Theology for the times.
Millard J. Erickson on the contemporization of Christian theology.
According to Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology, the discipline of theology includes five facets: (1) it is biblical, (2) it is systematic, (3) it is relatable, (4) it is contemporary, and (5) it is practical. Each of these elements constitute a robust theological paradigm in which the message of Christianity is understood. For theology to be true, it must be derived out of the canon of Scripture, which, of course, are the Old and New Testaments. Rather than being a system of belief derived from man’s own wit and wisdom, Christian theology is downstream from the unbroken revelation of God in his inspired Word. That it is systematic implies that one’s theological method draws from the entire corpus of inspired Scripture and not merely isolated texts which prove one’s argument. All of Scripture coheres to present to the student of theology an expansive view of the Godhead’s self-disclosure.
The systematic theologian does not progress like a mule blinded by his rider, but probes into the complexities of theological exploration with the full gamut of theological disciplines in tow. A pure systematic theologian, therefore, will engage with biblical theology as the substructure upon which much of the work of theology is done. As one exegetes the Old and New Testament Scriptures as a whole, one is able to arrive at sound theological content. True theology, of course, keeps hold of the tether which binds biblical texts together when asserting specific dogma, as opposed to isolating texts in order to make particular assertions.
Likewise, historical theology will inform one’s systematic theology in a number of surprising and significant ways. The particularization of one’s theological assertion is found as one puts their theology on the whet stone of history. “History is theology’s laboratory,” Erickson says, “in which it can assess the ideas that it espouses or considers espousing” (13). Making theological suppositions without examining the historical significance of such can break the system in which said theology exists.
As one arrives at a particular theological affirmation, one is obligated to review the development of theological thought surrounding such an affirmation throughout the history of the church. In so doing, one will surely find that the present doctrinal struggle which initiated one’s theological expedition in the first place has an antecedent struggle in centuries past, coinciding with the leitmotif of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9; 3:15; 6:10). Furthermore, the systematic theologian will be unafraid to include philosophical theology into his milieu knowing that such engagement with philosophical ideas and concepts will provide stricter expression of one’s theological suppositions.
Part being a student of theology, likewise, implies that one is interested in bringing the far-reaching implications of Christian theology into the realm of the immediate. Relating the sweeping theological convictions of Scripture to one’s times often involves contemporizing the scriptural message in ways that are, at once, resonant and timeless. Precision is of utmost importance, here, since the contemporizing and modernizing of theology is often imperiled by a distortion of the biblical message, to the point of displacement of God himself. One is forced, then, to practice and profess theology within a blessed tension of retrieval and contemporization. Living within this tension is both hazardous and rewarding, as it can often result in a system of theology that is practical in its effects. Rather than only enduring as fodder for theological debate, Christian theology stoops to inform one’s daily life with the truth of who God is.
Erickson identifies three ways by which one is able to contemporize Christian theology to the times — that is, by transforming it, translating it, or transplanting it. Each of these modes of theological contextualization are accompanied by their own unique advantages and liabilities. However, Erickson’s proposed approach of translating theology to one’s present endures as the most faithful method of bringing to bear the life-changing facets of God’s redemption of man in Christ. This is so precisely because translators of theology have as their primary concern the authority of the message with which they have been entrusted. Their errand is “no new commandment,” as the apostle John affirms, but is that which was from the beginning (1 John 2:7; cf. 1:1–4).
Unlike transformers, whose intentions often manifest in the fundamental reordering of Christianity theology for the sake of making said theology more relatable, translators recognize that making the message of Christianity acceptable to the ears of modernity is a task over which they have little governance. “The translator maintains that the human is not the measure of what is true,” Erickson contends. “It is God who speaks and human beings who are on trial, not vice versa. If transformation is needed, it is the human, not the message, that must be transformed” (77).
“The faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), which has, likewise, been passed down throughout the ages of the church, is the explicit message which insists upon the authoritativeness of God’s Word over and above any attempt to reassess its relatability. Indeed, the theological constant throughout the passage of time is the authority, reliability, and inherent resonance of the revelation of God’s salvific self-disclosure as seen nowhere else than in the Christ of God himself. Translating that message is simply a matter of professing what Scripture, likewise, professes, as though it were written in the present.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).
Very good stuff Sir. Two of the big dangers that always frighten me are 1)When the system becomes bigger than the Scripture that made the system, or even the Scripture bigger than the God who inspired it. Our minds are so tuned for finding patterns in everything and then extending the pattern, often beyond where it is justified to do so, I think we have all seen experiments where people find patterns in random noise, a good example is reading where we often don't notice missing words because our mind has figured out what the word will be before we get to the point of reading it. As Chesterton said, the problem is not that reality is logical, nor that it is illogical, but that it often appears to be more logical than it is, it follows a pattern perfectly right up until it stops following the pattern completely. My other fear of systematics is that we use our rubric to 'water down' a place where the Scripture speaks clearly and strongly because we want to 'balance' it with Scriptures that say other things. My other fear is, of course, replacing the God of Scripture with the God of Philosophy, a God we imagine who is in accord with our own reasoning.
Quite a challenge to be as careful and faithful as Scribes and yet as bold as Sons, we are called to do more than duplicate the Prophets or Apostles but to be their younger brothers, even the younger brothers of Christ. To faithfully replicate those who have gone before and then to extend their work to our culture. How humbling that we are the successors and heirs of the Prophets and Apostles, even the finishers of what they have begun, but as Our Lord said we will do greater things than He did since He has ascended to the Father.