Theology In The 21st Century

Theology - Where are we? Theology In The 21st Century
Where are we and how did we get here?

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.
Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
2 Tim 4:3

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To early Christians who used the Greek word theology it meant only one thing: discussion or teaching concerning God. Like the Jews before them, their idea of God was that He is the one and only divine being, consisting of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Beyond that idea, there was no discussion. But today, 2000 years later, the word theology, means ever so many different things.

Consider these three definitions of theology:

  • 55 AD - Paul's Theology: For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (Apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 2:2, c. 55)

  • 1828 - Theology: Divinity; the science of God and divine things; or the science which teaches the existence, character and attributes of God, his laws and government, the doctrines we are to believe, and the duties we are to practice. (Webster's Dictionary, 1828)

  • 2010 - Theology: (1) The study of religious doctrines and matters of divinity; specif., the study of God and the relations between God, humankind, and the universe. (2) A specific formulation or systemization of religious doctrine or belief as set forth by a given religion or denomination or by one or more individuals (Webster's Dictionary, 2010)

Notice how the concept of theology has evolved from the first century, when Paul recorded a simple focus on Jesus Christ, to the nineteenth century, when there was a wider definition that included more complex reasoning (science) and included both doctrines and ethics. And on to today, when theology involves religious doctrines on many subjects, and includes various belief systems from many groups. What is Theology?

Of course, Paul would have had none of that. For him, taking the focus away from Jesus Christ was a perversion. Look at how he warned the Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal 1:6-9)

Notice how Paul directs the Galatians back to the truth. There was as yet no Scripture that defined the Gospel, so he reminded them of his teaching, and their traditional understanding of what he had taught.

But today there are many “theologies” that are studied and discussed under the umbrella of an overarching doctrine of a “systematic theology.” For every major school or seminary, and every renowned and highly esteemed theologian, there is a multivolume work of some sort of systematic theology. From the base of these works flow streams of thought called by such names as: christian theology, constructive theology, feminist theology, gay theology, liberation theology, mystical theology, moral theology, natural theology, political theology, process theology, etc., etc., etc.

A popular liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, writes, “Jesus was always more concerned for the poor than the rich, for the common people than the kings and ruling class, and liberation theologians pick up on this fact.”

Discussing black liberation theology, President Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright said, “To say 'I am a Christian' is not enough. Why? Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship.”

Professor Dewigt Hopkins explains that, “black liberation theology can be understood from a couple of angles. I usually look at each word. The theology part identifies the Christian connectedness or its roots in the Christian tradition. The liberation part relates to Jesus' message of liberation for people who are left out, people who are hurting. And the black part is how the theology and the liberation are revealed in African-American culture.”

Rita Nakashima Brock, Presbyterian pastor and Harvard School of Divinity professor wrote this about a conference on feminist theology:

“One of the great controversies to emerge ... was our rejection of the atonement, the idea that the torture and execution of Jesus Christ saved the world. My theological career has been spent dismantling that doctrine. I want to tell you today that I am convinced that atonement theology is the deepest betrayal of Christianity ever perpetrated. It is not just one way to understand salvation, but a betrayal of salvation, a doctrine that abandoned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ for loyalty to Caesar and his legions.”

Brock also wrote that, “The government of the United States is dominated today by a medieval form of Christianity that supports an American Empire, with its corporate and military collusion of powers.”

“Voices of Sophia,” a feminist theology website states, “Many Christian theologies and rules grant men a fuller participation than women in the life of the church, restricting women to a lesser role. Feminist theology intentionally works against the sexism of these traditions.”

Dororthee Sölle, a German liberation theologian, defined political theology's main principle as “the question of authentic life for all men. This does not mean that the question about individual existence must be suppressed or thrust aside as nonessential. But surely even that question can be answered only in terms of social conditions and in the context of social hopes. No one can be saved alone. ... [Political theology] believes in and calls for the indivisible salvation of the whole world.”

What has happened to theology today? How has it gotten so complex, so diverse, so far from “Jesus Christ and Him crucified?”

