Who should do theology?
Doing theology is a privilege and an ongoing process that may lead those involved to an ever-deeper understanding and greater appreciation of God and salvation and a vibrant relationship with Him.
Who should do theology? Before we discuss this important question, we should define theology. A simple definition states that theology is “teaching about God and his relation to the world from creation to the consummation, particularly as it is set forth in an ordered, coherent manner.”1 Having said this, in order to gain knowledge about God and enter into a relationship with Him, it is necessary to be engaged in theological thinking, that is, to look at and study what God has revealed to humanity. Doing theology is a privilege and an ongoing process that may lead those involved to an ever-deeper understanding and greater appreciation of God and salvation and a vibrant relationship with Him. Ideally, theological thinking is not done in isolation, but all believers are involved in this process, even though the church has employed specialists, who have been trained in theology and biblical studies.
The problem of doing theology
Yet it is no secret that theology – whether done by church members, church administrators, or professional theologians/scholars – has the potential to create tensions. It may even be divisive. Doing theology and coming to certain convictions on which one acts may fracture human relationships, bring about disunity, and polarize or even split churches and society.
This can be substantiated by a look at history and our present world situation. The Arian controversy in the fourth century A.D. dealing with the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, left victors and losers. The birth of Protestantism came about by a return to Scripture and an intense seeking for God, leading to a breakaway from the Catholic Church. The Anabaptists disagreed on certain doctrines with the Roman Church, as well as with Protestantism, and were persecuted by both groups. Acting on theological convictions has fragmented Christianity into numerous denominations.
Even in the New Testament, one finds theological tensions. Following the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), conflict arose between some groups clinging to the Mosaic law and others teaching that Gentile Christians are not generally bound by that law. Behind the debated issue loomed the larger one: namely, salvation by faith in Christ or salvation through the observation of the law (Galatians 2-5). This conflict helped the church to define more clearly its biblical position. However, the outcome was not always positive. “Disputes as to meanings quickly gave rise to separations and schisms within the Christian community. This is already apparent in the books of the New Testament, especially the epistles, in which theological argumentation is deployed in order to distinguish between truth and error…”2 For instance, the Johannine letters inform us about different perceptions of who Jesus was and the battle of the apostle for the full humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ (see 1 John 2 and 4; 2 John). In this case, theology had become divisive, but the apostles did not pull back in order to please the opponents and strike a compromise. Heresy had to be confronted by theology, even if it meant that false positions had to be exposed and a split of the church might possibly follow.
Today, there are enormous tensions between and within world religions, including each of the three monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Even within most of their denominations, these tensions are manifest and can erupt in strange decisions or even violent acts against those who hold different theological positions. For instance, Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to readmit to the official Roman Catholic Church, among others, the ultraconservative bishop Richard Williamson, who denies the extent of the Holocaust, has not only complicated the church’s relations with Jews and caused criticism from leading figures in the arena of politics, but also led people to leave the Catholic Church in disappointment.
In addition, W. Jeanrond points to the spectrum of current theological methods and asks the question: “Can there be any claim to unity when there is no unified framework of communication?”3
Andrew Linzey points out other dangers associated with doing theology: theology, which is a human enterprise, may not only claim too little, at times it may also claim too much, such as theological fundamentalism which “absolutizes human agency, authority, or creed above that of God.”4 Another danger is parochialism. Although theology should serve the needs of the church, service must not become servility. Service slides into servility “if it becomes bound to the maintenance of religious or Christian positions per se rather than to seeking out God’s truth.”5
Options for doing theology
If doing theology is problematic and even divisive, how should we relate to it? There are a number of options:
- Refrain from doing theology, and get involved in a kind of spirituality that avoids doctrinal concerns or in practical issues such as mission outreach, humanitarian aid, or care for the ecosystem.
- Give theologians free rein.6 Assign doing theology to the specialists only and allow them to use whatever hermeneutical approach they see fit.
- Allow leadership of the church to make decisions by using administrative processes with little or no theological input.
- Encourage varied groups of church members to become involved in studying the Scripture and doing theology. Keep a balanced approach in which all are listened to, and ensure that decision-making is not left to only a few individuals.
