Welcome back to Gold Hill’s theology column. Last week, I asked what theology is and why it’s important. In the next few weeks, I want to explore some key principles which I believe should guide us as we approach theology.
And the first starts with this question: what can you really trust?
It’s an important question to ask, because it shapes how we go about developing our thinking—whether that thinking is about God or about anything. But when it comes to theology (thinking and speaking about God), what do we trust?
When trying to figure out what we think about anything, we need to recognise at least two things. First, we can never approach anything neutrally because there are lots of voices and ideas out there trying to shape the way we think. And second, these voices and ideas are rarely all the same.
Perhaps an example will help. If I were to ask the question “What is the church for?” here are some things which will be trying to shape my thinking:
- My own experiences of church, both positive and negative
- The particular church tradition(s) I’ve grown up in and been exposed to
- Opinions of other people who I’ve heard talk about church
- Listening to the Holy Spirit and seeking inspiration and revelation from Him
- The Bible’s descriptions of the church and it’s purpose
- The way the church is portrayed in popular culture and journalistic media (as if there’s just one consistent voice here at all!)
For me at least, these are all in tension and some degree of contradiction with one another. And that’s just a list I came up with without thinking about it for a particularly long time…
Authority and Revelation
So how to choose, and which to pick? Or is it even that simple? At its root, the question we’re asking is this: what is going to be our authority? We can’t get very far in discerning what we believe about God without deciding which voice is the one which we listen to above all others. (That isn’t to say the others aren’t important. Not at all! But when they disagree, which wins for us?)
If authority is at the root of the issue, then for Christians there is another concept which is important too, and that’s ‘revelation’. It’s a key Christian conviction that God has revealed Himself to us. He has not left us in the dark about who He is, what He’s like, and what His purposes are. Theology isn’t about us grappling about for a good idea, but seeking to understand what God has revealed to us. The letter to the Hebrews starts like this:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2a)
We get a sense here that God has always been revealing Himself to His people, in lots of diverse ways. But we also get a sense that the fullest revelation of God was in Him not just speaking to us but becoming one of us in the person of Jesus, God’s Son. Jesus is the climax and pinnacle of God’s revelation. If we see and know Him, we see and know God.Jesus is the climax and pinnacle of God's revelation. If we see and know Him, we see and know God. Click To Tweet
The issue, though, is that we do not see Jesus face to face (yet!), so we need other things to point us to Him and shape our understanding of how He has revealed God to us. This is where all those other things (the Bible, tradition, experience, reason) come in. Each helps us understand the revelation Jesus has given us.
It’s here I need to lay my cards on the table. For me, the primary authority in all things is the Bible. It is a deeply important conviction to me that God’s revelation to us in Scripture is of primary importance. This is what makes me an ‘evangelical’ (if a label is helpful, which I’m not always sure it is). Reason, experience, tradition and direct inspiration are all good. I listen to them all, but the measure of whether they are accurate or not is whether they line up with God’s revelation in the Bible.
There are a few reasons for this. All of those other things change, where the Bible does not. A commitment to Scripture has been shown in history to yield fruit. The Bible commends itself as the guide God has given. But I am aware these are all circular arguments to one degree or another. Fundamentally, it is a conviction of faith that leads me to say the Bible is my primary authority. But given that it is, I choose to submit my thinking—my theology—to its teaching. As a church, Gold Hill is committed to that as a principle of faith.
So the first principle as we explore theology together is this: theology is always centred on Jesus, as revealed to us in the words of the Bible.
For more posts in the theology column, click here. This post was written by Dave Criddle (@DaveCriddle), the online pastor at Gold Hill. He has his own blog, Limping into Truth, if you want to read more of what he has written.
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