Simply put, the time has arrived that Paul described to Timothy when “men will not put up with sound doctrine.” (see opening quote) Over the past two millennia since Paul wrote those words, many evil and destructive things have attacked the church; yet what has damaged our faith the most is this idea that human reason trumps Holy Scripture in our quest to understand God.

The holy God who called the universe into being, died upon the cross for our sins, rose on the third day to reign forever as our Lord and gave us His holy Word by which His love for us is revealed to the world, has, through these theologies, been reduced to the product of human reasoning. It is no wonder that Jesus declares of the church, “I know that you have little strength....” (Rev 3:8)

Theology of the Early Church How did this happen?

From the earliest times, God or the gods, were thought to be the source of all knowledge and wisdom. For the Jews and later the Christians, God was the explanation of the unknown and the power to control a world that was largely out of control for most people.

The early Church was subject to persecution, first by the Jews, and later by the Greeks and Romans. Christians met in small groups and used homes or rented rooms to hold services. Leaders were appointed according to the guidelines set down by the Apostles and later recorded in the NT letters that were used as a supplement to the OT scrolls.

After a few decades, persecution and heresy became the chief threats to the Christian faith. The doctrine or teaching of the Church was largely maintained by tradition and passed on in the form of traveling teachers who used collections of letters and other document to support their doctrine. Often heresy was introduced by “false teachers,” who introduced new or altered teachings.

To protect against heresy, the Church leaders began to form a canon (authority) for the Scripture of the New Testament. The gospels, books and letters that were included in the canon were chosen because they faithfully represented the true elements of the Christian faith. This doctrine had been passed along from the Apostles and from other eyewitnesses to Jesus and the birth of the Church.

By the end of the forth century, the canon had been established and the New Testament was being copied, circulated and used as Scripture. At about that time, persecution was officially ended when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion. In doing so, he merged Christian holidays and traditions of worship with those from pagan religions. This began the concept of the Universal Church, or Catholic Church, and it also began the adulteration of church doctrine. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the church was firmly under the control of Rome.

The Giant Transformation in Theology The Middle Ages represented a time of extreme oppression in the West. Church and government leaders wrestled for power and control, and the common people were caught in the middle. Church power grew and by the end of the Middle Ages, the all powerful Church was considered to be the source of knowledge and wisdom. It was the Church that explained the the unknown and brokered the power of the divine. The common person did not read and was not expected to learn or think.

But with the 16th century came the Renaissance and people began to grow intellectually. Individual education became possible and there was a return the study of classical literature. One of the thinkers was Martian Luther, who started the Reformation and broke the power of the Church. The corruption of the Church gave way to division as Protestant churches grew in many directions.

As knowledge increased and power returned to the common people, the Renaissance became the Enlightenment. People could learn, investigate their world and, at least to some extent, explain their circumstances. Reason became the source of knowledge and wisdom. The human mind, it was thought, could ultimately explain the unknown. By the 18th century, Europe had entered the Modern Age, with the rest of the world following closely behind. Reason led to power, wealth and control

One of the things that came from this period was the scientific method. This process, which is still used today, involves developing a theory concerning a matter of interest. Then developing an experiment that will prove the theory. If the experiment is successful, the results are published and others verify those results. Through this process, the original theory becomes a scientific fact, rule or law. Others then build upon it to develop new theories and the process is repeated, building scientific knowledge.

Theology in the Present Time The scientific method works well for the physical sciences, where God has established the underlying laws of nature that remain constant and predictable. But for spiritual matters, which involve the inspiration and intervention of divine powers into human affairs, this system does not work well at all. From the human perspective, God does not act in a constant and predictable way, because we cannot understand His ways. Using the scientific method to understand the things of God produces misunderstanding and folly.

As scientific methods spread throughout every area of study, they quickly came to philosophy and theology. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, began to criticize Scripture, saying that it is not what church traditions taught. Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian, took up the fight to defend Scripture. Both Kant and Schleiermacher turned to the scientific method as a way to resolve their differences. From this was born what has come to be known as Higher Criticism.

