No Christian—and least of all a worker for God—can escape being a theologian. He may be a confused theologian. He may be an unconscious and irresponsible theologian. He may be an uninformed theologian. But he cannot be a Christian and not have a theology of some kind.
Any evangelism that is vital enough to meet the challenge of these times must vividly present to the man of today, bogged down as he is in the mud of materialism, the Christ who is the absolute, adequate answer to every man's need in this atomic age. Therefore it is imperative that the evangelist have a correct theology. No amount of zeal and earnestness will make up for its lack. Indeed, it is hard to understand how anyone who has to declare God's last message to men can avoid being driven to serious theological study. It is an awesome responsibility to undertake to speak the word of God's truth to our fellow men, a word that has in it for them infinite possibilities of life—or death.
Christian Theology Defined
The term theology is derived from the Greek words theos and logos, and originally signified a discourse about God. As one phase of practical theology, evangelism is closely related to theology proper. It has been said that Christian theology "is the attempt to change the thinking of men so that they will act as Christians." Evangelists are teachers of theology. It is their function to disseminate knowledge concerning God and everything by which His nature is revealed. An evangelist must have definite views about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the atonement, the Bible, the church, and eschatology. He must know nature as a manifestation of the wisdom and creative power of God, and human history as a demonstration of the unfolding purposes of the Almighty. The evangelist can be used of the Holy Spirit to convert and sanctify men only as he can wield "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph. 6:17). Accordingly, Dr. A. H. Strong says that the object of the Christian teacher must be to replace obscure and erroneous conceptions among his hearers by those that are correct and vivid. He cannot do this without knowing the facts with regard to their relations—knowing them, in short, as parts of a system. With this truth he is put in trust. To mutilate it or misrepresent it is not only a sin against the Revealer of it; it may prove to be the ruin of men's souls. The best safeguard against such mutilations or misrepresentations is the diligent study of the several doctrines of the faith in their relation to one another, and especially to the central theme of theology, the person and work of Jesus Christ.'
We Adventists do not have a strictly theological confession of faith as a large volume filling a thousand or more pages of systematic expression; we have no rigid denominational creed as such; but we do have a definite Seventh-day Adventist theology. It is the body of truth to which we refer when we speak of a person "coming into the truth." We thank God for our pioneers who spent long days and nights in earnest searching of the Word for a true theology.
After the passing of the time in 1844 they searched for the truth as for hidden treasure in establishing the great landmarks of the faith. Ellen G. White says:
We would come together burdened in soul, praying that we might be one in faith and doctrine.. . . One point at a time was made the subject of investigation. The Scriptures were opened with a sense of awe. Often we fasted, that we might be better fitted to understand the truth. After earnest prayer, if any point was not understood, it was discussed and each one expressed his opinion freely. . . . Many tears were shed.
We spent many hours in this way. Sometimes the entire night was spent in solemn investigation of the Scriptures, that we might understand the truth for our time.'
Evangelistic Theologians of the Past
Look back through history. The eras of spiritual victories, evangelistic conquests, and vital reforms have been those of powerful evangelical preaching based upon a revitalized theology. It is more than a coincidence that God has used men of scholarly attainment to stir the flame of evangelism to a new brilliance as they have fearlessly affirmed God's truth for their day.
Paul of Tarsus, mightily possessed of God, wrought out the clear shape and form of the Christian message and laid the deep foundations of the church. Versed in Hebrew theology, in the jurisprudence of Rome, and in the philosophy of Greece, he became the peerless evangelist to the world of his day.'
Augustine, outstanding among the Church Fathers and in some senses forerunner of the Reformation, was a professor of rhetoric as a youth. Becoming converted, he flung his mighty genius into the study and defense of the great Christian doctrines. From his writings Luther and other Reformers gathered strength and inspiration.
John Wycliffe, champion of the open Bible, was an Oxford professor when he began to proclaim that Christ is man's only overlord. Revolting against the abuses of the church, he spread the doctrine that the Scriptures are the supreme authority and the only rule of faith. His theological beliefs influenced John Huss, and through Huss, Luther and the Moravians. Thus he became the Morning Star of the Reformation.
'When thirty-four-year-old Martin Luther nailed his historic theses to the church door that day in 1517, he little realized that he was to become the founder of Protestantism. The theses of that doctor of sacred theology and professor at the University of Wittenberg led to a re-examination of the very basis of salvation and the nature of the true church. Luther shook a continent to its foundation as the thunderous sermons of the indomitable reformer trumpeted to the ends of the earth, and multitudes grasped the treasure of justification through a Saviour crucified.
