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How to Make Ethical Decisions in a Complex World

September 28, 2016
How to Make Ethical Decisions in a Complex World

By Dr. Patrick T. Smith,
Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy

A well-known and well-worn joke shared regularly when I was in grade school goes: "How do you clean Dracula's teeth?" The response: "Very carefully." When I think about the question, "How do we make ethical decisions in a complex world?" the response of the childhood joke somehow seems appropriate.

To be sure, there are many moral questions whose answers are very clear. For instance, we must not torture innocent people just for the fun of it. The immorality of this activity ought to be beyond dispute. Yet, we face many pressing ethical questions in our contemporary context that are difficult, and defy simple and unreflective responses. Unfortunately, we live in an age where many important ethical discussions are not thought through carefully and too often are reduced to clichés. When this happens in the Christian community, we are woefully unprepared to help ourselves and equip others to make good ethical decisions in a complex world.

Many orthodox Christians correctly affirm the Bible, first and foremost, as the inspired narrative of God’s loving plan of redemption for His creation. Does the Bible also help with ethical decision-making? Certainly. Divine revelation through Scripture has a primary role in Christian ethics. We must, however, take care not to misunderstand the nature of Scripture, nor to misuse the Bible in ethical decision-making. We must not think of the Bible as simply a book of moral precepts to be mined for making ethical decisions. If we do so, I think we miss its point.

Further, this approach increases the likelihood that we will err or misuse the Bible in ethics. The moral prescriptions of the Bible are authoritative for the Christian community when they are properly interpreted and appropriately applied in our contemporary setting.

Even with the high view of Scripture held by most evangelical Christians, many matters are not nearly so straightforward that one can find a verse or passage containing direct instruction on what to do in a given situation. Take, for example, the medical treatment of terminally ill or imminently dying patients. On one hand, Christian theology recognizes that human life is valuable and a tremendous good of which we are to be faithful stewards. On the other hand, it also recognizes that our human existence this side of the new heavens and new earth is not the highest good and that there is a time to die. Hence, it is often complicated to determine on purely biblical or theological grounds exactly when someone should forego various kinds of therapeutic treatment at the end of life.

Further, “there are no direct discussions about war, genetic engineering, environmental pollution” and a number of other contemporary issues. So there is a deliberative process that must take place to discern how prescriptive biblical principles may be applied in complex situations. This is why the discipline of hermeneutics is so important in all facets of Christian discipleship. Regardless, Scripture has a prime place in Christian ethical reflection.

Ethics is complex for several reasons. First, we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world (Gen. 3). As Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. notes, “sin distorts our character, a central feature of our very humanity. Sin corrupts powerful human capacities—thought, emotion, speech and act—so that they become centers of attack on others or of defection or neglect.” This certainly in no small way affects how we live and the ethical decisions we make.

A second factor is that “we sometimes encounter competing ethical claims” (more on this below). Third, our individual decisions are often affected by a “plurality of publics.” In other words, a number of people or groups have a legitimate stake in ethical decisions. To whom is one primarily responsible in making decisions? Last, the empirical facts may not be easy to discern or ascertain. It is widely recognized that in applied ethics many moral judgments hinge on non-moral facts.

To illustrate this last point, consider the ethics of organ transplantation. Of course, many take it to be morally unacceptable to harvest the vital organs of people who are not yet dead for the sake of saving others’ lives. Since, “successful transplantation requires that organs be removed from cadavers shortly after death to avoid organ damage due to loss of oxygen, there has been keen interest in knowing precisely when people are dead so that organs can be removed.” And determining this is an empirical matter once the theoretical criteria have been established. Therefore, the empirical facts are crucial in assessing the morality of organ donation in a particular case.

In the midst of such complexity, the real, perhaps inevitable, possibility exists that ethical dilemmas will arise. An ethical dilemma can be understood as “a conflict between two or more value- or virtue-driven interests.” In such circumstances, it is important to have some tools that can assist us in making sound ethical decisions. The following model represents just one such framework.

