THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE OF GOD: A CONTEMPORARY COMMENTARY ON MODERN EVANGELICALISM
INTRODUCTION: Christian Theology is organic in character. It is inter-related or inter-locked. What this means is that a defective understanding of one of the key Christian doctrines will directly impact the rest. This is particularly the case with the Biblical understanding of the doctrine of God. Noted New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie wrote, “The relevance of a right doctrine of God for an approach to NT theology may by illustrated as follows. A God who cares for his creatures is the God who acts to redeem them. A true understanding of the incarnation and therefore of the person of Christ is impossible if a wrong notion of God is maintained.”[i] Indeed, a wrong notion of God will not only have a devastating effect on the critically important doctrines of Christ, sin, and salvation, but will also prevent us from seeing doctrines in their proper significance.
Kuyper long ago declared, “The knowledge of God alone teaches you to distinguish between eminent, common, and less important interests in the Scriptures.”[ii] Swiss theologian Emil Brunner has alerted us to the danger of theologismus, i.e., the danger of putting theology in the place of personal faith.[iii] Simply lining up our theological ducks in a row is no guarantee that our faith is genuine saving faith. B. B. Warfield, addressed this when he said, “It is sometimes said that some people love theology more than they love God. Do not let it be possible to say that of you. Love theology of course; but love theology for no other reason than this: Theology is the knowledge of God—and it is your meat and drink to know God, to know Him truly, and, as far as it is given to mortals, to know Him wholly.”[iv]
In the greater Phoenix area there is a congregation called Casa de Cristo Evangelical Church. It is part of a group of homosexual churches known as the Evangelical Network. They even have a Bible School (The Phoenix Evangelical Bible Institute).[v] These people affirm a very solid evangelical doctrinal statement (virtually identical to that espoused by the National Association of Evangelicals). However, they resort to what can only be called a contrived and convoluted interpretation of the Bible in order to justify their “alternative lifestyle.” Instead of seeking to conform their lifestyle to their theology they are forced to do just the opposite in order to maintain their “alternative lifestyle.” Millard Erickson observes, “Our lifestyle can also affect our theology. The reason is that if we are committed to a given lifestyle and unwilling to alter that, then we will find a way to rationalize our theology so that it fits with how we want to live.”[vi]
I. THE DOCTRINE OF GOD: IT’S FOUNDATIONAL CHARACTER
The centrality of this doctrine in the early church is clearly seen in the opening statement of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” This doctrine is clearly out of focus today. There is, as Robert Morey has warned, “a battle of the gods that rages all around us today in which the historic Christian conception of God is being challenged by new views of God. The most important issue of our times is the contest between the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture and modern gods that man has made in his own image. The battlelines are clearly drawn between those who accept the God revealed in Scripture and those who accept gods that man has made on the basis of his own reason, intuition, and feelings.”[vii]
II. THE DOCTRINE OF GOD: IT’S INFLUENCE ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
“Biblical piety,” wrote Vos, “is God-centered.”[viii] Scottish theologian James Orr once observed, “Christianity, it is sometimes said…is a life, not a creed; it is a spiritual system, and has nothing to do with dogmatic affirmations. But this is to confuse two things essentially different—Christianity as an inward principle of conduct, a subjective religious experience, on the one hand, and Christianity as an objective fact, or an historic magnitude, on the other. But can even the life be produced, or can it be sustained and nourished, without knowledge?”[ix] How can true spirituality be divorced from the knowledge of God (theology)? “There can be no vital spirituality,” writes Donald Bloesch, “without a sound theology.”[x]—and there is no sound theology without a biblically sound doctrine of God.
