Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Phenomenal Theology

Written by: on November 25, 2018

The late great R.C. Sproul published a book in 2000 titled The Consequences of Ideas in which he traces, in survey fashion, the contours of Western thought through the ages and its resulting effects on culture. It is one of the best of its kind since it is accessibly written and yet comprehensive in its scope. He starts with the pre-Socratics and takes the reader through the big ideas of Realism, Idealism, Rationalism, Empiricism, Skepticism and Existentialism (the order is intentional); and yes, all these “-isms” have had their consequences.

There is no time and space for elaborating on the evolution of these ideas. However, suffice it to say, the need for theology is dire. For in the study of theology we find the answers to all of humanity’s deep questions, i.e., meaning of life, existence, God, etc. Going back to our progression of ideas above, somewhere between Skepticism and Existentialism, something terribly happened in the world of ideas for which Christianity is still suffering the consequences. 

Consider the following historical segment in the development of ideas. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant, who many consider is the father of modern philosophy, struggled with whether we can know God. Rationalism and empiricism failed to provide satisfying answers. As his ideas developed he argued that our minds distinguish between the phenomenal and the noumenal1; the former being the things perceived by the five senses, the latter being things beyond the realm of knowledge, which included the knowledge of God. He did not set out to argue that objective reality did not exist. However, the wall dividing the phenomenal and noumenal is so wide that one cannot go around it, too deep to get under it and so high that no one can climb over it. But since ethics, the second of Kant’s concerns, is necessary for human flourishing, we must, as Kant argues, live “as if” God exists.

A generation later, Soren Kierkegaard, living under the Kantian revolution, develops his ideas which ultimately leads to the foundation for existentialism. Wracked with guilt about the decadence around him plus his own father’s adultery, Kierkegaard concludes that life only makes sense through pain and suffering. In one of his works he advances his notion of the three stages of life2, each with increasing moral standing. The first two debased stages can be achieved through deliberation. The Religious Stage, the highest of the three, cannot be reached by thought according to Kierkegaard. However, since this is desirable, one must act with pure subjective passion and take a “leap of faith” to the top. This is fodder for what Francis Schaeffer, writing in the 20th century, called the leap to the “second story.” Facts, science, (phenomenal) etc., being bolted to the first story and anything religious (noumenal) is sent to the second story where one has to leap to get there. It’s in the second story where subjective feelings reside, a place where knowledge is impossible.

Ironically, Kant and Kierkegaard were theologians. But their works have derailed Christianity in disastrous ways. The church since the Enlightenment has struggled to regain her prominence and relevance in society. It’s also in this cultural milieu that many Ivy League universities had its beginnings with the mission to educate students in theology in order to evangelize the world. Unfortunately, many of these institutions capitulated to culture and lost their Christian moorings. Anyone today would be hard-pressed to see any vestiges of faith except in the dark corners of these places, relegated to speculations and mere opinions. The distinction and separation between the sacred and secular was secured. 

Some of these institutions remained strong in the faith, but accepted the sacred/secular divide, decided to separate themselves from culture. This is how fundamentalism began. It had great intentions, unyielding to the ebb and flow of culture and go back to basics, the fundamentals of the faith. Despite the noble and courageous efforts of the founders of these places of higher learning were, they missed an important thing: culture. 

Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson in Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God reminds us:

“Christians have always sought to articulate their faith within the context in which God calls them to live and minister. We share the same task. Like our forebears, we desire to set forth our beliefs in a manner that will assist us in being the people of God in our world. That is, we desire a theology that is not only biblical and Christian but also relevant.”3

Of all the theological tools available to us, culture, I believe, is where most of the work needs to happen. The challenges of culture today, i.e., LGBT+, political divisions, tolerance, racial tensions, etc. are not incidental to our theology. They ought to be front and center. That’s not to say that we allow culture to dictate our theology. But more often than not, the church turns a deaf ear to issues that matter most to the folks in our community. The transformative power of the Gospel is more than this, but definitely not less. 

So, who needs theology? To echo Grenz and Olson, we all do4. But let’s add one more thing.  As believers let us also make it our goal to make theology attractive enough that all will want to study it.

1R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts That Shaped Our World (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000), 122.
2Ibid., 150.
3Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 98.

About the Author

Harry Edwards

Harry is married to Minerva and has the privilege of raising two young men. He is the founder and director of Apologetics.com, Inc., an organization dedicated to defending the truth claims of Christianity on the internet, radio and other related activities. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Christian Education and a Masters of Arts degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University where he currently works full time as the Associate Director of the graduate programs in Christian Apologetics and Science & Religion. Harry is currently pursuing a DMin (Leadership & Global Perspectives) from George Fox University. He is an active member at Ocean View Baptist Church where he leads an adult Bible study and plays the drums for the praise and worship band. In his spare time, Harry enjoys doing things with his family, i.e., tennis, camping/backpacking, flying RC planes and mentoring others to realize their full potential in the service of our Lord.

