I’ve been doing lists of 5 recently. First there were 5 ingredients to being a good theologian, then 5 things my mom taught me about theology, and now I’ve got another 5. Where will it all end? Probably not here.
In any case, these come from Mark D. Thompson’s insightful defense of that oft-maligned and mostly misunderstood doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture. He lists 5 key points about theology that must be kept in mind if the teaching about scripture’s clarity isn’t to devolve into the “static”, abstract, and impersonal notion it is commonly caricatured as:
- “Christian theology, at its most basic, is talk about God.” (pg. 49) Note, theologians have been saying this long before Rob Bell got around to it. Etymology aside (theos = God, logia = words), the first distinctive feature of theology is that it is concerned primarily with God. While theologians might talk about politics, humanity, the nature of reality, and so forth, in so far as they are doing theology, they are speaking of these things with reference to God. If they’re not, then they’re engaged in some other discipline, which is fine, but we shouldn’t call it theology.
- “Christian theology is essentially and unavoidably trinitarian.” (pg. 50) The point is that when Christians talk about God, they’re talking about the God who is wonderfully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from all of eternity. That’s the God we see revealed in the history of Israel as it culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son Jesus Christ who came by the will of the Father, in the power of the Spirit for our salvation and God’s glory.
- “Christian theology is talk about God made possible by God’s prior decision to be known.” (pg. 51) At its most basic level the doctrine of revelation means that you only know about God because of God. It on the basis of God’s free, loving decision to be known by creatures–creatures in rebellion no less–that we come to have anything to say about him. As I’ve noted elsewhere, all of our knowledge of God is had by God’s grace. Our very knowledge of God is God’s kindness, God’s condescension to take up our feeble language and use it in powerful ways to speak to us of his great love–even more, to take up our feeble humanity and walk amongst us. (John 1:14)
- “Christian theology can only claim truth and authority in so far as it conforms to God’s self-revelation.” (pg. 52) God has acted and spoken in certain ways to authoritatively reveal himself to us in history–our goal in theology is to be faithful to that revelation. Contradicting God is not an option. For that reason, theology cannot be merely creative speculation, but rather a careful exposition of God’s words and works in history for our salvation, as we find them in the Text that bears his divine imprimatur. This doesn’t mean we can’t be creative in our exposition, or ever engage in what might be called metaphysical speculation, but rather that both are carried on in service of and submission to God’s own words about himself. Any “theology” that carries us beyond, or against God’s own self-revelation loses the name ‘Christian.’
- “Christian theology is talk about God that takes place in the presence of God and in the eyes of the world.“ (pg. 53) Finally, theology is not done in a vacuum. Thompson calls our attention to the fact that theology happens in the presence of the God who is active through his word. “We do not speak of God in his absence or behind his back.” When we write theology, we are speaking both about God, and, in a way, to him; Augustine addressed his Confessions to his most important hearer. And yet, God is not our only hearer. We do theology in the eyes of the watching world; it’s primary character is that of proclamation. God does not benefit from theology–he already knows who he is. It is the creation that needs to hear of the words and works of God for its redemption. For that reason, theology must be engaged with the world in which we find ourselves, not in a way that blunts or domesticates it, but enables it to accomplish its intended purpose–to confront and welcome the world with the saving news of the Gospel.
As with nearly all numbered lists, this one could easily be expanded. However, these 5 lines of thought are helpful to keep clear as we think about the theological task in general, and specifically on the dynamic reality of Scripture. What we say about Scripture is unavoidably tied in to what we say about the Triune God we find revealed in Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria