Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The cornerstone of systematic theology

If knowing God is the aim of theology, then what is the right basis for knowing God? What is the cornerstone of our knowledge?

Some people, in casual conversations, say that their theologies are based on logic. I am very fond of logic but have to mention that it is not a foundation. It is a process and tool for building on an existing foundation, but it must have a foundation on which to build. It cannot give you the premises you use as your first starting point. The only way to get good results with logic is to already have the truth at the outset. It can lead you to good conclusions only if you start with good premises. Logic can sometimes detect false premises, but it cannot give you the right premises to begin with.

Some say their theologies are based on the Scriptures. They are a large and rich tapestry. Some say the Scriptures are too large, too rich, too diverse to ever come to a consensus about their main message. If this is the case, then each will take different premises from the Scriptures, apply logic to those premises, and reach different conclusions. Given that the Scriptures are large and rich, how do we determine the right premises with which to begin? One person starts with a premise that all must be interpreted in terms of God's absolute and unshared sovereignty; another starts with a premise that all must be related to God's absolute and unrivalled love; another starts with a premise that continuing revelation is the key to opening the Scriptures; examples could be multiplied. How do we determine the correct starting point?

Here's an interesting question: do the Scriptures themselves ever say what their own central point is? It happens that they do, in several places. Christ's answer on the point is recorded for us:
You search the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
According to Christ, Scripture is primarily about himself. The point of knowing, studying, and searching the Scriptures is not to know the Scriptures or to build our own systems; it is that, through them, we know Christ. Christ is the central point of Scripture and is our way of knowing God. If Christ is not the foundation of our theology, is not the touchstone by which we interpret Scriptures, our theologies have missed the mark.

Is Scripture as a whole really about Christ?
I've heard some object that all Scripture cannot really be about Christ. What about the Hebrew Bible? First, the Jewish sages of the Talmud openly discussed that the Scriptures were understood rightly with reference to the Messiah. Messiah and the Messianic age were the interpretive key to understanding Scripture. This is no innovation of the followers of Jesus, but the ancient Jewish understanding.

Here is another instance of Jesus explaining the true meaning of the Scriptures:
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." (Luke 24:45-47)
Jesus' summary of what was written before centers on himself. Have you heard it said that people must have their minds opened by God to understand the Scriptures? This passage that teaches that peoples' minds must be opened and that, when Christ opened their minds, he explained that the Scriptures were about Himself. Understanding the Scriptures means understanding that they are about Christ.

At the risk of being tedious, here are some further points for those who dispute that Scripture is rightly understood with Christ as the touchstone:
  • The New Testament reviews how the Temple sacrifices and all of the ceremonial law were shadows that pointed ahead to Christ
  • Paul reviews how the law humbles us before God and drives us to Christ
  • The writers of the New Testament reviewed how the prophets foretold Christ
  • The New Testament begins with four documents witnessing to the life of Christ
  • The book of Acts retells the apostles spreading the message of Christ
  • The evangelistic speeches of the Apostles, as recorded in Acts, focus on Christ's death and resurrection
  • The majority of the letters in the New Testament focus explicitly on Christ and how to live new lives in Christ
  • Revelation tells of Christ and his church, with the climax of history being the final return of Christ.
Now none of this is to say that every Scripture must or should speak explicitly or implicitly about Christ. There is no objection to Paul asking for his cloak or discussing how to treat a runaway slave, no objection to wisdom literature focusing on godly living, or a message addressed directly to a select group of people saying something specific to their situation. It is just to say that all of these are secondary instead of primary, things built on the foundation and not the foundation itself.

The apostles' witness
Peter explained the centrality of Christ, quoting the prophets of old:
See, I lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. (2 Peter 2:6)
Paul explained about Christ's role in our teachings as follows:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (I Cor 3:10-11)
Some would say that Christ is not a proposition and therefore cannot be the start of a systematic theology. Christ overturns this, our missing the point, when he says of himself, "I am the truth". It seems foolish to us, but Paul continues,
Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this world, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. (I Cor 3:18-19)
Paul was so confident that Christ is the cornerstone of Christian teaching that he went so far as to say,
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (I Cor 2:2)
and again
My message and preaching to you were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (I Cor 2:4-5)
And what, does he say, is God's wisdom and God's power? Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Cor 1:22). Here is where Paul teaches us that God's "foolishness" is wiser than our wisdom, and God's "weakness" is stronger than our strength, that God chose what is weak and despised and foolish to overturn and humble the things of this world that puff themselves up (I Cor 1:20-31).