Higher Criticism involves using scientific analysis and methods to determine the truth about Scripture. There are many subdivision of Higher Criticism. For example, form Criticism studies the words, sentences and paragraphs of Scripture to determine when and how they were written or revised. Source Criticism studies the sources of the concepts and language used in Scripture to determine the original author(s) and subsequent editors. Literary Criticism studies the literary methods used in Scripture to determine the true meaning of the texts.

Higher Criticism has determined that the Old Testament was written or compiled by Jewish priests of the 6th through the 1st century BC. Their sources were the religious stories of the Ancient Near Eastern peoples who originally lived in or near the lands occupied by the Israelites. It has also determined that the New Testament was written by Church leaders in the 2nd through 4th century AD. Their sources were the mythical stories of religious figures, such as Peter, Paul and, of course, Jesus. It is the judgment of Higher Criticism that all Scripture is myth, similar to many ancient religious writings.

Rudolf Bultmann, an early 20th century German theologian, wrote, “It is impossible to [restore] a past world picture by sheer resolve, especially a mythical world picture, now that all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science. A blind acceptance of New Testament mythology would be simply arbitrariness; to make such acceptance a demand of faith would be to reduce faith to a work.” And thus Scripture and the God of Scripture were pronounced dead by Higher Criticism.

But after WWI, Swiss theologian Karl Barth and American theologian Paul Tillich came to the rescue. They proposed that, although Scripture is myth, it is nonetheless a valid form of communication, and its message can still be made relevant. One simply needed to “demythologize” the myth by finding the true meaning, and then “recontextualize” that meaning by retelling the story in a way that conveys the message in a different context or to a different culture.

Karl Barth taught that the Bible does not need to be historically and scientifically accurate to have meaning. One can rationalize the wisdom of Scripture and use that wisdom to guide the church. From Barth and Tillich came a flood of “theologies” that sought to use Biblical authority and language to promote doctrine that is relevant in a particular context (i.e. to a particular group of people).

In the later 20th century the West entered what is called the Postmodern Age. This culture is largely secular humanist, believing that human beings are the highest form of evolution and only source of good. They believe that truth is relative to individual circumstances and that all ideas and beliefs should be tolerated, so long as they do not harm society. They believe that the “commandments” of Scripture are too ridged and restrictive and thus harmful, especially to minorities, women and gays. Postmodern secular humanism teaches that feelings are the best gauge of individual truth and that culture itself is the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom. They hold that ultimately there will be no unknown for science will gain all knowledge and understanding. Humans will become their own god.

During the 2nd half of the 18th century, Oxford trained theologian John Wesley taught Christianity to thousands of lower-class people in England. He used a four fold system which has become known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But Wesley did not hold each element to be of equal importance, so a triangle better illustrates his system. If Wesley's triangle is turned upside down, Scripture goes out of focus, as it is today. Put it back the right way, and God's Word will again become clear.

Wesleyan Quadrilateral

Wesleyan Triangle

Wesley's priorities put Scripture first, as the foundation of all theology, and all ministry. In understanding Scripture, Wesley valued the traditions of the church, especially the early church fathers. To these two, Wesley applied his reason, and working through him, the Holy Spirit, to find the meaning of Scripture and how to apply it in a particular context. Only then did experience play a part.

Wesleyan Triangle Inverted

Liberal Theology Has Wrong Priorities

But modern and postmodern theology has tipped Wesley's system on its nose. And then allowed reason to take center stage, as if human reason was more important than divine reason. The result is that Scripture and church tradition have all but lost meaning in todays many flavors of theology.

About Pastor John

Pastor John is a retired pastor and theology professor residing in Mountain Home, AR. See his full biography under the "About" page on this website.
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One Response to Theology In The 21st Century

  1. Linda says:
    berrrrrrrryyyyy innnnttttterrrrressssttttting. The world is on it’s nose instead of it’s feet, and totally blinded. The news lately re treatment of women and 3-4 yo girls in the muslem world is outrageous, horrible, even hard to believe. Why don’t people see that Apostle Paul did more (than anyone but Christ) to elevate the role of women in society?

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