Observers of contemporary evangelicalism report that the Church is becoming characterized by a disregard for the importance of theology and truth. David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, writes: "I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy." He adds that "the anti-theological mood that now grips the evangelical world is changing its internal configuration, its effectiveness and its relation to the past. It is severing the link to historical, Protestant orthodoxy” (Wells, pp. 4, 96).
Os Guinness, well-known evangelical writer, concurs with Wells saying that "evangelicalism has no future if this condition is not remedied. Evangelicalism can only remain evangelical if it is passionately serious about truth and theology” (Wells, book jacket).
What are the effects of not taking theology seriously? Historically, how important was theology and sound doctrine to the early church? Are there aspects of our particular heritage that make us vulnerable to this anti-theological mood?
Because the effects of the downplaying of theology have become so familiar to us, they are easy to miss. However, several can be noted: an emphasis on subjective feelings or experience rather than objective truth; a tendency toward self-centered rather than God-centered worship; a lack of appreciation for church history and the ancient creeds; an emphasis on pragmatism as the basis for church work; an anti-intellectual attitude and even an openness to mysticism. Ultimately, as Os Guinness contends, a disregard for truth and theology may result in the loss of the evangelical faith altogether
A situation, which has developed in some Seattle area churches, illustrates what can happen when theology isn't taken seriously. A large Oneness Pentecostal church dissolved in the mid eighties. Its displaced members began to attend various Trinitarian Pentecostal churches. These churches gladly accepted them into membership, despite their continued commitment to Oneness theology (a doctrinal position which rejects the Trinity and was condemned as heretical in the 2nd century). This unthinkable situation could only come about in a climate where experience is primary, doctrine is becoming unimportant, and the concept of heresy, meaningless.
In contrast to today's downplaying of theology, the Apostles took great care to lay a doctrinal foundation and charged the church with preserving it, defending it and transmitting it intact to succeeding generations. Paul instructs Timothy to "preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2-3). (See also Jude 3; 2 Tim. 1:13-14, Titus 1:9, 1 Tim 6:3, Gal 1:8,9 and Heb. 2:1). And it is clear that the apostles were not advocating "bare credal orthodoxy alone" but saw belief and practice as inextricably related to each other” (Wells, p.103).
In time, the early Church systematized the teachings of the Bible into creeds (such as the Apostles', Athanasian and Nicene Creeds) as a defense against the heresies that began to test the Church during its early history. Harold O.J. Brown, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, explains that "Creeds played a prominent part in the daily worship and life of early Christians. To a degree that is hard for twentieth-century people to grasp, the early church believed that it was absolutely vital to know and accept some very specific statements about the nature and attributes of God and his Son Jesus Christ. It was so important that all Christians were required to repeat them frequently, to learn them by heart” (Brown, p. 21).
This emphasis on the basic truths of Scripture, or what is called "orthodoxy," was re-affirmed during the Reformation era. J.I. Packer, in a definition of "orthodoxy" writes that: "Seventeenth-century Protestant theologians, especially conservative Lutherans, stressed the importance of orthodoxy...Liberal Protestantism naturally regards any quest for orthodoxy as misguided and deadening” (Elwell, p. 808). This observation is rather ironic in light of the suspicion of "orthodoxy" so common in the evangelical world today.
Far from dismissing doctrine as uninteresting or unnecessary, then, the early church and the Reformers insisted upon a careful understanding of and adherence to biblical truth as expressed in doctrinal form. Too often, today, we are satisfied with expressing our faith in rather vague, subjective terms while evidencing a disinterest in "doctrine." Brown comments that "the modern dichotomy between faith as trust and faith as acceptance of specific doctrines...would have been incomprehensible to the early Christians, who could trust Christ in the midst of persecution precisely because they were persuaded that certain very specific things about him are true” (Brown, p. 21).
Many factors, both cultural and religious, have contributed to the current lack of concern for sound theology: a rejection of absolutes, an emphasis on subjective experience, relativism and so on. Pietism, a movement originating in the late seventeenth century, also played a part. This renewal movement made some positive contributions to the church but in its later forms it also served to de-emphasize the importance of doctrine. Brown writes: "In its early stages, Pietism was a movement intended to give conviction and fervor to existing Protestant communities... At first it opposed the deadness of 'dead orthodoxy,' while retaining the orthodoxy. Later, it came increasingly to oppose, if not orthodoxy itself, at least the attitude of concern for right doctrine out of which orthodox theology grows” (Brown, p. 364).
Brown further explains that "...because [the early Pietists] did not quarrel about doctrine, their conduct led others to think that doctrine is less important than orthodoxy has always claimed. By making religion increasingly individualistic and by being relatively unconcerned about doctrine, the Pietists helped to make the old distinction between orthodoxy and heresy seem artificial and irrelevant to those who came after them...” (Brown, p. 389).
One can understand how a tendency to make religion individualistic and subjective and to avoid debate about doctrine can distract from an appropriate focus on truth and theology. Luther's words to Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will serve as a needed corrective to such a tendency. Luther chided Erasmus for his disdain for "assertions": "In a word, what you say comes to this: that you do not think it matters a scrap what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the world is at peace. . . . Observe now, my good Erasmus, where that cautious, peaceloving theology leads us!” (Luther, pp. 69, 84).
In a society desperately in need of truth, the Church cannot afford to lose a conspicuous concern for sound doctrine. It is essential that we preserve and vigorously defend the truth of Scripture. Only then will the Church be faithful to her calling. Only then can we offer an effective remedy to the human dilemma in a world full of counterfeit solutions.
Written by Greta Olsoe and Deborah Olsoe Lunde
Brown, Harold O.J., (1984). Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present. Doubleday and Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York.
Elwell, Walter A., (1984). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids , Michigan.
Harrison, Everett F. (Ed.), (1960). Baker's Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Horton, Michael S., (1991). Made in America: The shaping of modern evangelicalism. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will Revel: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Wells, D.F., (1993). No Place for Truth: Or whatever happened to evangelical theology?, Eerdman's: Grand Rapids.
DOCTRINE: "Doctrine is the teaching of Scripture on theological themes... In current discussions, doctrine is sometimes used in contrast to spiritual life. However, an antithetical use here is unfortunate, for these two elements are complementary. When Paul speaks of 'sound (healthy) doctrine'... he seems to affirm that true doctrine is life-giving” (Harrison, Everett F. (ed.), p.171).
HERESY: "...A deliberate denial of revealed truth coupled with the acceptance of error. The creeds were considered to contain the standard of truth and correct belief... (Elwell, Walter A., p. 508). "In Christian usage, the term 'heresy' refers to a false doctrine, i.e. one that is simply not true and that is, in addition, so important that those who believe it, whom the church calls heretics, must be considered to have abandoned the faith” (Brown, p.1).
ORTHODOXY: "...Meaning right belief, as opposed to heresy or heterodoxy...The word expresses the idea that certain statements accurately embody the revealed Truth content of Christianity and are therefore... normative for the universal church. This idea is rooted in the NT insistence that the gospel has a specific factual and theological content...” (Elwell, p.808). "... Derived from two Greek words meaning 'right' and 'honor.' Orthodox faith and orthodox doctrines are those that honor God rightly, something that ought to be desirable and good” (Brown, p. 1).
THEOLOGY: "Strictly, theology is that which is thought and said concerning God. True theology is thus given by the Bible itself as the revelation of God in human terms” (Harrison, Everett, F., p. 518).