Constructing a Sound Theology

What are the requirements of a sound theology?

EDWARD HEPPENSTALL, Professor of Christian Theology, SDA Theological Seminar

Religion as a universal term deals with man's re­lation to God or gods. It pre­supposes that in some form or forms, man has been, or is being, confronted with the su­pernatural. This varies among the world religions. For the Christian, religion is man's personal rela­tion to the God of the Bible and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Man has been confronted with divine revelation in God's activity through Jesus Christ and through His Word.

But religion has also a rational and intel­lectual content. It is the task of theology so to interpret that content that the doc­trines formulated constitute a sound inter­pretation of that particular content. Every church and denomination has a theology. It is not a question of having or not having a theology. The issue is: Does the church and does the Christian believer have a sound and vital theology? Theological knowledge becomes saving knowledge by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit operating through the Word and bringing the believer into harmony with the will of God. A living faith does not vitiate a sound theology, nor does it depend upon an intel­lectual grasp of all that might be con­ceived as belonging to a systematic theology.

A more complete intellectual knowledge of theology does not necessarily produce a more vital Christian experience, although it should. The knowledge of doctrine intel­lectually conceived must not be regarded as the equivalent of a vital faith in God. Doctrines and theological interpreta­tions are formalized aspects of living faith. The Bible as such is not a series of theologi­cal discourses. It is not systematic theology. Rarely does a Bible writer aim to produce a theological treatise on some particular doctrine. Paul, in the book of Romans, and in his discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, comes the closest to it.

Christianity's Essence

One of the major trends today is the con­cern for what is termed "the essence of Christianity." This is often taken to mean that which has validity for everyday living as distinct from certain theological tenets as held by the various churches of Christen­dom. In seeking to interpret the Bible and to establish a theology, we may go so far as to lose Christianity from life. The teach­ing and preaching of doctrines can become only verbal descriptions of divine realities. It then becomes impossible for a teacher or preacher to communicate faith and love on the verbal level.

As Christian leaders, teachers, and preach­ers we are confronted with these two con­cerns: (1) making the doctrines vital in contemporary religious experience, and (2) interpreting the intellectual content of the Bible in harmony with God's will so as to constitute God's truth.

A professor of theology pulled from his library certain books on the Adventist faith and doctrine and proceeded to ques­tion me on the fundamental tenets of this church. Finally he said: "My church inter­prets this differently from yours. Is what you believe actually the Bible or the Ad­ventist interpretation of the Bible? By what right do you claim your interpretation to be sounder than mine? How do you know that yours is a valid Biblical theology?"

What would you have answered?

Modern Trends in Theology

The trend today is away from an objec­tive theological body of truth to a subjec­tive experience of God. For theology the issue is crucial. It is not that of theology ver­sus no theology at all. But multitudes today claim to find religious reality and an experi­ence with God in certain inward self-know­ing apart from, and often contrary to, the objective revelation of Biblical truth. Doc­trine is no longer important, they say. The experience is the thing. To them theology becomes subordinate to psychology. The test of truth is psyckological.

It is sheer delusion to make so-called reli­gious experience take the place of Scrip­ture and the objective revelation in God's Word. To be sure there can be no Bible religion without experiencing personally that form of Christian faith set forth in the Scriptures. But belief and faith cannot be made nonintellectual. True faith is based on true knowledge (Rom. 10:17). What, then, actually constitutes saving knowledge? How far can a person believe error or believe little or nothing and still claim saving grace?

At times it has been true that the vitality of the Christian faith has preceded the for­mulation and clear understanding of doc­trinal truth. But such an experience is never contrary to sound doctrine. It has been said that our theology can rise no higher than our devotional life. But it may also be said that our devotional life and Christian experience can rise no higher than our grasp and knowledge of God and His truth, in other words, than our theol­ogy.

