I’m writing this on August 8, 2017. And as of this very moment the news stories of the day include a major corporation firing one of its employees, in part, for sending around a memo within the company that suggested that men and women are different. A major airline just released an ad, picturing three seatbelts, only one of which could actually buckle with the tagline “It doesn’t matter who you click with,” expressing their support for the idea that homosexual relationships should be seen as proper and acceptable as the marriage relationship of a man and a woman. A private school in California is being sued because they refused to treat an eight-year-old boy as if he were a girl. Four days ago noted Planned Parenthood (who a year prior were exposed for killing and dismembering babies in order to sell off parts of their bodies) released a guide for parents of preschoolers suggesting that one’s reproductive organs have nothing to do with whether one is male or female. And that doesn’t even touch the daily misunderstandings of Jesus, who he was, and what he taught that make it onto every social media platform. If there was ever a need to stop and study the doctrines of humanity, sin, and the identity of Jesus Christ, it seems that now would be the time.
I’m not one to suggest that the present is more sinful than the past, but it does seem that our confusion of these major issues is reaching an all-time high. So, what does the Bible say about men and women, our roles, gender, and the nature of our relationships? Why are people responding to the claims of the Bible in ways that not only reflect ignorance but even a complete lack of logic? Are homosexual relationships really sinful? And if so, how do we walk alongside someone who says he or she experiences same-sex attraction? Amidst so much sin in the world and the clear judgment to come, does hell really last forever? Finally, who is Jesus, and is suggesting that he can be both God and man even coherent if God by definition knows all things and is all-powerful while man by definition is limited in both of these areas? Didn’t Jesus himself admit that he wasn’t God by noting that not even he knew when the Father would send the Son to gather his people? These and many more are the questions that I want to try to tackle this semester.
But let me first say a little bit about our method in this class.
This is part of what we call our core classes in Sunday school. Each fall I’ll do a theology class, covering the basic topics in theology. This is the second of a four-year cycle where we’ll cover the doctrines of Scripture and God in year one; humanity, sin, and the identity of Jesus in year two; the work of Christ and salvation in year three; and the Spirit, the church, and last things in year four. We began these classes by asking the question, “If we only had four years to teach a person something what would we want that person to know?” We answered that question and formed the curriculum of our core classes. Obviously a big part of our answer had to do with theology.
We also encourage parents and their children twelve-years-old and up to attend these classes together so that parents can meet with their children outside of class and make sure they understand these topics. In other words, we do believe that parents are the main agents in discipling their children, but we try to use these classes to equip parents as best we can in discipling their children. We even write manuscripts of all of our lessons so that parents can print them off if needed, and then meet with their children and ensure these things were understood. You may even want to do the same thing with an unbeliever.
Particularly this semester, my hope is that this will provide you an opportunity to think through and teach your children (or others) concerning these crucial and pressing topics in our culture, namely, humanity, sin, and the identity of Jesus, which, as we’ve already noted, which is shrouded in irrationality and confusion all around us. Also, I will briefly note that we won’t start talking about the identity and nature of Jesus until the second half of this semester, and by that time, many (especially) college students trickle out, finding it hard to get up for a 9:00 AM class at church or having procrastinated on assignments, feel like they can’t afford to give time to a class at church. But I’m exhorting you to hang in there. Like Jesus with the wedding feast, I’m saving the best for last. Thinking through the nature of who Jesus is I find to be one of the most thrilling things there is. So, hang in with me as move toward more and more exciting matters.
With all that said, then, this morning I want to begin by noting some essentials in how we actually go about doing theology. That is, concerning any theological topic that we want to study, whether about the church, angels and demons, or God’s sovereign control of the universe, we need to have a few essentials in our approach if we are going to do theology in a biblical, God-honoring, life-changing way. So, what are they?
Essentials in doing theology
1. We must accept the Bible’s claims for itself.
By that I mean that we must come to the Bible, reading it on the terms that the Bible demands to be read. If you read a book that tells you in the opening pages that it’s a work of science fiction about a man traveling through time and altering historical events, and you read it as if it’s a non-fiction history textbook, then you’re simply not reading the book according to the terms it set forth. The book told you it was fiction. It told you it was science fiction. It told you to read it accordingly. You don’t get to bring to the book what you want it to be, you have to read it in accord with what the book tells you it is, according to what it claims itself to be.
