One of the most critical assignments within Christian theology is rightly discerning between timeless and temporal truths within the scriptural milieu. Theological doctrines are scarcely built upon such treacherous scaffolding as temporary mandates. Rather, Christian doctrine, in essence, is rooted in the timelessness of God’s revelation of himself in Christ. Identifying a theological truth that is timeless is achieved when one takes into consideration its constancy, universality, experiential link, and revelatory status. Such are what make a doctrine permanent, according to Millard J. Erickson, in his work, Christian Theology. “The really crucial task of theology,” Erickson comments, “will be to identify the timeless truths, the essence of the doctrines, and to separate them from the temporal form in which they were expressed, so that a new form may be created” (80).
For something to be permanent, its resonance and consequence must be constant across a variety of cultures and contexts. As Erickson notes, chief among the scriptural constancies is the understanding of atonement. From “Father Abraham” to the apostle Peter, the theology of the Bible is imbued with a sense of sacrificial death as the payment of ransom and homage for one’s sins. Furthermore, theology must be universal in its scope. Erickson’s example of foot-washing is apt, here. As the Lord Jesus stoops to the function of a servant by washing his own disciples’ feet in John 13, he is demonstrating the universal theological paradigms of servanthood, deference, and humility. By this action, he embodies theological truths so as to make them unmissable. He is not, to be sure, advocating that this practice endure throughout the ages as an emblem of genuine Christianity. Indeed, rather, it is the universal import of humble self-sacrifice and of a love that disregards the self which abides even to the present age of the church.
Additionally, for theological doctrines to be permanent they must also disclose a permanent fixture of the revelation of the Godhead. On this point, Erickson notes the immutability of the Lord’s function as the church’s great High Priest as a theological fixture which persists throughout the centuries, without which those within the church would surely be lost. This progresses into another criteria for theological permanence which insists that such theological truths have experiential ramifications. The author uses Christ’s resurrection as an example, but even his aforementioned stress on Christ as the High Priest is suggestive of theological permanence by way of experience. It is the priestly function of Christ which remains the indefatigable bastion of ecclesiastical boldness (Heb. 4:14–16; 10:19–23).
Such theological affirmations are imbued with more than mere theoretical implications. Indeed, they are teeming with expedient consequences for the Christian in the here and now. Permanency is also based on a truth’s position within the progress of God’s divine revelation. Perhaps the best example of this paradigm is the theological import of a blood sacrifice. Throughout the Old Testament, those who belonged to God were instilled with an understanding of blood as a token of their covenantal standing, seen most predominantly through the sacrifice of animals and the act of circumcision. In the New Testament, however, such bloody sacrifices and acts are done away with in the “once for all” passion and death of Christ. The sacrifices, then, are not the permanent theological fixture. It is blood, which serves as the emblem of redemption.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).
Thats interesting Brad. Thanks. I am curious how you would distinguish between something of timeless significance with variable form, ie footwashing as a vehicle for servanthood, vs a sacrament with a fixed form and meaning, say Communion. The Words of Institution, 'do this in remembrance of me' do not differ greatly from the instructions following the footwashing, 'I have given you an example that you ought to do as I have done' I am a sacramentalist and not a pracricing footwasher but it seems to me that distinguishing between the two might be a non-trivial problem. Does Erickson address this issue?