1. Gather the facts
In many cases, issues are resolved by becoming clear on the details of thecae. We need to ask, “What is the context of the ethical deliberation?” Given that we make ethical decisions in specific circumstances, if we don’t have the facts, moral assessment is not possible.

2. Determine the ethical issues
Sometimes we face situations that present personal and professional difficulty, but may not constitute an ethical dilemma. Here, it is important to identify as specifically as possible what are the competing moral interests that stand in need of resolution.

3. Determine what virtues and principles have a bearing on the case
If the conflict we are addressing actually is an ethical dilemma, then, of course, there are competing values or principles that underlie it. After identifying these principles, the task is to determine which ought to be afforded more weight in the context where unavoidable moral conflicts emerge. This approach, sometimes known as graded absolutism or ethical hierarchialism, sees moral rules and principles as prima facie. This simply means that at first glance or all things being equal, these rules carry moral obligations in most situations, but maybe overridden by other ethical considerations insinuations where there are genuine moral dilemmas. “Clearly,” for a Christian ethic “biblical principles are to be weighted more heavily.”

4. List the alternatives
A very important part of this model is to ask: “What are the courses of action that may be taken?” When this is done, we’ll see that some decisions eliminate themselves. We should always strive to be as creative as possible to get around a moral dilemma. The more alternatives that can be generated, the better likelihood we have of discovering an option that minimizes the potential negative consequences of our decisions.

5. Compare the alternatives with the virtues and principles employed
It may well be the case that most, if not all but one or two alternatives, can be ruled out when we apply the relevant principles and values to them. “In order to make a clear decision, [we] must weight one or more virtues/values more heavily than others.” One worry with the graded absolutist approach or ethical hierarchialism is that some may simply “use the notion of prima facie rules as a smokescreen for picking and choosing which rules [they] wish to adhere to in any situation.” In order to avoid this scenario, certain conditions must be met when overriding a prima facie rule: (1) Justifiable public reasons must be offered in favor of the overriding principle; (2) It should be done as a last resort; (3) “We should seek the action that least violates the principle being overridden;” and (4) The overridden principle should leave “moral traces,” which is an awareness of the moral weight concerning the decision being made.

6.  Consider the consequences
If one has not been able to completely rule out possible alternatives when applying the rules, then the positive and negative consequences of the decision should be determined and assessed as well as can be done.

7. Make a decision consistent with a Christian ethic
We must avoid the “paralysis of analysis” and make a decision. Sometimes this means choosing the best available alternative even if not ideal. Whatever decision is to be made, it should be as consistent with a Christian ethic as humanly possible given the unique features of the scenario.

To consider how these steps can be applied in a concrete situation, take the example of a man hiding Jews during World War II. The facts are that soldiers are tracking down people of Jewish background and unjustifiably executing them. The man is asked in a very forthright manner if he knows their whereabouts. That individual has the opportunity to protect human lives by concealing the location of Jews on his property. The ethical issue here is that there is a moral conflict between telling the truth and saving a life when it is in one’s power and ability to do so.

In determining what virtues and principles bear on this case, it is important to reflect on the biblical teaching that God is a God of truth. He expects His people to be truthful and lying lips are an abomination to God (Proverbs 12:22).Also, God places a high value on human life and expects us to do the same (Matthew 22:37-39). When we have an opportunity to save the life of another or to prevent evil from coming upon others, we have a responsibility to do so.

What are the alternatives for a person in this situation? To tell the truth or deceive in order to protect human life, it would seem. (For the example employed here to illustrate how the criteria may be used, let’s assume no other alternatives are available.) When comparing the alternatives,
it seems that there is an unavoidable conflict. The question now becomes, “Which of the moral principles, both deeply ingrained in Christian ethics, ought to be afforded more weight?”

When one considers the consequences, it is almost certain that human life will be lost unjustifiably by revealing thelocation of the Jews. Some may decide that while lying is not ideal, the principle of saving a life through some form of deception is morally permissible, given the situation. However, these same individuals should also stress that it is morally imperative not to make this a common practice for the sake of mere convenience. Deception should only be chosen when there is an unavoidable conflict with grave consequences in the balance.