So, what does the Bible claim for itself? What kind of book does the Bible tell us that it is? Well, we don’t have time to give a full-defense of a doctrine of Scripture, but I’ll point us to one (familiar) text. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
Thus, the Scripture says of itself that it is “breathed out by God.” That is to say, Scripture is the very words of God. Consequently, to paraphrase Warfield, “To say ‘the Bible says’ is to say ‘God says.’” And if it’s God’s very words, then we can say that it is authoritative, since God’s words are to be obeyed, that it is trustworthy and true, since God’s words are always right and true, and that it is infallible, since God is not able to make errors or mistakes. Consequently, we can say that Scripture claims for itself that it is God’s very words which are infallible, authoritative, trustworthy, and true.
And it’s important for us to recognize that this is the claim that the scripture makes of itself. That is to say, it isn’t that any man studied this book and after a while said, “You know what, this may well be the very words of God.” Rather, it’s what the Bible claims for itself. Therefore, to come to the Bible and approach it as anything other than God’s very word which is infallible, authoritative, trustworthy, and true is to approach it on terms contrary to the way it demands to be approached. The Bible simply doesn’t invite the reader to come and critique it, question whether it is true, or wonder whether it must be obeyed.
However, it will not be shocking for you to hear that many people (even theologians) simply do not approach the Bible, accepting the Bible’s claims for itself. And there are generally two ways that people fail to submit to the authority of Scripture.
One way people refuse to submit to the authority of Scripture is by holding to an extra-textual commitment or understanding that denies the truthfulness of the Bible’s claims.
This extra-textual commitment can be anything that leads one to deny the truthfulness of the Bible. So, for example, if you have a belief that miracles cannot happen, then you’re not going to read the Bible and accept the truthfulness that God parted the sea, that Jesus walked on water, that he multiplied fish and bread, or that he was raised from the dead (to name a few). You may be a naturalist, for example, and so anything that cannot be described by nature or be found in your experience simply isn’t true.
Now, this kind of commitment has indeed led some to say the Bible is garbage and discard it. The late atheist, Christopher Hitchens, for example, would claim that the Bible was simply an uneducated people’s bad attempt at explaining the world. However, now, in light of our understanding, we know better.
Others, however, have not seen their extra-textual commitments that deny Scripture’s truthfulness as demanding that they ignore the Bible. In fact, they would still think it’s to be read, studied, and applied. So, for example, they might read the story of Jesus multiplying the little boy’s fish and bread and say, “Of course we know that this didn’t literally happen. After all, multiplying fish and bread is impossible. However, the Bible is a good book, useful to the church for ages, so there is an important lesson to be found here if we can look past all these non-truthful claims.” And they might come up with a lesson like, “If we’re all willing to share, we can really go a long way toward helping our neighbors and meeting one another’s needs.”
This is the approach a number of people have gone about in figuring out the identity of Jesus Christ. Numbers of people have claimed that the Jesus you read of in the Bible is not really the Jesus that lived in history. That is, they’d say, “Sure, there was a Jesus of Nazareth who was the son of Joseph and Mary who lived in the first century and went about doing good things, but he’s not the supernatural figure you read of in the Bible.” Rather, they claim that the Jesus we read of in the Bible is someone of a mythical character that the early church created, and not the true Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, they posit a distinction between the Christ of faith (i.e. the Jesus we read about in the Scriptures) and the Jesus of history (i.e. the Jesus of Nazareth who really lived in the first century). And this group of people will read the Bible and gather that Jesus was a good, wise, moral teacher of the first century who ultimately died (perhaps even unjustly) at the hands of Roman soldiers. They may even exhort you to imitate his life and teaching. But they will never conclude that Jesus is literally God the Son incarnate, who died to satisfy divine wrath against sinners, and was literally and bodily raised from the dead on the third day. They read the Bible, but they bring extra-textual commitments to the Bible that lead them to deny its truthfulness and are always looking “behind the text” to see what the text actually means.