III. THE DOCTRINE OF GOD: IT’S INTERSECTION WITH OTHER DISCIPLINES
Inherent within the nature of this critical doctrine is it’s bearing on other areas of human learning. “God is the God of every man,” wrote W.G.T. Shedd, “and the science which treats of Him and his ways deeply concerns every man, and especially every one who in any degree is raised above the common level, by the opportunity and effort to cultivate himself. It is a great error to suppose that theological studies should be the exclusive pursuit of the clergy, and that the remainder of the literary class in the state should feel none of the enlargement and elevation of soul arising from them. —When the idea of a perfect commonwealth shall be fully realized—if it ever shall be on earth—theology will be the light and life of all the culture and knowledge contained in it. Its invigorating and purifying energy will be diffused through the whole class of literary men, and through them will be felt to the uttermost extremities of the body politic. All other sciences will be illuminated and vivified by it.”[xi]
- Philosophy. Traditionally, ancient philosophy was primarily concerned with questions that were distinctively theological i.e. “What is ultimately real?” The discussion revolved around some sort of supernaturalism and the question of theism. This did not last. Philosophy became more and more skeptical and impatient with speculative discussions of abstract issues of truth. However, philosophical theology never entirely disappeared and has repeatedly played an important role in apologetical debate (the late Francis Schaeffer has influenced a whole generation of evangelical thinkers in this field.
- Anthropology. Cultural anthropology has always served as a traditional conversational partner with theology. Questions like, how does a particular culture is thought patterns bear on its iconcept of God? Are there distinctly Western and Eastern ideas of God? Is our cultural understanding of God purely subjective?[xii]
- Sociology. This discipline usually concerns itself with the manifestation of religion in various social groups and not directly with their particular beliefs. However, relatively recent developments (the last few decades) have played an important role in shaping the theological debate; i.e., feminist theology and the use of inclusive language in Bible translation. In addition to this we are witnessing a massive cultural shift in our society, as we absorb not only concepts from the various world religions, but are increasingly impacted by popular culture and things associated with the so-called New Age Movement. Consequently, we can expect an ever-increasing amount of theological confusion in our churches.
IV. THE DOCTRINE OF GOD: THE CHANGING FACE OF EVANGELICALISM
- In Evangelism. The first of these is evangelism, where we can note an increasing tendency to make appeals on the basis of meeting human needs. The discussion with the non-Christian is begun on the level of the examination of felt needs.[xiii] The nature of the offer of salvation, or the appeal to accept Jesus Christ, is on the basis of his ability to satisfy these human needs, as experienced by the person. The other difference is that many persons do not necessarily consider proper alignment with God’s will, obedience to him, and glorification of him part of human need. Consequently, persons may enter the church on the basis of what they perceive to be the answer to their sense of weakness and their need of God’s help, and then discover that they are expected to serve this Christ and obey his commands. The result eventually will lead to disillusionment and resentment.
- In Worship. This same tendency may also be found, to an increasing extent, in Christian worship. We see a movement from worship as adoration to worship as celebration. While the shift may seem small and insignificant, the implications are really quite far-reaching. It may seem paradoxical to suggest that this is a more anthropocentric approach, since much of the music is directed to the praise of God, but the actual focus of the activity is in may cases a reveling in the enjoyment of what God is, stressing the emotions involved. In the Religious section of the Arizona Republic (Jan. 9, 1999) the cover story, entitled “Modern Services Multiply Church Number But Divide Flock”, described the issue of worship style as the biggest conflict to hit the church in years. Sadly, the reason why people prefer one style to another has little to do with whether or not the music was essential to the worship of God—but rather which style would be most attractive to the unchurched! One person (whose viewpoint is probably widely shared) said the best kind of worship music is the kind that is fun! Even the selection of those aspects of God on which to concentrate is revealing. The major emphasis is on the qualities of God that are reassuring, rather than disturbing, to his worshipers. Primarily, it is power of God, his mighty works, his loftiness, and so on, which are sung about. His holiness, his wrath, his judgment, and the like, are stressed much less. Consequently, expressions of guilt, repentance, remorse, and confession are largely absent. Since the psalms are heavily utilized, one would expect to find songs expressing repentance, such as Psalm 51, in the repertoire of songs. A search for them, however, is disappointing. God’s natural attributes are emphasized more than his moral attributes, and when his moral attributes are examined, it is his love, mercy, compassion, and similarly comforting qualities, rather than more austere dimensions of his nature, which come into prominence.