It is important to know that ethical decision-making cannot be reduced simply to identifying and applying rules and principles. A crucial part of Christian ethics is about determining what we ought to do in this way. Applying guidelines, while important, is only part of a proper Christian response. Just as important is reflection on, and development of, the kind of persons we are to be. Christians must strike a balance between what some have labeled decisionist ethics and virtue ethics. The former category provides answers to the question, “What ought I to do?” whereas the latter addresses the question, “What kind of person should I be?” Most certainly, character counts.

Moreover, ethics is a profoundly communal exercise. We are created as social beings. Certain shared moral responsibilities and moral bonds are moral requisites of genuine community. It is difficult, indeed, to overstate ourinterdependence with one another. Therefore, we most often do not make ethical decisions in isolation. Nor do we grow in character apart from the community that helps form and shape it. Kyle Fedler describes these points nicely when he writes:

“[T]he development of Christian character is absolutely central to the Christian life. To be a Christian is to be shaped by the values, commitments, and worldview of the community of faith to such a degree that one begins to internalize certain virtues and dispositions….While belief and action are vital to being a Christian, one must also allow oneself to be shaped and molded into a particular kind of person, to develop a set of virtues that reflect what we as Christians claim to believe about the world.”

This is why being a member of a local church body is so important for followers of Christ. In the context of the Christian community, we can see the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of God’s people. Making ethical decisions in a complex world is not merely a deliberative process, though it is certainly no less. We make ethical decisions in the midst of complexity in a holistic way that includes with our mental deliberation the appropriate kind of character that is developed by reflecting on God’s Word and His world amidst the community of believers (Romans 12:1-2).


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Jesus and Discipleship: The View from the Great Commission

September 19, 2016
Jesus and Discipleship: The View from the Great Commission

By Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament

"Go" Most people have heard, correctly, that the only imperative in the passage is the command to lead the nations to be Christ’s disciples. The participle that comes before the verb is rightly translated “go” (not “going”). It is a participle of attendant circumstance, which means that it is not stressed as much as the imperative but still carries an imperatival force. It is to be understood as action that must be done if the command given in the main verb (“make disciples”) is to be accomplished. We cannot accomplish the task that Jesus has given us if we stay on the mountain, or stay in Jerusalem, or stay wherever we might find ourselves. If everyone in the world is to learn of the one who has authority over them and who has given commandments for them to keep, then the Church must be intentional about bringing that message to all people everywhere.

"Make all the nations/peoples my disciples" This is the clause that has the one imperative in the passage. This is the main point. Going is a necessary precursor to the accomplishing of this task and, as we shall see, baptizing and teaching are specific parts of how this task is to be carried out. What does it mean to make someone a disciple of Christ? Despite some of what has gone on from time to time in the history of the Christian Church, Christ does not condone or warrant the use of physical, political or other kinds of force. This is not a justification for the Crusades or forcible conversions. No one becomes a disciple against his or her own will. Christ calls people to follow him, and only those who freely decide to follow him are his disciples.

To be a disciple is to be one who is committed to learning from, and obeying, the teachings and example of one’s master/teacher. Since Christ was committed to proclaiming the need for repentance and the good news of the Kingdom of God, and sent the 12 and then the 72 out to do the same (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1), his disciples understand that they must be committed to that task as well. Since he was known for ministering to those who were marginalized and rejected by mainstream society, his disciples recognize that they also must be committed to an inclusive approach to ministry. The disciple learns the teachings of the master and passes them on to others.

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes he rejection of all self-serving and self-promoting behavior and the rejection of self-justifying interpretations of Scripture in favor of behavior and interpretations that reflect ruthless honesty about our own moral and spiritual failures (especially our failure to respect our proper obligations to God and others). We are to unequivocally place God’s honor and agenda above our own. For followers of Christ, this also means following Christ by taking up the cross each day. The cross is at the center of the message of each of the four Gospels, and it was at the center of Christ’s teaching and mission. Those who follow Christ may expect to be rejected and persecuted just as he was. To follow Christ is to be prepared to suffer the loss of all things for the sake of gaining Christ and the life that he offers.

"Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," This clause points to a key initial step in making disciples. Christian baptism is associated with faith in Christ (Acts 8:12-13; 16:15; 18:8;19:4). To be baptized in someone’s name is to “become the possession of and come under the dedicated protection of the one whose name they bear.” The baptism of an individual in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit suggests that this person is being brought into intimate relationship with the Trinity; now belongs to, and stands under the protection of, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and lives in intimate relationship with them.

Christian discipleship, according to Jesus, is about living out a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is about living out the relationship established by God’s covenant (the new covenant in Christ’s blood) which introduces the believer into the eschatological salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Christ. The Father has sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, and the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s work to our lives and communicates Christ’s presence to us.

"Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you." This passage is filled with uses of the adjective “all”: “all authority,” “all nations/peoples,” “all have commanded,” “always” (literally, “all the days…”). The relationships between the first three uses of the adjective are particularly important to note. Jesus does not inform his readers that he has been given all authority in heaven and earth just so that they will obey him when he tells them what to do, but so that they will understand why it is that all nations/peoples should obey everything he has commanded.

The key logical relationship is not between “I have all authority” and “You should go and make disciples” but between “I have all authority” and “Everyone everywhere should obey everything I have commanded (so go and work toward that end).” Jesus emphasized his universal authority so that his disciples would understand why he should be universally obeyed. To be a disciple of Christ is to understand who he really is, the Lord of all creation, and to live one’s life out with a passion for other people to come to know him and to recognize his absolute, loving and gracious lordship as well.

The obedience that Jesus describes here is referred toby the Apostle Paul as “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 6:26). Christian obedience will never be perfect this side of the resurrection, but the life of discipleship is a life marked by both continual learning and continual practice of the teachings of Christ (cf. Matt. 7:21-27).

"I will certainly always be with you, to the very end of the age." Jesus, “God with us” (cf. Matt.1:23), reminds us that none of what he calls for in discipleship can be accomplished with our own resources. It is only because Christ is with us—because he goes with us into the world—that we can possibly dare to step out to follow the discipleship agenda that he set for us. Christ’s presence and power are the keys to Christian discipleship. We are not disciples of some ancient teacher who has merely left us his teachings. We are disciples of the living Lord who walks with us and who teaches, nurtures, restores and empowers us as we go into the world in his name and his power.

Jesus probably had Daniel 7:13-14 in mind when he gave the Great Commission. There, we are told that the Son of Man was given authority—an everlasting dominion—so that all nations would serve and worship him. Christ is the Son of Man, the Lord of all. He has been given universal authority which ought to be universally recognized and radically respected (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). What would our lives look like if that truth were to truly penetrate to the very core of our being?

Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament, Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies, and Director of the Th.M. Program in Biblical Studies. He also served for 12 years as a missionary with Greater Europe Mission in Portugal, teaching at two theological schools. He maintains close ties to Portugal, serving as a translator/reviser of the Portuguese Bible Society’s contemporary translation of the Bible. He received an M.Div. from Denver Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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True Hope You Can Take to the Bank

September 12, 2016
True Hope You Can Take to the Bank

By Dr. Edward Keazirian,
Assistant Professor of Greek and Director of the Greek Language Program

In recent years, our nation has experienced more than a seven-fold increase in bank failures. In such uncertain economic conditions, one might be advised to seek a more heartening metaphor than a bank to express the security of our hope. We might consider Ben Franklin's proverbial “death and taxes” as an alternative to the banks for expressing dependability, certainty and permanence. However, in a culture that confuses true hope with wishful thinking, optimism, positivism and other attitudes about the future, even the certainty of death and taxes falls short of the security of the hope we see proclaimed in Scripture. Death and taxes have have their temporal limits, but true hope trumps even death and taxes because true hope is eternal.

The best working definition of biblical hope that I have ever heard is simply “faith extended into the future.” Like our faith, our hope is grounded in the unchanging and absolutely trustworthy character of God. And like our faith, our hope is based on three expressions of God’s faithfulness: God’s word, God’s action and God’s promises.