The apostle John, in Eastern Orthodox circles, is called Saint John the Theologian because he writes much of theology. He approaches some of the topics traditionally studied in systematic theology in his first letter:
"And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life." (I John 5:11)
Some would hesitate to call this a systematic theology because the critical point is not an abstract principle but is Christ himself. I would say the abstractions are false abstractions, things separated from Christ which cannot rightly be separated from Christ, and that the point is Christ himself.

What is the foundation of your theology?
"I resolved to know nothing but _______________."
If someone brought a given Scripture to you, how would you interpret it? What is your interpretive touchstone? How do you fill in the blank?

If Christ has the rightful place as the foundation of our knowledge of God, the starting point on which we build, this means that a great many systematic theologies have missed the mark. Many systematic theologies have been launched on the assumption that the apostles left us no systematic theology. I submit to you that they did, and we have not recognized it. To be sure they did not give us a neat outline, but they did cover the material. A well-organized outline does not make a true systematic theology. We were looking for abstractions instead of Christ. They gave us Christ.

To be continued in showing the systematic theology that the apostles handed down to us in Scripture, based on Christ as the cornerstone.


Kevin Knox said...

I submit to you that they did, and we have not recognized it.

Enjoying. I look forward to your development.

Reading this causes me a good sort of pain. In 1989 I moved across the country to be a part of a church whose leader used many of the same phrases you have listed here. He actively worked to bring everything back to Christ in theology, practice and prayer. I packed up everything and moved across the country to be a part of what he was doing. He turned out to be a fraud, though it took me almost a decade to figure that out.

I did not realize how much I exorcised these phrases from my vocabulary after I left. Hearing them spoken again, in such a solid context, is very encouraging.

Thank you.

Weekend Fisher said...

It is so sad to me when something like that happens. Did he cheat the church or something? Or was he using Jesus to turn a buck? You can skip that if you'd rather.

Kevin Knox said...

He was in it for reputation. He did get what money he could, but only for the sake of building his ministry. Think Bill Clinton more than some shyster. His eye was always on his legacy.

He built his ministry on a combination of preaching Christ alone and tremendous charisma. His ego turns off most people, but a number of us were willing to overlook that. His weakness was a need for affirmation. I watched him plant and kill 8 churches in my ten years. Each church lived about 6 years under him. They all followed the same arc.

A group of sincere brothers and sisters reads some of his books and calls for his help. He gives them Christ alone, and they flourish. Soon they have a problem, and he lets it fester until it cannot be solved. Then he tries to fix it, but actually destroys some dear saints instead. (He felt that someone was trying to take over the church, so they had to be stopped.) After a few cycles of this, there's really no one left and the church either dies or has to start again from ground 0.

Did I mention that his legacy was destined to be, "the first minister to bring nothing but Christ, and to plant churches that would not die, and never to defend his work"? His books were all on these 3 topics.

He was a charming man. It's too bad so many people needed to pay for his vision.

Kim from Hiraeth said...

Hi Weekend Fisher,

Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a note.

I enjoyed reading your post, and I hope it doesn't surprise you that I do believe that Christ is the ONLY cornerstone of systematic theology.

Acts 8 "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus."

Philip began with one scripture and from that starting point, he told the good news about Jesus.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus Himself started with Moses and the Prophets:

Luke 24

Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

You mentioned the further passage in Luke 24:45-47.

I happen to agree with you on nearly all points, however, I do not think that systematic theology and having Christ as the cornerstone are mutually exclusive, do you?

You spoke of a "first starting point." I submit to you that there are a myriad of starting points and because Christ is the foundation, we can start at any point in scripture.

1 Corinthians 3: For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Christ is the foundation stone; systematic theology simply helps us
start with one scripture and "tell the good news of Jesus Christ."

Weekend Fisher said...

I think that having Christ as the cornerstone and foundation means that you will end up with a certain type of systematic theology. I have no problem with systematic theology per se, just with systematic theologies which are not built on Christ. There are systematic theologies which are not built on Christ; I'd say they're common. The fact that Christ is the true foundation of a true theology does not prevent all kinds of people from starting at all kinds of places and ending up with all kinds of systematic theologies, not all of them founded on Christ. If someone's foundation is actually Christ, you'd think that they would want to begin there and build from there, not begin somewhere else which tends to, in effect, build on some other foundation. I think most theologians, asked point blank whether to build on Christ, would have to say yes. But when looking at the systems produced, many of them do not in fact have Christ as their foundation.

Take care & God bless

Martin LaBar said...

Good post.

I found it through the Christian Carnival.