Another way people refuse to submit to the authority of Scripture is by finding the meaning of the text not in the text (i.e. the author’s intention) but with oneself (i.e. one’s own desires). Or another way to say this is that instead of the reader submitting to the text, the text (and its meaning) is made to conform and submit to the reader’s desires.
Now, let me give you an illustration of this before I show how we do this with Scripture. Suppose I were to say to my two youngest boys, Nick and Luke, “Boys, I want you to go upstairs and clean your room thoroughly. I want it to be spotless.” Then, suppose I went upstairs and the boys’ toys were all over the floor except for one path that ran from the door to each one of their beds, and when I expressed my disappointment and their coming punishment they said, “We thought you just meant that you wanted someone to be able to walk through our room without having to step on toys.”
Well, it’s fair to say that the meaning of my words would definitely include the idea that I would want someone to be able to walk through their room without having to step on toys. But where did the idea come from that what I meant by my words, “Clean your room thoroughly. I want it to be spotless,” is that I just wanted someone to be able to walk a path in their room without stepping on toys? It didn’t come from them sincerely sitting in their room just prior to cleaning and saying, “What do you think Dad wanted us to do when he said that? Let’s think through his words carefully.” No. It came from their desire. They heard what they wanted to hear. Their interpretive method was to ask, “What would those words mean if I said them?” or “What would I like those words to mean?” If they answered either of those last two questions, then they might very well come up with the thought that they should just clean out a small path in their bedroom and claim to be doing this because of what I told them, but they couldn’t be said to submitting themselves to the authority of my words, could they?
The reality is, as silly as that illustration might feel to us, this is the way many people approach the Bible and deal with the text. To teach, for example, that man can be saved apart from explicit faith in Jesus Christ in this life is taught by many and espoused in a number of books written by professed theologians, but it more than a little difficult to read the Bible and come to that conclusion.
So, the first essential element and commitment to theology we will take this semester is that we will accept the Bible’s claims for itself. And the Bible claims that it is God’s very words and, therefore, infallible, authoritative, trustworthy, and true. Moreover, by accepting the Bible as God’s authoritative word, we will accept the truth of its claims, recognize that the meaning of the Scripture lies in the text itself, and will seek to submit our own desires and thoughts to the authority of the Scripture over us. Second:
2. We must understand that God’s revelation in the Scripture is progressive
Let me explain what I mean by this. The Bible isn’t like an encyclopedia where you consult it as a reference work, take some statement found in it, and draw a conclusion. That’s how an encyclopedia works. You can open an encyclopedia, read that it says something like, “People’s brain develops most before the third year of life” or something like that, and say, “Okay. Write that down. That’s true, accurate, and reliable.
But the Bible isn’t an encyclopedia, a collection of facts, or a report on subject matters. The Bible actually tells a story that unfolds we read it. Instead of thinking of an encyclopedia, the Bible is more like a mystery novel. It’s like a mystery novel in two ways. First, it’s like a mystery novel in that you’ve got to keep in mind where you are in the midst of the story when you’re reading it. Let’s say, for example, that in our mystery novel, it concludes with the surprising ending that Jimmy the neighbor was a serial killer, and that comes out in chapter ten. Well, if you open the book in chapter four and see a scene where they’re giving Jimmy some community service award for doing good in the neighborhood, then you may be startled and wrongly come to the conclusion that all the people in the book love murder, are thankful that Jimmy is a serial killer, and are honoring him for these horrific acts. But that’s not how you accurately read a mystery novel. Rather, you first take note of where you are in the story. And when you open to chapter four and see this scene you need to remind yourself, “They don’t yet know the surprise the Jimmy is a killer. That detail won’t come to light for another six chapters.” Knowing where you are in the story keeps you from drawing incorrect conclusions about what’s going on.
And the Bible tells a story. It tells a unified story. I believe this is one of the most amazing aspects of the Bible. It was written over hundreds of years by many different authors, and it tells us one coherent story. It’s a story that begins with creation and ends with a new creation. I like it illustrate it by noting the four pivotal moments in the Bible’s storyline as follows:
Now, I’ll explain more of why I draw the Bible’s storyline in this specific way in a couple of weeks as we look at the creation of humanity. But I draw it now to show that at any point in our Bible reading, we have to ask where we are in this story. What events have yet to happen in the story? What events have already happened in the story? These are crucial questions.
