Directions for Writing Your Own Christian Theology

Part One: Scripture
Note: You can easily adjust these directions to write Jewish or Muslim theology as well.

A Christian theology consists of a coherent and well-reasoned account of one’s faith. Having spent many years studying the Christian theology of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), I would opt for his works as containing the best Christian theology ever written. I mean this, not in the sense that I necessarily agree with him more than with some other theologians, but in light of his ability to lay out complicated questions with great clarity, to take the objections to his position seriously, and to answer difficult questions with succinctness.

This succinctness is partly attributable to the fact that he wrote in Latin. It usually takes quite a few more words in English to translate a Latin phrase. For example, “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” means “The church is always in need of reform”. Eight for four. “Corruptio optimi pessima” means “The corruption of the best things is the worst kind of corruption”. Wow! Twelve for three. Aquinas asks “What is love” and answers: “Velle bonum alterius”. “Willing the good of the other”. Six for three. And why did God create the world? “Bonum est diffusivum sui”. “It is the nature of goodness to pour itself out”. Ten for four.

But it’s not simply the word count. There’s a special kind of genius, shared by Aristotle and Aquinas but few others, that penetrates to the heart of a question, understanding it and expressing it in a paucity of words that nonetheless contains volumes of meaning. My exams consist of questions requiring short essay answers. The best students manage to say everything that needs saying in a few sentences. Students with a less clear understanding of what is at issue often ramble on for pages without ever quite hitting the nail on the head.

OK. So we have an idea of what a Christian theology should be. But where do we start? A decision about methodology stands at the entrance to every theology. And since the Bible is the primary source for Christian theology, the primary methodological issue translates into the question: how do you read the Bible?

Deciding how you will approach the Bible is your most important methodological decision before setting out to write a Christian theology. In the landscape of religion in America today, we notice that Jews are most challenged by assimilation, Muslims by modernization, and Christians by polarization. And nothing polarizes Christians more than the way they read the Bible.

There are essentially two approaches here, though with many variations. Imagine a spectrum. Draw a line in the middle. That line represents the dogma of biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is true in everything it says. On the right side of that line live Evangelical and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity. Bible colleges require belief in this dogma for all faculty; students, of course, are expected to believe it as well. Not too long ago, a professor was fired from Wheaton College because he converted to Roman Catholicism, a denomination that does not teach the dogma of biblical inerrancy.

Roman Catholicism thus lives on the left side of that line you have drawn. The other churches we have always called “mainline” live left of that line as well. Today it’s hard to talk about a “mainline church” but we’ll use the term for now. Further to the left we find individual Christians, as well as Christian communities, who self identify as liberal.

There’s no unanimity in the way these terms are used. Garrett Seminary in Evanston calls itself an Evangelical Seminary but is decidedly liberal. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is the most liberal brand of Lutheranism in this country. In these cases, the word evangelical is being used in the more traditional sense of relating to the gospel (evangelium in Latin). But, for the most part, organizations (churches or schools) self-identifying as Evangelical live on the right side of the dogma of biblical inerrancy.

Fundamentalists often dislike calling themselves by that term and prefer to be seen as Evangelical Christians. But there are differences. The old joke is that Evangelicals are Fundamentalists who know how to read. But the truth is that an Evangelical Christian may believe that the days of creation were periods of time of uncertain duration but most Fundamentalists would claim that Genesis is talking about 24-hour days. Of course, this presents a problem, since the sun isn’t created until the fourth day. But Fundamentalists always have explanations for problems like that.

Evangelical seminaries usually teach their students to read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek. But in a discussion with a Fundamentalist preacher, when I suggested the importance of looking at the original Greek word that I felt he was poorly interpreting, he said that this kind of intellectualism was not necessary and that the King James Bible was good enough for him.

We sometimes find the term “non- denominational” used by those on the right side of biblical inerrancy. There are, of course, denominations (like Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans) who are Evangelical or Fundamentalist. But there is a definite trend for Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to eschew denominational identity. TED, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, lives right down the road from me. It is a major Evangelical seminary and it is non-denominational.

Some liberal churches, like the Lakestreet Church in Evanston (led for many years by Bob Thompson) and Tom Dickelman’s Community Church that meets in the Lake Forest College Chapel, describe themselves as post-denominational. Again, you won’t find this usage completely consistent but it is generally applicable. This term also reflects a hesitancy to be boxed in by denominational identity. So both terms, non-denominational and post-denominational, make the same point but one term is preferred by folks on the right side of the divide and one by those on the left.

How can we characterize this important distinction? People on the right side tend to see the Bible as giving us God’s words plural), albeit written down by human beings, who are acting more like secretaries than authors. People on the left side tend to see the Bible as giving us God’s word (singular), i.e. a message to be incorporated into our lives in words written by people who were very much human.

