to some degree. In fact, God wants us to come into a relationship with him and worship him for who he is and for all that he has done. The more we come to know about God, the more we will worship him and come to appreciate all that he has done on our behalf. It helps to know that our inquiry into the nature and character of God is desired on his part and, as a result, he will assist us along the way. In fact, Jesus said that one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit would be to lead and guide us into all truth (John 16:13). So we embark on this journey with the assurance that we have his presence and provision for what lies ahead.
Defining terms is critical to having a meaningful dialogue. In fact, without agreeing on some basic definitions, two people may be involved in a rather intense debate and be talking about two entirely different concepts. J. Macquarrie stated:
Definitions can be misleading, but they are not unimportant, for our approach to any study or investigation whatsoever is guided by our initial assumptions about what we are seeking and how we are to seek it, and it is an advantage to make these assumptions explicit in a definition.
Definitions must always be the starting point for interaction between two people entering into meaningful discussion.
Theology has been defined as "that discipline that strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to the issues of life." That is, theology seeks to study and express the key tenets or beliefs of Christianity. Its authoritative source is Scripture, while a secondary resource is other truth about God. Theology is always carried out in a particular context—for this book American evangelicalism at the beginning of the third millennium—and expressed in a contemporary and relevant manner. As it examines all the relevant doctrines, theology seeks to bring them together cohesively and coherently in such a manner as not to contradict or mislead. For this reason we must first get a handle on what the major tenets are in order to organize our investigation. These doctrinal categories help us bring together a vast amount of material into a more manageable conversation.
Our approach is to follow the categories of systematic theology: revelation, God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, humanity and sin, salvation, and the church. These categories allow for a more objective yet comprehensive discussion. They don't require knowledge in other areas or allow for as much bias. We also start from the point of view that God is the center of our discussion. It is not about humanity or creation. Theology has as its focal point the study of God and only branches out into other areas after that groundwork has been established. Though it may seem obvious to you to take this approach, theology hasn't always been done this way across history.
Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century it was common practice to begin the study of Dogmatics with the doctrine of God, but a change came about under the influence of Schleiermacher, who sought to safeguard the scientific character of theology by the introduction of a new method. The religious consciousness of man was substituted for the Word of God as the source of theology. Faith in Scripture as an authoritative revelation of God was discredited, and human insight based on man's own emotional or rational apprehension became the standard of religious thought.
Eventually this approach was discredited, and people returned to the more traditional methodology of starting the investigation with God rather than with man.
The categories of theology that we use in this book are common to those who have studied or are currently studying theology at a Christian college or seminary. What's in a name? Apparently quite a bit to the many who have gone down this academic journey before us. Sometimes the broad range that has been used to delineate parameters has led to an overload of terms and theological concepts. For example, if you pick up a dozen texts on theology, you'll come across a plethora of terms used to set theological boundaries. These categories include dogmatic theology, apologetic theology, historical theology, biblical theology, philosophical theology, pastoral theology, moral theology, applied theology, and the list goes on and on. The point is that many people call categories of theology by a variety of names. What follows is a brief description of the more prominent categories.
Natural Theology. This form of theological investigation starts with the premise that God has revealed something about himself in nature (Rom 1:18-25; Ps 19:1-6), his providential care of the creation (Acts 14:15-17), the human conscience (Rom 2:12-16), and an innate sense of God (Acts 17:22-31). The assertion of natural theology is that this general revelation of God manifests his existence, something about his attributes (such as his power and his care), and a basic notion of right and wrong. Such revelation is enough to point people to God since human beings are also given a mind to reason and to form a consciousness about God. Catholic and Protestant theologians have differed in the degree to which they accept general revelation as a basis for knowing God.
In keeping with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Catholics hold to a view that natural theology can construct a definable body of knowledge about God with its own sources, principles, and methods based on the application of reason to general revelation. Specifically, natural theology has developed several proofs for the existence of God: cosmological arguments (from the existence of the world), ontological arguments (from the idea of God), teleological arguments (from the complex design and order evident in the world), and anthropological arguments (from the purpose for humanity). Catholics do not negate the priority of special revelation from God through Scripture, but they tend to see revelation on a continuum between general revelation (that which can be known about God through creation and natural reason) and special revelation (that which is known about God through Christ and the Scriptures).
Though Protestant theologians acknowledge the contributions of natural theology, they believe that it is deficient in specificity about God. Historically, Protestants have been cautious about this line of philosophical reasoning and have preferred to elevate the role of special revelation—particularly Jesus Christ and Scripture—as being a far superior source of revelation about God. Certainly, they agree that general revelation provides knowledge about God, but they also believe that once sin entered into the world, creation was marred and became an insufficient source of revelation for "what is necessary for salvation." Experience, rational thought, and philosophical speculations may have their roles to play; but they are far below the supremacy of Christ, the message brought to us through his prophets, and the written Word of God.
Historical Theology. This theological endeavor focuses its attention on the biblical interpretations and theological formulations contributed by the church in time periods previous to the contemporary era. For example, historical theology studies Augustine's theology of sin and grace in the early church, the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the sacraments offered by Aquinas in the medieval period, the doctrines of justification and biblical authority articulated by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the Reformation, and the defense of the inspiration of Scripture offered by B. B. Warfield in the modern era. Such exegetical findings and doctrinal statements form, in a certain sense, the tradition of the church. In terms of a healthy perspective on this, Kenneth Kantzer said: "While tradition is not infallible, it must be acknowledged as God's guidance of his people in accordance with his promise to the church of all ages."