The most decisive theological terms are "revelation" and "inspiration." Both de­clare that God has spoken through His Son and through His chosen servants the prophets in a way that is wholly distinct from the way God speaks to us today. It denies categorically that man, even Chris­tian man, is the source of Christian truth and doctrine, and the test of it. The Chris­tian theologian does not determine what is true doctrine or sound theology. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring a sound theology into focus. If it were not so, the authority of man and the authority of the church would be primary. That is the Ro­man Catholic position. But the Word of God existed prior to the church. It brought the church into existence. Therefore the church could not be prior in authority. All that the Christian church did in the early centuries was to recognize what was already established and believed to be the inspired Word of God. No organized body of men in the first century determined what was true theology. Even though the early centuries were marked by theological con­troversy, these disputants did not constitute God's primary authority.

Believers became an organized body be­cause they experienced the work of the Holy Spirit, as Christ declared, to "guide them into all truth." The true Christian theologian first believer the Scriptures to be the Word of God. He seeks to bring his life into line and to submit his whole being to the judgment of that Word. The only vital unifying factor is in the leading of the Spirit of God through the Divine Word. If the Bible is no longer reliable as the source of our theology, then the doctrines men for­mulate must forever remain the product of sinful men and of an incompetent human reason.

Revelation Above the Church

How could any church be prior to revela­tion? There could be no church unless God had first spoken. If God speaks to all men in all churches and communions in the same way as He has spoken in His Divine Word, then Christ must contradict Himself. The Holy Spirit will never lead men to the conviction that an original revelation of truth was wrong. Christ cannot deny Him­self. All doctrinal truth must be so, not be­cause the church declares it, but because the Bible shows it to be true. The church is final and authoritative only in so far as it is true to the revealed Word. If a church or a believer is to grow and remain vital, he must constantly test his beliefs and his life by the revealed Word. Anything less than this will lead into submission to the author­ity of men and not of God.

Furthermore, man must not imprison the truth of God by human interpretations. It is always possible for leading scholars in the church, who are fallible men, to fall away from the Word and be disobedient, to come to wrong conclusions. God cannot en­trust His authority to men. For He is then at the mercy of man, whose mind is warped by sin, and therefore imcompetent of itself to judge what is truth.

How can we make man's interpretation of the Word primary and yet appeal to the same Word for our authority? A derived authority can never be the source of that authority from which it is derived. A sound theology comes solely from Scripture. And he that is called to preach must continually watch and pray and study to keep from mingling the philosophical reasonings and opinions of men with the revelation from the mind of God.

The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words everyone from his neighbour. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues, and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their light­ness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the Lord. And when this people, or the prophet, or a priest, shall ask thee, saying, What is the burden of the Lord? thou shalt then say unto them, What burden? I will even forsake you, saith the Lord. . . . Thus shall ye say everyone to his neighbour, and every one to his brother, What hath the Lord answered? and, What hath the Lord spoken? And the burden of the Lord shall ye men­tion no more: for every man's word shall be his burden; for ye have perverted the words of the living God, of the Lord of hosts our God (Jer. 23: 28-36).

Always the church and the believer must come back to the Divine Word and seek to come into line with God's revealed and in­spired Scriptures. The books of the Bible were inspired long before the church coun­cils made any declaration concerning them. They were inspired at the time they were written. By the formation of the canon, the church simply recognized and acknowl­edged what had been known and believed all along concerning the inspiration of the Bible books. Thus the Word stands as the only true source of Biblical theology.

The Bible as authoritative stands apart from human experience as the revealed and inspired standard and rule of faith. Men become convinced of this as they are led by the Holy Spirit to acknowledge the Bible as the word of God. That is true re­gardless of any experiential witness man may give. This prior acknowledgment on man's part and acceptance from the heart issues in Christian experience. Christian theology is sound and valid, not because it is the expression of Christian experience, but because the Holy Spirit through the Word creates, judges, purifies, and develops Christian experience, and those thus devel­oped constitute the church; thus the church, or the body of Christ, is developed.

If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever (1 Peter 4:11).