One summer night in 1536 a studious young Frenchman, John Calvin, stopped at a little inn in Geneva, Switzerland. He envisioned for himself a scholar's life of study and writing. Only a few months previously, at the age of twenty-six, he had published one of the great theological works of all time, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. There came to the inn that night a great evangelical preacher called Guillaume Farel. He finally persuaded Calvin to stay in Geneva and consolidate the work of reformation already begun. From that time Calvin's influence on his own generation and those following became immeasurable. There is hardly a division of Protestant Christianity today that does not feel in some way the theology and prodigious labor of this strong, brilliant man of God.
Seldom has God granted to the church so gifted a leader, so inspired a preacher, so able an organizer, as John Wesley. Church life in England and America had become rigid and frigid. Preachers were lazy and their sermons were hazy. Atheism, immorality, drunkenness, and corruption prevailed everywhere. Then God "strangely warmed" a preacher's heart with the fires of the gospel, and in that midnight of spiritual darkness there flamed a revival of evangelical Christianity that left an impress upon England and the English-speaking world that time will not efface. Billy Graham, one-time president of Northwestern School, Minneapolis, recently stated his conviction that Wesley was the greatest evangelist of modern times, and suggested that part of Wesley's power resided in the fact that he was a theologically educated man.'
Yes, true Christian theology and effective evangelism are inextricably bound together. When Jesus revealed Himself to the woman at the well, He presented to her what has been called "the most profound theological truth in the Bible." He said, "'God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth'" (John 4:24, R.S.V.). When He spoke to the Samaritan woman, evangelism to Him meant making not only a Christian of her but also an evangelist, for she ran to the village to pass on the divine revelation she had received.
Twofold Task of Christian Church
Very early in its history the primitive Christian church realized that it faced a twofold task. The mere proclamation of the gospel was not enough. There had to be a follow-up effort that was directed toward conserving and improving the faith responses of those who acknowledged that they believed Christ's messengers. Apostolic preaching that emphasized the proclamation of the good news was called kerygrna. It was directed toward non-Christians. Apostolic teaching that was concerned with the application of the gospel to life, and instructing the new converts, was called didache. The former preceded the latter. The need for both is found all through the New Testament. And it is still the double need of the church even today. The worker for God must be a teacher as well as an announcer. The conveying of a sound theology must accompany the proclaiming of the message. One reason why some evangelism has done little permanent good is that the proclamation was not accompanied or followed up by strong, good teaching. Too often, converts were not deeply converted and indoctrinated. Like the little girl who fell out of bed, they "went to sleep too near where they got in."
Though we are thankful for every insight that psychology may give us, yet the evangelist who draws his inspiration from psychology rather than theology tends to forfeit the right to say "Thus saith the Lord." He may exorcise demons of fear and anxiety, and bring peace of mind and a sense of confident living. But it will be a human program with little relevance to God's kingdom and the proclamation of a last-day warning message.
Again, evangelism that is truly grounded in a sound theology will have a sturdy objectivity that effectively guards against the sentimental subjectivism of certain modern popular types of evangelism where Jesus, our exalted Lord, is hardly more than the believer's private companion whose main task seems to be keeping secret appointments in some lovely garden where "He tells me I am His own" and imparts joys that "none other has ever known."
It is unfortunate when an evangelist takes an anti-intellectual attitude toward theology. To discredit theology is to discredit intelligence itself. If the physician must know his materia medica; if the lawyer must be acquainted with his Blackstone; then the evangelist surely must know his theology. It is his intellectual undergirding and his spiritual strength. He cannot know too much, provided he is thoroughly consecrated. For his is the task of interpreting the everlasting gospel in thought forms that are intelligible to modern-minded men and women.
Erroneous Theological Intellectualism
On the other hand, we must beware of a theological intellectualism that unduly exalts knowledge and turns preachers into academic bookworms. It is vital that we have a correct theology. Wrong theology has produced dire results over and over again in the history of the church. Even today we are seeing the fruitage of false systems such as liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. We cannot accept such Barthian philosophy as that "the Bible contains the Word of God, but not all that is in the Bible is necessarily the inspired Word of God." Barth further says that Christ's nature was fallen human nature, and that He was not a very remarkable man, only a "simple Rabbi who impresses us as a little commonplace beside more than one other founder of religion, and even along-side many later representatives of His own religion." ' "[Emil] Brunner insists that God not only is not revealed in the historical life of Jesus, but he is concealed therein, concealed so completely that not even Jesus knew it!"