For example, let’s say you open your Bible to Genesis 1:31 and read, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Now, “everything that he had made” included humanity. So, if we’re doing our doctrine of humanity, we could say that mankind is by nature good. In fact, he is very good. But the problem with that, of course, is that in Genesis 1:31, we’re at a point in the storyline that’s before the fall, and the reality is that after the fall the Bible gives us a description of mankind that is quite different from Genesis 1:31, as we see, for example, in Romans 3:9-20.
That, of course, is an easy example. But it’s not always this easy. Pentecostals, for example, have developed an entire theology of the baptism of the Holy Spirit by saying that the disciples were believers, but they were powerless. Then, the Lord baptized them with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke in tongues, and they demonstrated much greater boldness and power after that point. Therefore, they would argue, if you and I are believers but feel powerless and wish we had greater boldness, then we need to seek and pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit so that we can have our own “Pentecostal” experience.
The problem with that, however, is that Pentecost represents a particular point in the Bible’s storyline where individuals could be believers but not yet have the Holy Spirit. But after that time, that’s simply not the case. So Paul, for example, can say that if you don’t have the Spirit, you don’t belong to Christ (Rom. 8:9).
But there’s another way that the Bible is like a mystery novel. In a mystery novel, some elements are hidden along the way, aren’t they? You’re not exactly sure what’s going on. You might not know how to understand certain things. And then, at the end, when the answer is revealed, you end up saying to yourself, “Ah, I should have seen that earlier. The clues were there.” So, you end up going back and reading it again with greater clarity, seeing that these things were progressively getting clearer until the reveal was made.
So it is with the Scripture. God’s revelation becomes progressively revealed. So, at any point, you have to continue reading the Bible’s progressive storyline and see how an issue develops. For example, God promised to give Abraham and his descendants a very particular piece of land. But by the time you get to Isaiah 27, it seems like Jerusalem is much bigger than Jerusalem. In fact, it seems that the whole earth is becoming Jerusalem. And eventually Paul says in Romans 4:13 that God promised Abraham that he would get the whole world.
Now, where did Paul get that? Because if you read the original promise, it’s a very particular piece of land in the Middle East. Well, Paul followed the progression in the Bible’s storyline and saw how the promise was developed. So, to build a theology of land, for example, requires us to read the Bible according to its progressive revelation until what was a bit unclear gets clearly revealed.
And, finally, let me add one other essential element in doing theology, namely,
3. We must accept the Bible’s framework and categories for understanding the world.
Here’s what I mean, we could develop a doctrine of God where he is loving, forgiving, and simply overlooks our sin. There's no need for a bloody cross, the death of Christ wasn’t anything about paying a penalty or bearing punishment, etc. Here’s the problem, God reveals himself to us as a God who is holy and just and who will not allow the guilty to go unpunished. He reveals himself to us as a God who demands animal sacrifice among his people even to dwell in their midst in the Old Testament. Why is the cross a necessity for our forgiveness?
It’s a necessity because the framework the Bible gives us is that we’re a sinful people who are under the judgment of a holy God who will not compromise his justice. Therefore, the question posed by the Bible is not how a loving God can let anyone go to hell but how can a holy and just God forgive and justify people who are obviously wicked without compromising his justice? That’s the framework of Scripture. And within that framework, and only within that framework, can we begin to understand why the cross is necessary, what’s happening in Jesus’ death, and why the atonement is such a glorious act. That’s just one example of many, but it’s a reminder that we understand our work in light of the framework and categories established by the Bible. God knows his world better than we do, and we must take our understanding of the world we live in according to his revelation.
Brothers and sisters, theology is a glorious study. But apart from these essential commitments and understanding, we can get things terribly wrong. In fact, I’d say that failure to commit oneself to either or all of these commitments is the main area for why there is such theological disagreement and confusion even among those who profess Christ and embark on the study of theology. So, these essentials will come up again and again in our study as we study the doctrines of humanity, sin, and the identity of Christ this semester. And my aim is that we not only learn what the Bible teaches us about these doctrines but that we also see how we need to do the very task of theology. May God’s grace be with us. Amen.