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

Who Needs Theology? Everyone!

Written by: on October 10, 2013

Several years ago I attended a theology conference at Wheaton College.  I remember vividly one speaker who gave a presentation during which I understood nothing.  His vocabulary could have been a foreign language for all the sense it made to me.  I remember feeling especially stupid and wonder about the value of my thirty years of Bible study and theology reading.  Obviously I had failed miserably and would never fully grasp what I needed to be a good student of the Bible.  (The only glimmer of hope was hearing a gentleman on his cell phone after the talk saying, “I just heard a guy speak and I didn’t understand a single word he said.”)

Grenz and Olson’s Who Needs Theology1 was a tremendous help in clarifying this experience and so many others that I have struggled with over the years.  The authors begin with a simple definition of Christian theology as “reflecting on and articulating the beliefs about God and the world that Christians share as followers of Jesus Christ.”2Their encouragement throughout is that anyone who seeks to know God and understand the big questions of life and the world is practicing theology. However, people approach the task at different levels with the spectrum going from fork theology to academic theology.  On two fronts, this brought me a great deal of peace.  My own church’s unwillingness to deal with issues from women’s roles to social, environmental and justice issues now makes sense in their dedication to their folk theology which is unreflective and beyond challenge.  I never felt that there was any room for discussion among the leaders whose simple faith said we follow only the Bible—end of discussion.  On the other end, understanding the concept of academic theology—theology for a small select group of people who write for each other but not necessarily for the church at large or for the lay person—brought me comfort to know that I might not be doing so badly after all.

Grenz and Olson’s clarification of dogma, doctrine and belief was also extremely helpful.  Their explanation of liberal (as those who move all truth into belief) and fundamentalist (as those who move all truth into dogma) further gave clarity to issues that have long been hard to understand.

What I appreciate especially in Grenz and Olson is their emphasis that good theology must focus on the real world today.  As their definition suggests, theology should be seeking answers to questions not only about God, but also about the world.  “Good theology moves beyond stating truths: it explores the significance of our beliefs or faith assertions for all of life.”3  Their encouragement is for theologians to engage with culture to make sure that our theology is dealing with the real questions our world is asking.  Since Scripture is not simply a list of doctrine, but rather a Spirit-inspired book of stories of God’s activities in the world, it is imperative that His followers (theologians) articulate how those beliefs function in an ever-changing context of history and culture.

It just happened that I was reading Steve Chalke’s paper on a very culturally relevant issue titled A Matter of Integrity: The Church, Sexuality, Inclusion and an Open Conversation4while reading Grenz and Olson.  This paper is a great test case for what authors put forward in their book. Chalke deftly works through the three tasks of theological practice described by Grenz and Olson: exegesis Scripture (though Chalke prefers hermeneutics whose  “task is to unearth all that is behind the text”5) reflect on history and bring application to context and culture.  Most clearly, Chalke has his pulse on his context, which led him to ask this important question concerning “faithful same sex relationship”6 —a question our culture is screaming for the church to give answer. His hermeneutics leads him to conclude that most Biblical texts (primarily used by anti-gay activist) are actually not dealing with this specific question. In fact, Chalke admits that, minus these passages that he discounts as not applying, there is very little stated in Scripture on this issue.  So, as good theologian, he turns to church history to highlight the churches changing attitude on a number of fronts, from Galileo to Copernicus, from women in ministry to the church’s stand against slavery, as a possible way forward. But, in the end, it must be asked, has he provided a robust theological argument for faithful same sex relationships?  His own conclusions is that “A key challenge the Church faces—which often gets unrecognized—is that the Bible does not provide the final answer to a whole number of issues to do with inclusion with which Christians have subsequently wrestled” (italics added).7  My hope for a strong Biblical answer to this hard question was sadly not found.

This problem that Chalke’s article brings up is one that Grenz and Olson fail to address.  What does one do with issues that are not even remotely addressed in the Bible?  How does one make their way forward with sticky issues that have no clear mandate in Scripture?  Grenz and Olson’s instructions are clear for the many issues that find a basis in the pages of the Bible (i.e. women, slaves, justice).  But for important issues in our modern culture that is causing such pain and division, and for missionaries venturing out and facing new issues never dreamed of by modern, western theologians—let alone Jews in Jesus’ day—how does one proceed?  Clearly theology is far from a finished task.  As Chalke rightly states: “The process of understanding the character and will of Yahweh—as revealed through Jesus—is the continuing task of every generation.”8

John W.

1 Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson. Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996) Kindle.

2 Ibid. 322.

3 Ibid. 401.

4 Steve Chalke. A Matter of Integrity: The Church, Sexuality, Inclusion and an Open Conversation (Self published, 2013) Kindle.

5 Ibid. 131.

6 Ibid. 126.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid. 210.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

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