The advantage of the first option is that something is being done and Christianity is kept down-to-earth. People do not get stuck in never-ending debates about non-essential theological minutia. The disadvantage of this approach is that spirituality and practice may not have a solid biblical foundation and that what is being proclaimed and/or experienced deteriorates into emotionalism, traditionalism, relativism, or pragmatism and falls short of being the biblical message. How can believers stop thinking about God and studying His Word, which helps them fine-tune their involvement with humanity, evaluate their methods and the outcome of their labor, and gain new insights?
The advantage of the second option is that trained specialists are dealing with important theological concepts. They are aware of the challenges posed by culture, the biblical material, and the various interpretations or theological positions on the subject matter, and they can deal with the issues in a responsible way. Some would regard it as an advantage that average church members and administrators would not have to get involved in the interpretation of Scripture and in theological thinking in a deeper way. But such a stand turns out to be a great loss and disadvantage. Accepting option two would hand over to theologians and biblical scholars the sole responsibility for doing theology and rob God’s people of exercising their divinely-given privilege as a universal priesthood of believers to share in the wonderful task of doing theology. Although theologians and biblical scholars are trained in their fields, they are neither infallible nor free from the temptations to follow current theological fashions, to submit to the majority view in the scholarly world, or to subscribe to philosophical presuppositions for studying Scripture that are questionable from a biblical perspective.
Option three asks church administrators to make decisions without theological input from others; i.e., to make decisions on pragmatic rather than theological bases. The advantage of this approach resembles the advantage of option one. It may even seem to be an effective approach. Decisions can be made quickly. Administrators may be able to stem the tide of heresy with which the church is always wrestling. But the price is quite high.7 Although it may be a fast process, the results may not stand the test of time and may even lead in a wrong direction and not be owned by the church.
Such an approach may be an attempt to tame theology. But who says that church administrators are automatically right, while the church’s theologians are automatically wrong and must be treated with suspicion? If important decisions are made without the input of the theologians and scholars of the church, the danger is that sooner or later decisions will no longer be based on biblical teachings, and the church will become a business enterprise, with the president mutating into a CEO. Secular methods and practices may be used and dissenting opinions may be shunned. Another danger is that administrators might avoid making any decisions on theological matters and opt for a smorgasbord of opinions within the church that could cripple or even hinder the proclamation of the church’s message and the carrying out of its mission.
The fourth alternative has the disadvantage that many believers may not be interested in participating in a common theological journey.8 In addition, the process is long and more cumbersome, and a mere majority vote may not be the solution to all problems. However, the disadvantages are outweighed by allowing the entire church to get involved, thereby avoiding oligarchic or autocratic church governance. It may also contribute to a feeling of ownership.
Among the options listed here (and there may be more), the fourth seems to be the most desirable one, since it comes the closest to biblical teachings on the nature of the church. This may also be the traditional position among Adventists. To do no theology can hardly be an option for Adventists. To assign theology to trained personnel is not much better. The same is true of assigning all power to church leadership. If, therefore, we cannot avoid doing theology but nevertheless get involved, the questions are: What is the price? How do we do this in a responsible way, especially since the divisiveness of theology is sometimes necessary and good and sometimes unnecessary and harmful?
The price of doing theology
Doing theology requires:
- The willingness of the individual to get involved in this learning experience.
- Time, prayer, study, living out one’s convictions, and some training provided by the Adventist Church through Bible study classes on Sabbath morning, Bible study groups during the week, and various seminars at church and conference levels.
- An individual and a communal approach, because, as Christians, we are not islands, unconnected to others, but part of Christ’s body, the church.
- Acceptance of certain paradoxes in Scripture without attempting to solve them: for instance – there is one God, and yet three persons in the Godhead; we are saved and yet not finally saved.
- A willingness to suspend judgment and live with certain questions. For this, humility and modesty are needed.9 We do not know everything, not even all that is knowable.
- Acknowledgment that opinions on the interpretation of some biblical passages and theological topics may differ among church members and theologians. This, however, does not call into question fundamental Adventist beliefs. Examples are the interpretation of difficult apocalyptic passages such as Daniel 11 and whether Jesus had Adam’s pre-fall nature, post-fall nature, or a combination of both.