Abraham epitomizes faith because he believed and obeyed God when he had nothing more to go on than the word of God. When God said, “Go,” Abraham trusted and went. In the same way, Abraham also stands as the archetype of hope. Because he was fully convinced that God could do what he promised, Abraham never wavered, but in hope–against all the evidence, humanly speaking–he believed he would become the father of many nations, just as God had promised. His faith fueled his hope, so that what he knew of God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness in the present became his assurance for the future as well. Abraham lived with the expectancy–the hope–that he would inherit all that God had promised him. Although he did not see his hope completely fulfilled in his lifetime, we are told that he saw and welcomed those promises from afar. Even death did not quell his hope, for he was convinced that God could raise the dead if necessary in order to fulfill his promises.

Long before Jesus ever addressed the doubts of Thomas, Abraham was blessed and honored for believing without having seen. For Abraham, hope is vindicated not on the basis of what he has seen, but because of what God is. True hope is rooted in God. This is a foundational theme of hope throughout Israel’s scripture, but it is especially evident in the raw expressions of the soul in Job and the Psalms.

Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long (Ps. 25:5).

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD (Ps. 31: 24).

I trust in God’s unfailing love forever and ever. I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good (Ps. 52:8-9).

Whether the psalmist’s hope is in the LORD or in his name, the meaning is the same. His hope is rooted in the being, character and reputation of God, for the name embraces the very essence of the person. Therefore, true hope–that sense of confidence and expectation that good things will happen in the future–depends on the reality that God is sovereign, in control of all that happens and thus able to direct all circumstances and events for the accomplishment of his purposes; that God is good and loving , certain to purpose only what is good and loving for all creation; that God is compassionate and merciful, sensitive to and patient with the limitations of His children in understanding, accepting and submitting to His purposes; that God is righteous and just, committed to vindicating the innocent and punishing the guilty, righting the wrongs that people have suffered, and restoring what was lost or stolen in the unfolding of His purposes from beginning to end; that God is trustworthy, faithful to keep His word and to fulfill His promises; and that God is true, consistent in word and deed with all the perfections of His nature.

Therefore, the godless—those who forget God—have no hope. Just as reeds depend on the water of the marsh for life, so hope must be rooted in God to survive (Job 8:13). When we are cut off from God, whether by our own initiative or God’s, all hope is gone (Job 27:8), for hope not only resides in God, but also derives from God.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge (Ps. 62:5-7). Because God protects and delivers, we can rest securely in Him, regardless of our circumstances. Whether our physical security, our emotional stability or our public reputation is threatened, God provides refuge and stability. We must not forget this. So much of our experience in life seems contrary to what we would expect of a sovereign, loving God that we are tempted to doubt God, to see ourselves as victims of evil, injustice and ignorance rather than beloved children of a sovereign God. Indeed the evil one is there at every turn in a crisis to sow seeds of doubt and to ask “has God really said…?”

Job exemplifies this struggle for all believers. As strong as his hope is—stronger even than death itself —he nevertheless experiences the silence of God in the crisis. And it seems as though he were uprooted and cut off from all hope, no better off than the wicked and cut off by the very God whose character he trusts more than his own life.

Though He slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13:15)…. He has blocked my way so I cannot pass; He has shrouded my paths in darkness. He has stripped me of my honor and removed the crown from my head. He tears me down on every side till I am gone; He uproots my hope like a tree. (Job 19:8-10)

However, because God is the guarantor of true hope, Job’s hope does not fail. Despite all the contrary circumstances swirling around him, Job can still affirm, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27).

Though true hope is focused on the future, it sustains us in the present. We know that no matter what happens, our hope will endure. It will transcend death and it will ultimately prove to be redemptive simply because it is guaranteed by the God who fulfilled His promises to Abraham—and indeed to all who believe—through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that, dear friend, is a hope even better than anything you can take to the bank. As we eagerly await in hope the ultimate consummation of all that God has initiated in word, act and promise, let these affirmations of the psalmist be our own:

We wait in hope for the LORD; He is our help and our shield (Ps. 33:20).

But, as for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more (Ps. 71:14).

