The following is adapted by Keith Whitfield from “Theological Method: An Introduction to the Task of Theology,” by Bruce R. Ashford and Keith Whitfield in A Theology for the Church, Revised Edition (B&H Academic, 2014).
In our previous post, we asked the question, What does the Bible have to say about the nature and function of Christian theology, and how should theology be conceived? We asserted three answers to this question, the first being that Scripture anticipates the task of theology, which we discussed in the previous post.
The second answer tells us that the Bible’s grand narrative provides the framework for Christian theology. This narrative unfolds in four plot movements—Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. These four movements frame Christian theology, and do so in at least two ways.
First, the narrative frames the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The narrative demonstrates that there is a progression in the history of redemption that is paralleled and follows the progressive nature of divine revelation—recorded and found in the pages of Scripture. Any given doctrine of the Christian faith should be understood in relation to each of the four plot movements, because each of the plot movements teaches important truths that are necessary for understanding the core doctrines.
Second, the narrative orders and connects those core doctrines. Systematic and integrative theologies must provide an order for teaching and understanding Christian doctrine, and the narrative of Scripture offers a basic order. The narrative begins with God and his Word, moves to humanity and human rebellion, then to Christ’s great salvation and his redeemed community, and finally to the eternal state. For the sake of space, we will consider the first three of these below.
Scripture teaches that the task of theology stems from God’s original creative work (and not solely from his redemptive work). God created freely and for the purpose of being known by his creation. His creative work reveals his character. The capacity to know and love God is possessed by humanity. This capacity is what the Bible calls being created in the image of God. If God’s purpose in creation is to be known, then the created order must exhibit his glory, and his created imagers must have the capacity to recognize it.
Also, by creating the world, God established a kingdom that displays his glory, and he structures the kingdom it in such a way as to accomplish this purpose. In Eden, God places Adam and Eve in the garden, and he provides for them perfectly so that they could relate to him intimately. He was their God and they were his people. God had established his plan and promised his provision. Further, he created humanity to play a unique role in his kingdom. They are to participate in the fulfillment of God’s creation by taking the Eden-kingdom God had provided and extending it to the end of the earth, “being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the whole earth” (Gen 1:28). God’s purpose is to fill the earth with his imagers who know him, trust him, depend on him, and enjoy him. Therefore, creation teaches us that there is a purpose for our world. This has implication for the task of theology. God created his imagers to be theologians, and to fill the earth with more like themselves.
Adam and Eve’s rebellion stemmed from a theological conversation with the serpent. The serpent implied that God’s word could not be trusted and that his character was deficient. Adam and Eve’s response was likewise theological, as they responded positively to the serpent’s doctrine, and sought to live independently of God’s life-giving word. Their rebellious quest for independence from God led to their being banned from the Garden of Eden and God’s good creation being cursed (Gen 3:1-24). More importantly, however, it fundamentally altered the task of theology.
From this point forward, God’s imagers would be born with a disposition toward rebellion, and their rebellious hearts would produce theologies subversive of the very purpose for which God created them.
Since the fall, theology engages in the recovery of right knowledge of God and in the critique of ideas and beliefs that oppose God’s plan for his creation. But, this task is not mediated by human reasoning. For in the fall, clear and pure thinking are corrupted, and they are recovered only through the supernatural works of regeneration and sanctification, the renewing of both the heart and the mind.
The good news is that God does not abandon his people or his plan. Essential to the theological task this side of the fall, as well as this side of paradise, is the fact that God still speaks.
The serpent challenged God’s authority, and even though Adam and Eve sought independence from God, God’s plan continued. He reveals himself anew in his redemptive plan. God’s self-revelation is a corrective to aberrant theology, and demonstrates God’s ultimate purpose to be known and worshipped by his creation.
This redemptive story is the very basis of the task of theology. God redeems the task of theology by providing and preserving the main source of theology, his Word, and through his Word, God reminds fallen people of the goal of theology—the fulfillment of his creational plan through his promise to redeem a people who know, love, and obey him. God’s Word is preserved for us in the pages of Scripture, and through it, God has chosen to reveal his nature and purpose to people throughout history.
Theology is, therefore, an act of faith because in our disciplined reflection on Scripture, we are trusting that God is at work to redeem this world through his Word. This is the story that Scripture tells and continues to be used as an instrument in the fulfillment of it.
After the Father accomplished redemption through the Son’s life, death, and resurrection, God decisively reclaimed his original and abiding purpose to be known throughout creation. Jesus commissioned the apostles to continue this mission by making disciples of all the nations (Matt 28:18-20). He sent them out under his authority, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with regenerate hearts, and with the promise of transformed lives. Drawing upon God’s authoritative and trustworthy Word, they are to make disciples who will know and love God, and participate in his mission. In other words, he sent them out as missionary theologians.
God redeems the task of theology by continually providing the main source of theology—his Word—and reminding his fallen people of his creational and redemptive purposes. Indeed, Scripture exists because God has chosen to reveal his nature and purpose to people throughout history.
Keith Whitfield (@kswhitfield) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Associate Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness and Faculty Communications at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Bruce R. Ashford (@BruceAshford) is Provost and Dean of Faculty, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, and Fellow for the Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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