- Recognition that some theological tensions need to be addressed, otherwise they could rise to a serious level that may lead to a fundamental change of the church’s position and to open conflict. Examples of such issues are the church’s position on creation and the issue of homosexual practice.
To sum up: theological tensions may not necessarily be wrong, if there is a willingness to work them out and find biblical solutions. To have an ongoing theological dialogue is not a sign of a weak or lifeless church.10 On the contrary, it may suggest healthy engagement with matters of faith. It would be disastrous for administrators to stifle all discussion on theological matters, to forbid questions on the reasons for our positions, or to fail to appreciate the need for better and more comprehensive interpretations of biblical passages and theological teachings, preferring to focus instead solely on practical matters.
However, unnecessary theological conflict may cripple and paralyze the church and produce different factions. As the early church had to fight heresies that went against the Word of God, so should the church of our days be. When confronted with false teachings about major biblical doctrines, Jesus, Paul, and the apostles did not allow for pluralism within the church (Matthew 10:34-36; Galatians 1:8-9). While some discussion on theological matters is normal and healthy, promulgation of outright heresy must be rejected. This is where apologetics as a theological discipline comes in and has its rightful place (Philippians 1:16; 1 Peter 3:15).11 As Gordon R. Lewis writes, “If knowledge is necessary to faith then defense of truth is ‘indispensable to Christian outreach.’”12
Doing theology and the Adventist church 1. Suggestions of a general nature
The question is not whether or not there will be theological tensions, but how to deal with them and how to do theology in a responsible way within the Adventist church, avoiding unnecessary tensions. Here are some general suggestions:
- Stay away from the extremes. Just as it is not helpful to stress theology and disregard Christian life, it is equally not helpful to stress practice and downplay theology. “Every so often,” writes Roy Adams, “at camp meetings and other gatherings, one can hear demagogic aspersions of theology: ‘We don’t need theology,’ a speaker might say. ‘All we need is Jesus!’ Uttered with passion and conviction, the comment usually brings choruses of amens, if not also applause.”13 Such an approach may have a negative effect on church members. Commenting negatively on doing theology may discourage church members from studying Scripture for themselves and thinking about matters of faith, leading them to assume that it is not important. Even a comparison of theology to the “weightier” matters of practical Christian living may send a wrong message. Those interested in theology may continue their studies and distance themselves from those who make negative remarks about theology. This can contribute to a polarization within the church.
- Do not compartmentalize. The Bible does not separate sound teaching from the Christian life and walk. The apostles stressed growth in knowledge (Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:9-10; 2 Peter 3:18) that has cognitive and relational aspects. We need to avoid creating dichotomies between theology and practice or spirituality, doctrines and mission, theologians and administrators, those with formal training in theology and those without formal training. Mutual respect allows people to flourish, feel appreciated, and be creative.
- Affirm both theology and the Christian life. The doing of theology is as essential as its practice (mission outreach, caring relationships, humanitarian assistance, etc.). Theology forms the foundation. Practice builds on this foundation. One without the other will not do. It is true that theology can be wrong and destructive,14 but so can practical approaches. Questionable approaches to theology or practice do not permit us to discard one or both of them. Instead they encourage us to do it right. We must affirm both theology and practice.
- Do not handle theological differences by reverting to power. While outright heresy must be dealt with and, in the long run, may need to be removed from the Body of Christ, dialogue should take place first. It should not be assumed that a certain office makes the office-bearer quasi-infallible. The early church did not handle theological disagreement by just turning to ecclesiastical power. Such an approach was used later and prepared the way for a strict hierarchical system of church governance and the papacy.
2. More specific suggestions
But what would help us within the Adventist Church to avoid unnecessary tensions and battles?