[xiv] The very idea of worshiping God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24) is lost on many evangelicals, given their predilection for image over reality, feeling over truth and entertainment over edification. The notion of God’s authority and holiness eliciting honor, praise, worship, and adoration must be restored to churches by intentional teaching and repeated practice. This means rethinking the nature of our worship music. My friend and theologian David Wells analyzed hundreds of modern hymns and praise songs in relation to classic hymns. He concluded that recent worship lyrics express a “postmodernist spirituality” that emphasizes the individual over the church, felt needs over God’s requirements and power over truth.[xv]
- In Pastoral Care. The perception of the role of the pastor is changing. Instead of focusing on the pastor as a VERBI DIVINI MINISTER (a servant of the Word of God) the pastor is viewed as the CEO or in terms of a psychologist to help people deal with their emotional aches and pains. The question the pastoral counselor concentrates on is not necessarily, “What does God want this person to be?” Rather, it is more nearly the question, “What does this person think or wish to be?” Again, human rather than divine concerns set the agenda and the framework for what transpires. One way of putting this development is the observation that whereas the earlier program of care focused on holiness, this approach is more oriented to human wholeness. The model of the pastor becomes less and less a matter of the spiritual teacher and healer, and more the chief executive, whose task is to build up the congregation, which usually means enlarging it numerically. This is usually related to several factors. One is the personality of the pastor, which often becomes the center of the ministry, message, and appeal of the congregation. Personal charisma, or the ability to attract other persons, is a cardinal qualification for being the pastor of such a church. Further, this type of church is often characterized by “technoministry.” The very best marketing methods are employed. Seminars are held by successful pastors of such churches for the benefit of other pastors, who come to learn how to make their own churches successful in similar fashion. The implication is that if properly planned and executed, results can be virtually programmed or guaranteed. One cannot help but wonder what the place of God in all this is, if the results are somehow directly correlated with human plans and efforts. Douglas Webster convincingly argues that, “In the market-driven church, outreach seems to mean competing for your market niche with the most appealing Sunday-morning performance in your region, followed up by attractive programs, support groups and youth activities through the week. May not the consequent emphasis on entertainment dilute the message of the cross? In both the mainline church and the market-driven church, preaching has become innocuous. Whether in a boring homily or in an entertaining topical sermon, both confuse the message of the cross with preaching affirmation, not deliverance. If we want to evangelize our culture, we must begin by evangelizing our churches.”[xvi]
- In Theological Method. There also is an indication of a shift toward anthropocentricity in theological method, namely, free will theism or the “openness of God” school of thought. For those theologians, it is conflict of human free will and divine sovereignty and foreknowledge that leads to the redefinition of the doctrine of God that they are proposing. Further, the very conception of the nature of theology is to be revised. Earlier evangelicalism had tended to define theology as the extraction, interpretation, systematization, and application of the teachings of the Bible, but many evangelicals define it as reflection on the faith of the Christian community. In so doing, however, there is a shift of orientation. Instead of compiling a list of what God has purportedly said, the focus is on what Christian believers believe.
CONCLUSION: The God of Scripture, not the trends of postmodernity (especially the values and lifestyles that constantly parade across the multi-channeled TV that inhabits our homes in poltergeist fashion), must set the agenda of the church. Rather than focusing on being relevant to a culture that has largely lost the very concept of truth, we must return to a Biblical understanding of God. “However much postmodernism affects anyone—whether Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, or others—certain basic theological facts have not changed; they are not generation specific. There is no God but God; idols must be unseated and destroyed; hearts and minds and lives must be modified according to God’s standards.”[xvii] The consumers of postmodernity (and especially the majority of those who sit in many of our evangelical churches) need most what they desire least—to be confronted by the awesome (in terms of God’s transcendence) majesty of God as He is depicted in the pages of Holy Scripture.