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word
I put my hope. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption (Ps. 130:5-7).

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—
the LORD, who remains faithful forever (Ps. 146:5-6).

DR. EDWARD KEAZIRIAN, Assistant Professor of Greek and Director of the Greek Language Program, joined the Gordon-Conwell faculty in 1995. He is involved in multiple ministries through his local church, the First Baptist Church of Danvers, MA, including SundaySchool, the worship team, church boards and spiritual mentoring. He is also currently a member of Balikatan, the U.S. support organization for InterVarsity ChristianFellowship in the Philippines, and has participated in several short-term missions trips there and in Alaska. Dr. Keazirian is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and Phi Alpha Chi honor society at Gordon-Conwell. His forthcoming book ison peace and peacemaking. He is an avid fan of Boston sport teams.

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The Role of Theology in the Life of the Church

September 07, 2016
The Role of Theology in the Life of the Church

By Dr. John Jefferson Davis
Chair of the Division of Christian Thought; Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics

"What is the role of theology in the life of the church?" Some busy pastors in American churches today might be tempted to answer, "Honestly, not much. I haven't thought much about 'theology' since I left seminary. I'm too busy preparing sermons, attending committee meetings and dealing with conflicts and problems in my church to give much attention to theology."

However, I would like to suggest that for even such busy pastors, a more accurate image of the role of theology in the life of the parish would not be that of a neglected textbook on the pastor’s shelf, but rather that of a back bone in a healthy body. The backbones in our bodies, like the foundations and electrical and plumbing systems in our homes, are usually taken for granted–until something goes wrong. Like a healthy backbone in a healthy human body, sound biblical theology can provide support, shape and stability to the Body of Christ.

In the early church, the development of Christian theology was shaped by four important functions it served in the life of the church: the catechetical, the apologetical, the polemical and the homiletical. All four of these functions of theology in the early church are still vital for the ministry of the church today. In its catechetical function, theological instruction prepared converts for church membership and participation in the Eucharist, instructing them in basic Christian doctrine. This process of catechesis is often referred to as “discipleship” or “discipling” today. Converts were instructed in the “rule of faith,” a summary of Christian doctrine that formed the basis of the later Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Such early summaries of Christian belief are found in the New Testament itself, e.g., Paul’s summary of the kerygma in I Cor. 15:3-5: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve…”

Augustine’s Enchiridion, or On Faith, Hope, and Love (c.421), was prepared as such a catechetical manual, following the outline of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the two “Great Commandments.” In the preface to his 1560 French edition of the Institutes, John Calvin stated that it was his intention to provide a summary of Christian doctrine that would help Christians in their reading of the Old and New Testaments. Today, new converts and new church members still need to be catechized and instructed in the fundamentals of the faith. Books like John Stott’s Basic Christianity or R.C. Sproul’s Essential Truths of the Christian Faith can assist the pastor in this historic task.

The apologetic task of theology in the early church was to defend and explain the faith to outsiders (cf. I Pet. 3:15, “Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that is in you”). Early Christian apologists such as Aristides, Diognetus and Tertullian responded to misunderstandings and accusations from the pagans, and Justin Martyr responded to criticisms from the Jews of his day. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa contra Gentiles defended the Christian faith in the face of Muslim criticisms. In today’s religious climate of religious pluralism and the “new atheism,” the need for informed Christian apologetics remains as relevant as ever. Several generations of Christians have been helped by classics such as C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Miracles. Tim Keller’s The Reason for God provides cogent responses to many of the criticisms of the faith in our own day. In its polemical function, Christian theologians defended and expounded the biblical faith against heretical threats from within the church. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, in his massive Against Heresies (c. 185), defended the biblical faith against the threat of Gnosticism, which denied the goodness of the physical creation and placed the biblical story into an alien context of Gnostic cosmological speculation.

In the face of the Arian threat, Athanasius vigorously and tenaciously defended the full deity of Christ, and together with the Cappadocian fathers of the 4th century, laid the basic foundations of Christology and Trinitarian theology that have guided the church ever since. In the modern period, orthodox theologians have labored to preserve the historic Christian faith from the attacks of Enlightenment biblical criticism, deistic denials of miracles and Unitarian denials of the Trinity, original sin and substitutionary atonement.