Historical theology makes an important contribution to the overall theological endeavor. It provides theologians today with insights from the past; such wise interpretive and doctrinal discoveries are neglected to our demise. It also provides theologians today with doctrinal truths—such as the trinitarian formula of God as three Persons in one essence and the Christological affirmation of the full deity and the full humanity of the Son of God incarnate—that have withstood the test of time. These consensus formulations help define the parameters of orthodoxy and heresy, saving us from having to reinvent the proverbial wheel while warning us not to transgress these established boundaries. Moreover, historical theology benefits the church today by highlighting what constitutes the essentials—and encouraging a focus on these—while reminding it that secondary and tertiary issues should not be points of bitter division.
Even though the contemporary church is largely ahistorical in orientation, historical theology does exert an influence on it. The church today studies and interprets the Bible, affirms and teaches various doctrinal beliefs, engages in numerous practices, and worships in a certain manner, but it does not carry out these activities in a vacuum. Whether acknowledged or not, tradition influences the present. Historical theology can ensure that the tradition that exerts the greatest influence on the contemporary church—the tradition of biblical interpretations and doctrinal formulations—is a sound tradition.
Apologetical Theology. The word apology used here refers to a defense; thus the emphasis of apologetical theology is the defense of the Christian faith. The task of this form of theological study is to answer two questions: (1) Does God exist, and, if so, (2) has God spoken? "Whether such a being as God exists needs to be ascertained, and if such a being exists, whether he is knowable; whether such creatures as men are capable of knowing him, and, if so, what sources of information concerning him are accessible. This is the tack of apologetical theology." As we have already seen, God has spoken through general revelation. Examining this as a means of understanding God is the essence of natural theology that we discussed earlier. Moreover, beyond this general form of communication are other more specialized forms of communication. This is called special revelation and includes the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the Bible, the written communication between God and humanity.
Exegetical Theology. The study of exegetical theology concerns itself with examining Scripture to determine the message that God has provided for us. It is concerned with three primary questions: (1) What books form the canon of Scripture? (2) What is the proper text of Scripture? (3) What does the text of Scripture mean? The canon of the Protestant Bible is composed of 66 books, and this canon is closed or fixed. The proper text of Scripture is determined by the science of textual criticism, and most Protestant Bibles are excellent translations. Determining what the text means is dependent on the method of interpretation. Hermeneutics provides the general principles of biblical interpretation while exegesis applies those principles in determining the meaning of particular texts. Exegesis is grammatical in that it focuses on the words and sentence structure of the text. It is also historical in that it interprets the text in the context of the historical setting of the author. This grammatical-historical approach to exegetical interpretation is the foundation for all theology.
Biblical Theology. Biblical theology is an intermediate or bridge discipline between exegetical theology and systematic theology, growing out of the first and leading to the second. It is based on the observable fact that God's revelation of himself and his ways with his people is progressive in nature; that is, it has changed in its arrangements (such as the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant), its emphases (such as the difference between the ministry of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost and afterwards), its focal points (such as the difference between sanctification following purity laws and sanctification that has been freed from these ceremonial laws), and so forth. Biblical theology seeks to study and describe this progressive divine revelation by focusing on the various groupings of Scripture and by collecting and arranging the many themes of these biblical groupings.
This is done in three steps: first, we study the theological themes in terms of individual books, then we explore the theology of an author, and finally we trace the progress of revelation that unites a Testament and even the Bible as a whole (that is, historical development of these themes throughout the biblical period). In this way biblical theology collates the results of exegesis and provides the data for the systematic theologian to contextualize in developing theological dogmas for the church today.
Specifically, this means that we may engage in a biblical theology of Joel or Jude (a single book by a single author), a biblical theology of the Pentateuch or the Johannine letters (multiple volumes by one author), a biblical theology of the eighth-century b.c. writing prophets (Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jonah; chronological similarity), a biblical theology of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke; a similarity of subject matter and approach), an Old Testament theology, a New Testament theology, and other such combinations.
Though biblical theology is different from the other theological disciplines discussed in this section, their similarities should not be overlooked. For example, both biblical and systematic theology rely on exegetical theology for their interpretation of Scriptural texts. Indeed, though one is called biblical and the other systematic theology, this does not mean that systematic theology does not have the Bible as its source; neither does it mean that biblical theology is not systematic, that is, random or chaotic. Rather, biblical theology takes a portion of the Bible as its source (such as the Old Testament prophets, the letters of Paul), whereas systematic theology considers what the entire Bible affirms about a particular topic. And biblical theology organizes its material according to biblical themes (such as the presence of God in the tabernacle/temple) while systematic theology's organizing principle is topical (such as the doctrine of God).
Practical Theology. Practical theology is concerned with the application and communication of the other theological studies to the practice of how Christians live their daily lives. The way that the message of God's Word is communicated is of supreme importance to those in the field of practical theology. As the name implies, this form of theology is practiced and displayed in the world and in the local church. It includes such activities as homiletics (both preaching and teaching), "church organization and administration, worship, Christian education, pastoral theology, and the work of missions."
Systematic Theology. Sometimes referred to as dogmatic theology because of its insistence on authoritative sources, it has also come to be known as Christian theology. We prefer the more contemporary designation of systematic theology. We have already provided some degree of explanation regarding this form of theological inquiry while comparing and contrasting it to other forms mentioned thus far. Suffice it to say here that systematic theology gathers together the truths that the other forms of theological inquiry discover (listed above) and develops a well-ordered presentation of these truths into a coherent whole.
Systematic theology thus begins with divine revelation in its entirety, applies the Spirit-illumined mind to comprehend the revelation, draws out the teachings of Scripture via sound grammatical-historical exegesis, provisionally respects the development of the doctrine in the church, orders the results in a c