aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Teaching doctrine

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a friend preach and I heard him utter an astounding bit of Arianism. If I had accused him of teaching Arianism, he would have been offended. He is an orthodox/evangelical pastor and an excellent teacher of the Bible. Nevertheless, he had stumbled into a declaration of the Son of God as a created being.

Ironically enough, he was attempting to explain and emphasize the divinity of Christ. But in order to show how the Son is related to the Father, he started off talking about the use of Light as an attribute of God. This is a theme that runs all through the Bible, of course, and appears in our Nicene Creed in the phrase, “Light of light.” But then, just to show the Son’s divine origin, he pointed to the first chapter of Genesis where God says, “Let there be light.” That, he said, was where the Son came from.

Now keep in mind that the orthodox view is that the Son is uncreated, and his begetting is from eternity. There is no point of which you can say, “he was not, but now is.” Unless, of course, you’re an Arian. This is the essence of the teaching of Arius, that only the Father is truly God in full. The Son must therefore be the highest being in all creation, the demi-urge through which God made the rest of the world. This argument convulsed the Church just at the time that the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity legal and asked for its leaders’ help. The Nicene Creed was written specifically to establish that the Son of God is also God the Son, and he is co-eternal with the Father. He is uncreated Light. The created light, the first of God’s works, resembles him, but it is not him.

Well, big deal, you say. Who cares about a lot of high-falutin’ theology? There are souls to save. Don’t try to define Jesus, just give him your heart. But there are problems with that approach. Years ago, I was an associate pastor and had just finished teaching a session of confirmation during Sunday school. As I was robing with the senior pastor before worship, I said how mind-boggling it is to try to explain the historic doctrine of the holy Trinity in an hour to a bunch of junior high kids. He laughed and said, “Well, if you don’t believe the historic doctrine of the holy Trinity, it isn’t a problem at all!” My senior pastor was a Southern boy with an evangelical reputation, but he apparently had private doubts about orthodox theology. His solution was apparently to just leave the doctrines he didn’t agree with out of his teaching and preaching. He still had lots to say about Jesus. But he was leaving his members ignorant and ill-equipped to deal with the kinds of things that the unbelievers and other-believers say.

At the same time, I understand the reluctance to talk theology. There are people who explain theology the way chemistry professors explain the periodic table of the elements. If you’re not ready for it, it just makes your head spin. And unless you’re going to be a chemist, not understanding all the ins and outs of the periodic table probably doesn’t make you feel like you’re lacking anything important. But it’s important that somebody understand it. And insofar as the periodic table is an accurate layout of the nature of reality (elemental reality), it forms part of one’s understanding of the world. Also, knowing something about the nature of elemental reality will keep you from being suckered by someone peddling panaceas or the philosopher’s stone. In the same way, theology tells us about God and about ourselves. It informs our understanding of reality. And a fair acquaintance with orthodox theology will inoculate you against some of the seductive heresies that people peddle up and down the land.

It is especially important that the clergy understand the doctrines they are supposed to teach. It is not enough to have a heart-warming conversion story, a dazzling call story, and be immersed in the Bible. Clergy also need to know orthodox theology. They also need to know all the heterodox variants that keep cropping up like weeds, generation after generation. And the way you learn both is from Church history.

I am solidly in favor of a historical approach to the teaching of theology. Systematic theologians hide their work and only show you their proposed solutions. To understand what the Church believes, we need to understand how people wrestled with the facts at their disposal to distill their understanding into discrete doctrines. For instance, if I were teaching a class on the Nicene Creed, I would start with the sub-apostolic age, and the first attempts to describe who the Christians understood Jesus Christ to be. The first Christians were Jews, and Jewish monotheism is the bedrock of Christian theology. But if Jesus is the Son of God, what does that mean? We can’t say there are two gods. Yet, we talk about the Son of God as if he were also God the Son. Even in the Gospel, Thomas calls the Risen Christ, “my Lord and my God.” And what about all this talk of the Holy Spirit? Is that primarily metaphorical, just another way to talk about God, or in our experience is something about the nature of God being articulated that we haven’t thought of before? Is the Holy Spirit a force or a person? Is he also God?

A study of the theological debates in the centuries leading up to and through the writing of the great creeds brings real people before us, wrestling with real problems, trying to reconcile the witness of Scripture with the witness of our experience using human logic. People didn’t pull these doctrinal statements out of the air. They argued endlessly over them, they put them to the proof, they clarified and changed their terms, trying to explain the eternally important but hardest to understand of all subjects. They did, in fact (though at a more sophisticated level), exactly what your Sunday school class did when they tried to figure out how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related to each other.

In most seminaries today, theology is an academic subject. We learn it the way we learn the periodic table, and then lay most of it aside just like we do most of the chemistry we know. I suspect the Course of Study doesn’t give one much of a grounding in orthodox doctrine. Many of the clergy I know, ordained and licensed, evangelical or otherwise, don’t see much need for it in their teaching and practice. But if you don’t teach the faith to the teachers of the faith, then they will come up with all sorts of new ideas (that are actually very old heresies). And they will teach them, and be proud of their insight in discovering them. And that’s how poor teaching enters the church, and eventually gives you theological pluralism. It’s not the heretics trying to worm their way in, it’s the pride of the orthodox who think their understanding is good enough and who foster differing ideas down below the level of what they think is actually important.

Which means that clergy education – for seminaries and for the Course of Study, and for continuing education – needs to be addressed in a consistent manner in the new denomination a-borning. My own two cents’ worth is that we need to emphasize Church history as the easiest and best way to teach doctrine. Make people work through the issues with the people who first worked through them. Wrap the dryasdust in a story, and it’ll stick when the class is done.


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