"Let the Word speak" is the basis of a sound theology. A young man of outstand­ing intellectual ability explained to me why he could no longer believe "the truth." He had found "discrepancies." The problems, he felt, should be resolved or he could not continue believing in the Bible. I re­marked that his problem appeared to be one of authority. I asked whether he be­lieved man to be a sinner. Yes, there was no doubt about that. How then could a mind warped by sin be considered compe­tent to judge the Bible and a prior author­ity as to what constituted truth?

The Holy Spirit Above Human Reason

Conviction as to the truth of theology and doctrine is by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). This requires a humility of mind that recognizes the limitations and incom­petence of human reason, a despair of the ability of the human mind to determine and prove what is truth.

The Adventist faith is not a datum of human wisdom and experience. Ellen G. White states this clearly in The Ministry of Healing, page 130: "The kingly power of reason, sanctified by divine grace, is to bear sway in our lives." Sanctified reason is reason led by the Holy Spirit. The degree to which reason is competent to determine what is truth and what is error can be deter­mined only by the Holy Spirit. But sancti­fied reason will never go beyond the bounds set by the Holy Spirit. The moment one seeks to go beyond this point, then the hold on basic truths begins to weaken; denial of the faith follows.

The demand today is to build our theol­ogies on critical scholarship. God does not put a premium on ignorance. He requires the best that the mind can give. But there are limits on the ability of the human mind. Sin has caused that. The only satis­factory evidence is a personal witness to truth, and not simply an argument for it. Teaching and preaching the truth must not become a mechanical treatment of Scripture and doctrine. That produces only a dead Christianity and a paper orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit alone can make a man a Christian and a believer in the truth. The early believers witnessed to the truth; that is, the revealed truth as contained in the Eternal Word. Witnessing is a term used far more frequently than preaching or arguing. Christ's final charge to his minis­ters is, "Ye shall be witnesses unto me" (Acts 1:8). By witnessing, the truth comes to stand in its own right and not simply by the right of argument. Jesus is declared to be "the faithful witness" (Rev. 1:5). The work of the Holy Spirit is to give men power to "bear witness" (John 15:26, 27). God's remnant people are described in Revela­tion 12:17 as having the testimony of Jesus, which in chapter 19:10 is defined as the Spirit of prophecy. Possessing that testi­mony of the living Christ, they become liv­ing witnesses. As a people we recognize that witness in the writings of Ellen G. White, the Lord's messenger to the Ad­ventist Church. However, I state emphat­ically, it is not the logical arguments or the sweep of theological content that consti­tutes the test of genuineness.

Our interpretation of prophecy leads us to see the Old and New Testaments as the "two witnesses" of Revelation 11:3, and if we would be oral witnesses of that truth, we must direct men's attention to the One of whom the Bible and the Spirit of proph­ecy bear witness. We do not worship the Bible, but Him of whom the Scriptures bear witness—the true and living God and His Son, Jesus Christ. "Search the scrip­tures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39).

Application to Adventism

The Adventist Church today must bear witness to the basic doctrines, to the pri­mary truths of the Bible. There can be no fear for men or for the church that is led by the Holy Spirit. We dare to trust our­selves to the Spirit's leading. We can fear to be led by men and the interpretations of men. It is the Spirit and the Spirit alone that can lead us into truth and into the unity of the faith. No other pressure can bring this about. Unity and harmony are not so much an experience of the intellect as of the heart. Spirit-led men are men out of whom flow irrepressible streams of the love of God. Ellen G. White expresses it well in these words:

Know and believe the love that God has to us, and you are secure; that love is a fortress impregnable to all the delusions and assaults of Satan.—Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (1956), p. 119.

Events move quickly even in the religious world today. The moment of final decision for multitudes of men and women every­where may be nearer than we think. And that decision will be made on that which is identifiable as the true faith. It is truth against error, Christ against antichrist. The issue for us all cannot long be delayed. But in order to know and experience truth, every man's decision must be his own in the atmosphere of loving fellowship within the communion of the believers.

 

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EDWARD HEPPENSTALL, Professor of Christian Theology, SDA Theological Seminar

April 1957

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