Those who believe the dogma of biblical inerrancy claim that the Bible is true in everything it says. Those who reject this dogma claim that the Bible is true in its basic directions for living with God and our neighbor. There are, for example, some 30,000 verses admonishing us to take care of the poor.

But those on the left of biblical inerrancy consider the Bible to be rife with errors on many topics bearing no relation to how we live our lives. My freshman high school religion teacher, a wise Jesuit named Father Hindelang, told us that if we wanted to know how old the earth was, we should ask the scientists. That question has nothing to do with the Bible. The Bible tells us that everything that exists comes from one God, a God who is good. But it has nothing to say about how that all happened.

Understanding the Bible as God’s words or God’s word makes a great deal of difference. In many churches, the reading from scripture is followed by the affirmation, “This is the Word of the Lord”. And the people say: “Thanks be to God.” If the reader said: “These are the Words of the Lord”, something quite different would be meant. For mainline and liberal Christians, the biblical text begins a conversation in which many other elements must be factored in. And the biblical word does not have a final veto power at the end of the conversation.

For Christians on the right side of biblical inerrancy, a biblical text is often used to end a conversation. After all, if God said it, how can it be improved? I find many problems with this approach. First of all, I think it is idolatry. A false god doesn’t have to be an idol; it can just as well be an ideology. Idolatry means having more than one Absolute. But the ideology of believing in an inerrant text creates a second Absolute, and, therefore, a second god. But one of these two Absolutes must be an idol. The true God can’t be the idol, so it must be the false god created by the dogma of biblical inerrancy.

Furthermore, if the Bible gives us God’s inerrant words, then human thought is of no importance. If you believe that we have learned nothing in the last two thousand years about slavery or the role of women, about marriage or certain forms of same-sex behavior that can correct some of the biblical authors’ misconceptions, then why have we bothered to think? We’re stuck in time from the point that the biblical text was written.

And why was another gospel written after Mark’s gospel? The author of Matthew quotes about 95% of Mark, making changes where he finds them helpful or necessary. But if God dictated the words in Mark, why did God need to dictate a second book? Why couldn’t God get it right the first time?

And what do we do with the contradictions? In Mark 1:11, the heavenly voice announces at the time of Jesus’s immersion in the Jordan, “You are my beloved son”. But in Matthew 3:17, the heavenly voice proclaims “This is my beloved son.” Which version is right.

In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus tells us that there can be no divorce and remarriage. Period. But Matthew 5:32 adds an exception: porneia, a situation where one’s wife is sleeping around. Which did Jesus say? And did Jesus claim that it was “the poor” who are blessed (Luke 6:20) or the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3)? Or did Jesus give these teachings on divorce and the poor on two different occasions, apparently forgetting the second time what he said the first time?

Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians are quick to assert that there are no contradictions in the Bible, just “apparent” contradictions. But that doesn’t get God off the hook. The admission of “apparent” contradictions indicates a god without very good communication skills. If I’m reading over an essay I wrote and I see apparent contradictions, I correct them. If there are no real contradictions in the Bible, just apparent ones, then why didn’t God do a better job of proof reading his text?

Of course, it’s quite clear to any fair-minded reader of the Bible that it fairly teems with contradictions. The so-called “explanations” of the “apparent” contradictions sound silly and unconvincing to all but those who have already made up their minds and have no interest in the facts.

Christians on the left side of biblical inerrancy have no need for all these strained “explanations” of contradictions in the text. They read a biblical text using what I call the “3 P’s”. They read the text as partial, provisional, and perspectival. No book can say everything. John 20:30 tells its readers: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

And in some verses added to the gospel at a later time in its evolution, John 21:24 asserts that this gospel is based on the writings and the testimony of “the disciple” who was identified a few verses earlier as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. John 21:20. And the last verse of the amended gospel, John 21:25, states (with noticeable hyperbole) : “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”.

Why did Matthew change what the heavenly voice said? Because he didn’t want people to think that Jesus became God’s son when the heavenly voice spoke. This later becomes a heresy called “Adoptionism”. In Matthew, the words are addressed to the crowd. Matthew’s Jesus already knows that he is God’s son.

And why the addition to the divorce teaching? I think Matthew felt that the version in Mark was simply too harsh. Surely a husband whose wife is sleeping with everyone in the village doesn’t have to stay married to her!

And why change “the poor” to “the poor in spirit”? There is every indication that the author of Matthew’s gospel was a teacher. He wanted to make it clear that Jesus was talking about a poverty than meant more than how much money you have in the bank. In biblical language, “the poor” often refers to people who are humble, just as “the rich” often implies arrogance and a sense of self-sufficiency.

Of course, all of this means that the author of Matthew’s gospel certainly did not regard Mark’s gospel as God’s words. How in that case would he have dared to change them. As Dominic Crossan once observed, once a second gospel was written, biblical inerrancy was dead in the water. All but the dullest minds can see that three updates after Mark cannot be reconciled with believing that Mark’s gospel was inerrant.