Consent to the Adventist framework of doing theology. This Adventist framework includes: (a) accepting the self-testimony of Scripture on divine revelation, inspiration, and biblical authority; (b) accepting Scripture as the primary source for theology. Scripture is the measuring rod by which all other sources such as general revelation, extra-biblical prophecy, culture, and personal experience are being evaluated;15 (c) being Bible-oriented rather than being purely a philosophical, sociological, psychological, or scientific enterprise;16 (d) doing exegesis and theology using methods derived from Scripture and in agreement with its nature; (e) doing theology with a definite goal, namely a better understanding of God and His plan of salvation (which can be communicated to others) and a deeper relationship with the Lord. Therefore, Adventist theological thinking is practice-oriented without being pragmatic in the negative sense;17 (f) a Christ-centered theology;18 All truth must be related to Jesus and the full biblical message accepted; (g) theological reflection in the context of the great controversy and with a clear eschatological emphasis; (h) systematic theological thinking that describes, analyzes, and organizes biblical doctrines by drawing on the entire Bible. Adventists are not opposed to reasoning. But, while we treasure reason as a gift from God, we also recognize that human reason is fallible and must be sanctified;19 (i) theological thinking that takes into account contemporary questions and challenges and tries to respond to them. Just because culture shapes human beings to a large extent does not mean that Scripture is culturally conditioned and not directly applicable to our situation, at least in most cases.
Do not concentrate on one theological issue only. There should be an awareness of the danger of riding theological hobbyhorses. Be able to distinguish the essentials from the less important or even obscure issues and focus on the former rather than on the latter. Otherwise there is a danger of becoming imbalanced.
Be tentative with your conclusions. It is better to submit a “suggestion” and be willing to be corrected rather than to be dogmatic about one’s own insights20 and to share them widely before others have evaluated them.
Acknowledge that Adventist theological thinking is not done in isolation. Results of one’s study should be shared with persons of experience to get their input. It is of great importance to listen to others carefully and with an open mind.
Exhibit kindness and a Christlike attitude at all times. Do not be harsh in criticizing those with whom you disagree and certainly do not mock them, but show kindness and Christian charity. Those who seem to be adversaries need to be taken seriously. Most have certain points that can and should be appreciated.
While theology is needed, at times it can be unnecessarily divisive. Following the above-mentioned guidelines may be a first step toward a solution for this problem. If those involved in doing theology agree with each other concerning basic presuppositions and methodological approaches to Scripture, the danger of their theologies becoming divisive is considerably reduced. In addition, a good dose of humility and respect for others is desirable. In the Adventist church, decisions on theological matters are not made only by administrators or only by theologians or even by both groups together but by the entire church.21 We repeat: theological thinking is a privilege and is a necessary and ongoing process which may lead those involved to an ever-deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of God and salvation.
Ekkehardt Mueller (Th.D., D.Min., Andrews University) is the deputy director of the Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
- D.F. Wright, “Theology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. S.B. Ferguson, D.F. Wright, and J.I. Packer (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1988), p. 680.
- S.W. Sykes, “Theology,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson and John Bowden, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), p. 567.
- Werner G. Jeanrond, “Theological Method,” in A New Handbook of Christian Theology, ed. Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 1992), p. 486.
- Andrew Linzey, “Theology,” in Dictionary of Ethics, Theology, and Society, ed. Paul Barry Clarke and Andrew Linzey, (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 820.
- A related suggestion may be to create a small body of scholars and theologians, a kind of magisterium, and let them make all-important theological decisions.
- Cf. Understanding Christian Theology, ed. Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 1136.
- Richard Rice, “Theology as Topical Bible Study,” Spectrum 29/2 (2001): 64.
- Linzey, 820.
- Cf. Jan Paulsen, “Heavenly Mission of Hope: Christ’s Mission Is Our Mission,” Adventist Review, September 24, 2009, 3.
- Cf. Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Prolegomena (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 2003), 172-173.
- Ibid., 173.
- Roy Adams, “In a Time of Confusion,” Adventist Review, November 2000, 19.
- Roy Adams, “Grappling With Destiny,” Adventist Review, April 25, 2002, 24.
- Therefore, we cannot agree with the principle prima scriptura, as suggested by Fritz Guy, Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1999), 137, but uphold sola scriptura and tota scriptura. The implications of Guy’s approach become more evident on pp. 144, 146.
- Ángel Rodríguez, “Doing Theology in the Adventist Church: Role of the Theologian,” unpublished paper, February 2003, 7.
- Cf. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2d ed.; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1998), 24.
- This should not be confused with the Christological principle employed, for example, by Martin Luther.
- Cf., Frank Hasel, “Theology and the Role of Reason,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 4/2 (1993): 172-198.
- Cf. Rodríguez, 18.
- Cf. Rodríguez, 15.