More recently, revisionist readings of biblical sexual ethics, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, feminist criticisms of the “patriarchal” language of the Trinity and “Open Theism” have questioned or rejected historic orthodox belief. The Pauline admonitions to “watch your life and doctrine closely” (I Tim. 4:16), and for believers not to be “blown about by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14) but to grow mature in the faith, are just as relevant as ever. The fourth function of theology in the life of the early church was the homiletical one: assisting preachers and teachers in the exposition and teaching of Scripture (cf. I Tim. 4:13: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching”). The church leader is to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit. 1:9).

Knowledge of sound doctrine aids in preaching and teaching not only by the avoidance of heresy, but also by enabling the preacher to place the particular text in the larger context of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption and new creation. This was precisely what the Gnostics in the early church failed to do, wrenching the biblical texts out of their biblical contexts and placing them in the context of an alien system of thought.Heterodox religious movements today such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons can distort the biblical teachings in the same way. Sound teachers in the early church such as Irenaeus, and effective preachers today such as John Stott, John Piper, John MacArthur, Haddon Robinson, Timothy Keller, Gordon Hugenberger, Mark Dever and others have robust theologies that enable them to place the biblical text in its wider redemptive-historical context, and so preserve the distinctive Christian identity of the message.

In addition to these historically recognized functions of theology in the life of the church, a sound biblical theology can provide vitality, vision
and standards for assessment in the local congregation. Church history shows that a robust biblical theology can contribute to church growth and vitality. The opposite is also the case. Churches and denominations that tolerate doctrinal erosion tend to have tepid worship and declining memberships. During the decades between 1965 and 1999, for example, the PC(USA), the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church lost, respectively, 40 percent, 29 percent, 26 percent and 24 percent of their total memberships. Growing churches were generally those committed to an orthodox and biblical theology.

As the leader of the flock, the pastor is responsible for casting a vision for the church. The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation provides the theological framework and context for such a vision. Salvation itself is not only forgiveness of sins and hope of heaven in the future, but also an experience beginning now of entering into the life of the Triune God. Because of Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension to the right hand of the Father and sending of the Holy Spirit, we—as adopted sons and daughters in Christ—can begin to experience the love of Jesus’ Father for his beloved Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to its culmination and never-ending deepening in the presence ofGod in a gloriously beautiful New Creation (Rev. 21, 22). Such a theological vision can energize and unify a congregation, just as John F. Kennedy’s famous vision casting of May 1961,to a joint session of Congress—“A man on the moon by the end of this decade”— energized NASA and the nation for the Apollo space mission.

Finally, sound theology provides a standard for congregational assessment, a basis for asking and answering the question, “How are we doing as a church?” For example, the biblical doctrine of the church, that specifies worship, discipleship and mission as the three God-ordained purposes of the church, then provides the basis for asking questions such as “How well are we worshipping God?”“ Are we as a people growing deeper and more mature in our relationships with Christ and one another?” “How effective are we in reaching out to others—in service and proclamation?” “Are we growing as a church that is ‘deep, thick and different’—deep in our worship and knowledge of the Triune God, ‘thickly’ committed in love and service to one another and distinctive from the secular culture in our beliefs, lifestyle, values and hopes?” Are we growing both in our obedience to the ‘Great Commandments,’ and in our fulfillment of the Great Commission?”

And so it is that theology now, as in the New Testament and subsequent centuries of church history, can play a vital role in the life of a healthy church. As pastors, teachers and lay leaders, may we continue to “teach and admonish with all wisdom, so as to present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28), and so be able to say with the Apostle Paul at the end of our ministries, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (II Tim. 4:8), in the expectation of that crown of righteousness to be awarded by the Lord to his beloved church.

John Jefferson Davis, Ph.D. a member of the faculty at Gordon-Conwell since 1975, is professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, and serves as Chair of the Division of Christian Thought. His most recent book is "Worship and the Reality of God: An evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP Academic, 2010).

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