9 responses to “Phenomenal Theology”

  1. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hi Harry, interesting and well-written reflection. A question I have is, given that nearly all Western theological architecture has been formulated under the banner of Christendom as a political worldview, what style of voice does theology need in a world that has philosophically weighed anchor from its Christocentric past? Too often the voice of theology tends to speak from a past context by throwing stones at the realities of the present context. Thoughts?

  2. Digby, why do you always ask the tough, probing questions? Hahahaha! I’m not sure my answer is popular today but I’ll give it anyway. First there are some givens: (1) God is sovereign and has acted to direct things in history; and (2) He uses nations (people groups) to deliver his message of redemption.

    If my premises hold then I’d say we should not be embarrassed that God has chosen currently the West to be His instruments of grace. We got it from the Jews first, then it traveled on to the early churches, into the Reformation and now the U.S. stands to be protector and preserver of the faith. However, it appears it might get passed on to the Asians (Chinese specifically) and/or Africans if things continue in the present direction.

    All that to say, we must, as the West, in humility say that we don’t apologize for Christianity, but we may have messed up along the way. But that doesn’t mean Christianity is not the way to go.

    Os Guinness said one time that there aren’t any Christian cultures that exists, but a culture that practices Christianity will adopt Christian values. I think the nuance understanding of that is critical to answering your question.

    Hope that helps.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Not a bad answer at all Harry. There is a small antipodean part of me that blanches at the idea of the US being the protectors and preservers of the faith, but you do have the numbers. I am left contemplating the concept of a new reformation, it’s certainly not a new thought, and it appears to be happening all around us in subtle ways. The big difference is there not being a coherent voice to it as there was in 16th century Europe. Our theology is having to reorganise itself from systematics to interacting with chaos. There is no one fatal cut to historic Christian theology, rather it is being needled and questioned on almost every front, leaving ordinary believers floundering, or diving for cover. Personally, I’m not sure how we educate younger people, en mass, for this new era, but a new creative way will become apparent. I guess that’s your task, Harry.

  3. Hahahaha! I share your antipodean feelings toward present American Evangelicalism. Though I’m not quite ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is precisely the project of my dissertation. Our current world doesn’t make room for theology; a big yes on pietistic religiosity , but not theology. Systematics no longer work. Civil discussion is at an all time low. Logic and sound reasoning are now considered “privileged” and “intolerant”. It appears hopeless.

    Ah, but this is where we ought to rise to the challenge. We can reintroduce Christianity through the back door of culture. What if the church gets down from her high horse and start being the salt and light Christ calls us. Salt and light implies being present in the things for which salt and light is needed and desired. We haven’t been doing it right for a long time. Modernity certainly hasn’t helped; not to mention our devotion to scientism.

    The reformation you speak of, or as some would call it revival must and can only take place in local communities, starting with families, then through the church. Small steps are not inconsequential: making one’s bed in the morning, the daily routine of exercise, reading the Greats, helping old ladies cross the street, baking goodies for your neighbor, manners, etc. You get the idea. Until and unless these things become part of a society’s habits, the Gospel will have difficulty taking root.

    This is the back door. Of course God also could just snap His fingers and people get saved by merely hearing or reading John 3:16.

    The big question is how do we inculcate virtue (another back door) in an increasingly secular society? Thank God I’m not the only one asking that question.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Have you read or looked at the following book. I’ve had it for a long time, and I wonder if it might be useful in your own research:
      Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2002.
      It looks at the importance of theology and apology but also considers the broad nature of the discussion with an attempt at a “Both And” approach to diversity and unity in Christian thinking based on history as a platform for the future. It’s not a new book, but well worth a look.

  4. I have not read that book but on your recommendation I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks. Super helpful.

  5. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent post, Harry. I could not agree with you more. I find the foundational basis for many reactions is fear. Fundamentalism is a perfect example and the mantra of many became “come out from among them and be separate” as the basis for holiness. This rally cry has entrenched the separatist thinking and fails to grasp the ways and means of being salt and light.

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Handsome Harry,
    As always thank you for your lucid thoughts. I agree that while culture must never dictate theology is always has certainly informed its formation. I so appreciate Grenz and Olson including this in the three major tools of theological growth. Like the authors, I believe theology must be culturally relevant otherwise how can it address the real issues of those living within a given culture. Blessings, Friend

  7. Mary Mims says:

    Harry, I thought your post was most interesting. I think what troubles me is that many think only of Western thought as the only correct thought. I am no philosopher by any stretch of the imagination but I just wonder why there is no thought to how Christianity flourished in other parts of the World, namely Africa, and more specifically, Ethiopia and even Egypt. We have the church history that came from the Western world, we view Western culture as somehow coming from God, and therefore, God’s view. I hope through this program traveling all over the world that we can see other worldviews as valid and even a valid part of God’s plan.

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