So all human words are provisional, including the biblical words. They need to be updated to retain their basic truth. It is sometimes only by changing the words that the truth can remain unchanged. Our founding fathers wanted “liberty and justice for all” but it has taken us a long time to understand that that “all” includes slaves, women, and gays and lesbians too.

The best Paul or any New Testament author can do with a socially entrenched system of slavery is to encourage Christians to be kind to their slaves, although Paul’s personal letter to Philemon may hint at a more radical view of slavery’s inherent immorality. It took a long period cultural evolution to realize that slavery is a contradiction of Jesus’s teaching of a common table where we all sit down as brothers and sisters, because we are equal and have no one on earth who is our father. “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)

These words effectively ended patriarchy, a system in which male leaders have all the power. And yet, the largest denomination of Christians, the Roman Catholic Church, is still carrying on the unholy crusade of keeping all power in the hands of male leaders. Catholics even call ordained priests, many of them young men barely out of adolescence, “Father”. And the Roman Catholic Church, along with some other denominations, still refuses ordination to women, totally ignoring the fact that Jesus included women in his circle of disciples. Or do we really think that Mary Magdalene and the other women who proved to be the most loyal of his disciples, standing at his cross while his male disciples were hiding, spent all their time with Jesus just making sandwiches and coffee?

And the third P is in many ways the most deserving of our attention. One of my best philosophy teachers once said that we have no option of not having biases but we do have the option of being aware of them. The biblical authors are rife with biases, men over women, Christians over Jews, believing Christians over all other human beings, the truth Jesus taught negating all other truth claims, the path of salvation recognized by Christians replacing any other path to healing and wholeness.

In reading a biblical text, we must always be alert for these biases. The patriarchal mind-set is the most obvious. In Matthew 13:55-56, Jesus returns to his hometown and some of the local people ask: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” The sisters apparently deserve neither naming nor numbering.

In Luke 8:1-2 we are told that when Jesus went through cities and villages announcing the good news of God’s reign, his twelve special male disciples were with him, “as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” It’s interesting to note that all the male disciples were apparently healthy in body and spirit but all the women are portrayed as both physically and spiritually defective, needing to be “fixed” before they could be of any use.

In Matthew 14:21 we read that some five thousand men shared in the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, “not counting the women and children”. The women and children weren’t counted because in that world they didn’t count. They were of no account.

Becoming aware of the various perspectives of the biblical authors is of primary importance in understanding a biblical text. The German scholars who pioneered this work spoke of the Sitz im Leben (the life-world) of a text. Texts must be read in their contexts; otherwise, they develop legs and walk around on their own, often doing a great deal of damage.

Another aspect of the perspectival character of the text is the awareness of the genre employed by the biblical author. Paul, for example, like most people in his time, didn’t know much about dialogue. The rhetorical genre he regularly employed in his letters was the diatribe. It’s a genre of writing in which you generalize about your opponents and reduce their position to its most unacceptable form. It’s important to know, when reading one of Paul’s letters, that this is a genre he commonly employs.

Your morning newspaper has at least ten genres: front-page reporting, movie reviews, obituaries, sports, comics, letters to the editor etc. You picked up a knowledge of those genres just by reading newspapers. You would be surprised if you found a personal opinion as a front-page headline. Front-page reporting should be objective. A letter to the editor, on the other hand, can be subjective.

One of the greatest obstacles to understanding a biblical text for those who believe in biblical inerrancy is that they are genre unsophisticated (one could also say “genre ignorant” but that isn’t kind). They tend to read the whole Bible as though it were front-page reporting.

They don’t understand myth and metaphor, midrash and mashal. So when they read about the Garden of Eden, they wonder where it was. This would be like musing about the location of Jack’s beanstalk or the house of the Seven Dwarves.

And when they read about Mary’s giving birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin, they think of it as the reporting of a gynecological fact, instead of as a biblical trope sometimes used for the birth of important children. Sarah, the mother of Isaac, was post-menopausal. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was infertile.

And this is just the beginning. Employing the historical-critical method in reading the biblical texts demands extensive study. Believing the Bible to contain God’s Words relieves one of the need for all that study. So the way you decide to read the Bible is of extreme importance for the theology you want to develop. Being on one side or the other of biblical inerrancy produces two entirely different kinds of theology, two entirely different kinds of Christianity.

By Ron Miller: May 1, 2011

2 thoughts on “Directions for Writing Your Own Christian Theology”

  1. Mary Hexter Moneypenny

    I would love to see some of Ron’s exam questions, encapsulating what he thought was most important to get across to students, as well as what answers garnered his highest grades…I wonder if any of us could have demonstrated that we “get it” enough to be awarded his highest marks.

  2. This was the last thought Ron ever wrote. We’ll never know how many sections he intended for this, as he labeled this one merely “Part One.” This was emailed to his son moments before he left his office at Lake Forest College for O’Hare airport on the morning of 5/1/11. Ron passed away three mornings later in New York.

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