Over against the vainglorious arrogance of perverted human reason our theology should show itself to be triumphantly Christocentric and Bible based and saturated with the soul-winning motive. James S. Stewart truly says, "There is no place today for a church that is not aflame with the Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of life, nor any value in a theology which is not passionately missionary." 7
John Bunyan presents a striking picture of Evangelist in his immortal Pilgrim's Progress. Christian was shown, in the house of Interpreter, a picture of Evangelist, portrayed as a very grave person whose eyes were lifted up to heaven. The best of Books was in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind his back; he stood as if he pleaded with men, and a crown of gold was on his head.
As we gird ourselves afresh for the titanic task of evangelism that lies just ahead in the finishing of the work, let us ever keep "the best of Books" open in our hands, and in our pulpits. We can preach its truths with ringing certainty. Says Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, an outstanding authority, "The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation, throughout the centuries."
The world is now waiting for a new definition of the gospel and a new demonstration of its power. The decisive impact of the third angel's message will be made by the content of its doctrine as well as by the consecration of its disciples. With personal holiness and a passionate love for souls let us link a strong, scriptural, and scholarly theology.
The world is not a little weary of our doubts and our conflicting opinions and views. But I have discovered that there is much common ground in the Bible—broad acres of it—upon which most churches can agree. Could anything be more basic than the acknowledgment of sin, the Atonement, man's need of repentance and forgiveness, the prospect of immortality, and the dangers of spiritual neglect?
There need be no adulteration of truth nor compromise on the great Biblical doctrines. I think it was Goethe who said, after hearing a young minister, "When I go to hear a preacher preach, I may not agree with what he says, but I want him to believe it." Even a vacillating unbeliever has no respect for the man who lacks the courage to preach what he believes.
Messengers and the Message
Very little originality is permitted a Western Union messenger boy. His sole obligation is to carry the message he receives from the office to the person to whom it is addressed. He may not like to carry that message—it may contain bad news or distressing news for some person to whom he delivers it. But he dare not stop on the way, open the envelope and change the wording of the telegram. His duty is to take the message.
We Christian ministers have the Word of God. Our Commander said, "Go, take this message to a dying world!" Some messengers today neglect it, some tear up the message and substitute one of their own. Some delete part of it. Some tell the people that the Lord does not mean what He says. Others say that He really did not give the message, but that it was written by ordinary men who were all too prone to make mistakes.
Let us remember that we are sowing God's seed. Some indeed may fall on beaten paths and some among thorns, but it is our business to keep on sowing. We are not to stop sowing because some of the soil looks unpromising.
We Have Our Orders
We are holding a light, and we are to let it shine. Though it may seem but a twinkling candle in a world of blackness, it is our business to let it shine.
We are blowing a trumpet. In the din and noise of battle the sound of our little trumpet may seem to be lost, but we must keep sounding the alarm to those in danger.
We are kindling a fire in this cold world full of hatred and selfishness. Our little blaze may seem to have no effect, but we must keep our fire burning.
We are striking with a hammer. The blows may seem only to jar our hands as we strike, but we are to keep on hammering.
We are using a sword. The first or second thrust of our sword may be parried, and all our efforts to strike deep into the enemy flank may seem hopeless. But we are to keep on wielding our sword.
We have bread for a hungry world. The people may seem to be feeding busily on other things, ignoring the Bread of Life, but we must keep on offering it to the souls of men.
We have water for parched souls. 'We must keep standing and crying out, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters."
Plea for Bible Preaching
Give a new centrality to the Bible in your own preaching.
Jesus promised that much seed will find good soil and spring up and bear fruit.
The fire in your heart and on your lips can kindle a sacred flame in some cold hearts and win them to Christ. The hammer will break some hard hearts and make them yield to God in contrition. The sword will pierce the armor of sin and cut away self-satisfaction and pride, and open man's heart to the Spirit of God. Some hungry men and women will take the Bread of Life and some thirsting souls will find the Water of Life.
Preach the Scriptures with authority! You will witness a climactic change in your ministry!
1A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 17.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 24, 25.
3 First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians 5.
4 Billy Graham, Canadian Journal of Theology, January, 1956, p. 1.
5 Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik I, ii, 80: The Doctrine of the Word of God I, p. 188.
6 James R. Branton, "Our Present Situation in Biblical Theology," Religion in Life, vol. 26, p. 11.
7 James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim, p. 2.
8 Sir Frederic G. Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, p. 23.