Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Building a Statement of Faith

Choosing verses for a statement of faith can be challenging.  A statement of faith should reflect our understanding of what the whole Bible teaches.  But a statement of faith is expected to address several key questions (such as what is the Trinity, or what is the church, or what is faith).  For each question it’s hard to find time to read the whole Bible to answer that question.  Often we find short-cuts (such as key word searches, cross references, or examining other statements of faith).  And to make matters more challenging we want to find several references for each point.

But this leads us to a problem: we are starting with a theological statement or question and trying to find support in the Bible.  For example, we are starting with our question “Is Jesus divine or human or both and how?”  We have specific questions about issues like the Trinity or the nature of Inspiration.  For good reason we want to understand how this all makes sense and fits together with what we know.  It’s not that these questions and answers are wrong, but that the questions aren’t always the questions the Bible is specifically dealing with. The questions are questions our system of theology brings to the table.  Church history has done a good job of developing some of these questions and provides good answers.  But we are skipping some important steps if we start with those answers and try to find them in the Bible.  Instead of starting with the Bible’s answers to the questions it raises, we are starting with our questions and tradition and are trying to find answers for these within the Bible.  So really we are assuming our frame of thinking, our questions, and our answers on the Bible.

An issue such as “the two natures of Christ” might lead us to search the Bible for verses that support his full humanity and for verses that support his full divinity.  And I’m sure we would find several verses that speak about Jesus as a human and that speak about him in divine language.  (After all, the biblical themes interact at some level with these points).  But since we have started from our frame of thinking, we haven’t had the chance to really grasp the biblical frame of thinking.  We take those verses and put them into categories of “Jesus is divine” or “Jesus is human” as if that is all the passages were trying to communicate.  This grouping of verses really doesn’t adequately deal with the questions and answers the Bible raises about who Jesus was and is.

 This can be tested very easily: does our doctrinal statement about Jesus reflect the bigger themes in the Bible (as in emphasis)?  If our statement of faith spends more time talking about important points like Jesus’ divinity and the atonement, then we are missing those great (and very prevalent) themes about Jesus as messiah, Jesus as king, Jesus as son of God, Jesus as high priest, and Jesus as the perfect human.

Really this means we are dealing more with implications of these verses rather than what they teach.  And when these implications become the grid through which we read the Bible, we end up modeling a very bad example of how to read the Bible.  If the larger narratives and themes of the Bible don’t clearly inform our statement of faith, then this can convey the impression of needing to “hunt” for those key verses to defend our theology (or worse, those themes will be misunderstood as the theology.)  It’s not that questions such as the Trinity or Jesus’ divinity and humanity have no answers, but that our questions and answers demand more specific details than the Bible always provides.  And our focus causes us to miss so much of what the Bible does actually say about those topics.  We hunt through the Bible trying to find verses that support these answers, but we miss out on what the Bible spends the most time teaching.  And rather than our theology conforming to the shape and context of the Bible, we try to conform it to our theology.

This is the perspective that I try to approach the Bible from.  This approach is more generally under the banner of "biblical theology" as opposed to "systematic theology" or "historical theology".  The latter two are important to interact with, and I need to grow in interacting with them more.   After all, without historical theology, we're bound to repeat the mistakes of prior Christian thinkers.  And without systematic theology, we're bound to gloss over important questions and distinctions.  All three are important for theology, but I think by and large a lot of Christians could use a bigger dose of biblical theology in their preaching and bible study times.

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