[i] D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology (IVP, 1981), p. 115.
[ii] Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (rpt. Eerdmans, 1968), p. 332. A failure to recognize this is found in the writings of Open-View theist (Open-view theism denies the historic Christian position that God possesses detailed and exhaustive knowledge of the future) John Sanders. He acknowledges that he has no very satisfactory response to the person who insists that the Bible really does teach the wrath of God, God’s grace and sovereignty in election, crippling human depravity that includes noetic effects, and so forth. But he holds that many such doctrines are exegetically disputable. What is not disputable, he argues, is what the Bible says about the unconditional love of God, full of redemptive purpose. All the apparently exclusionist passages (e.g., John 14:6; Acts 4:12) he dismisses on the grounds that “it is not certain from these passages that one must hear of Christ in this life to obtain salvation. They simply say there is no other way to heaven except through the work of Christ; they do not say one has to know about that work in order to benefit from the work.” see his No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelicalized (Eerdmans, 1992) and The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (IVP, 1998) cf. also D.A. Carson’s critique in his The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Zondervan, 1996), p. 285.
[iii] E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics, Vol. I (Westminster, 1946), p. 41.
[iv] Selected Shorter Writings of B. B. Warfield II (rpt. P & R, 1970), p. 480.
[v] See the article “A Home for Gay Christians” in The Arizona Republic, Sat. Oct. 7, 1995.
[vi] M. J. Erickson, God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Baker, 1998), p. 18. I am indebted to Erickson for the substance of the following outline.
[vii] R .A Morey, Battle of the Gods: The Gathering Storm in Modern Evangelicalism (Crown Publications, 1989), p. 1.
[viii] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1948), p. 154.
[ix] J. Orr, The Christian View of God and the World (rpt. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 21.
[x] Donald Bloesch, Crumbling Foundations: Death & Rebirth in An Age of Upheaval (Zondervan, 1984), p. 111.
[xi] W. G. T. Shedd, Theological Essays (rpt. Klock & Klock, 1981), p. 45.
[xii] Eugene Taylor in his most recent book acutely observes, “The alternative reality tradition has always functioned as a conduit for Asian ideas into the West, and there is no reason to believe that it will cease functioning to do so.” Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America (Counterpoint, 1999), p. 290. In Buddhism this is believed to be a matter of achieving certain correct understandings and attitudes that put one at peace with the whole of reality. In Hinduism, it is a matter of being mystically united with the larger reality of which one really is a part.
[xiii] A recent example of this mentality is seen in David W. Henderson’s Culture Shift: Communicating God’s Truth to Our Changing World (Baker, 1998) Henderson proceeds in typical therapeutic fashion to pyschologize sin in categories of estrangement, alienation, low self-esteem and anxiety. When all is said and done we end up telling people in Clintonesque fashion that “we feel your pain.” Henderson candidly acknowledges: “This approach seeks to begin evangelism not by pointing to God but by identifying which of the seven aspects of the human dilemma is most real to the person with whom we’re speaking. Which of these places of struggle has begun to surface in the life of this person? To answer that takes time, insightful questions, and a willingness to listen” (p. 225). After sharing our common experiences this method then encourages us to point to Jesus as the solution to life’s problems and disappointments. The patently false impression conveyed by this approach is that once you ask Jesus into your heart you become psychologically well adjusted and happy.
[xiv] This and the following areas of concern are spelled out in greater detail by Erickson op. cit. pp. 26-28.
[xv] D. F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 21 and the extended discussion by Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (IVP, 2000), p. 272.
[xvi] D. Webster, “Evangelizing the Church” in Christian Apologetics In the Postmodern World (IVP, 1995), p. 200.
[xvii] Groothuis, op. cit. p. 270. This otherwise very good book is marred by Groothuis’ heavy-handed commitment to a form of evangelical feminism cf. his chapter “Race, Gender & Post modernism” pp. 211-238.