Trends in Theology and Your Pastor
by Ed Vasicek
You cannot be a maturing Christian without getting into theology. You do not have to use $10,000 words, but you want to understand God and the things of God if the Spirit of God lives in you. And make no mistake about it, what you believe affects how you live and the choices you make.
Theology is the science of God and pretty much anything connected to the things of God. The word "theos" means "God" and "logy" means the "logic of or science of." When we study God Himself, we are studying "Theology Proper." Other aspects of God’s revelation include "Soteriology" (salvation) and "Eschatology" (end-time events) to name a few.
Although truth stays the same, our understanding of truth changes. This "change of understanding" can be positive or negative. If we abandon an accurate understanding of truth for an inaccurate one, such change is obviously negative. If, on the other hand, we hone our understanding toward accuracy, that would represent a positive change.
As Evangelical Christians, we profess that God’s truth is unchangeable, and that the only infallible source of truth is God’s Word, the Bible. We also agree that a Bible verse means primarily one thing (with the exception of prophecy which may have both a less literal and a more literal fulfillment), and that, whatever a verse means, it has always meant that. The true meaning of a verse does not change: our understanding of it either improves or declines.
Trends are always floating around the evangelical world, as well as among other forms of Christianity, some for the better, most (it seems) for the worse. Virtually anything and everything we believe is open for challenge and reevaluation, and perhaps this is good: truth will stand up to a fair and honest challenge. Unfortunately, in my view, some of these challenges are not fair, honest, or objective, but are motivated by an agenda other than getting to the original intent of the Bible’s human authors (and, since God inspired them, an agenda against God Himself). I am especially irritated when assumptions are treated as though they were established facts.
If these theological trends were encapsulated in seminaries and colleges, I would not need to bother with this article. But the truth is that theological trends trickle down to our churches. If you are active in the Kingdom of God, you may have already come across a few of them. If not, be patient: you will. So let me summarize and comment upon some of these trends.
One trend I think is positively great: the trend toward “Progressive Dispensationalism.” Although this term is a mouthful, it refers to a system of interpretation that recognizes that God will keep His promises to the literal nation of Israel. Unlike Replacement Theology (including the 16th century "Covenant Theology"), which says that the church replaces Israel, Progressive Dispensationalism says that the church is blessed through Israel, and that one day Israel will turn to Christ. Although the paradigm of Traditional Dispensationalism has been around since the 18th Century, Progressive Dispensationalism is distinct in that it recognizes that the church is anticipated in the Old Testament. It asserts that many Old Testament prophecies have a limited (less literal) fulfillment in the church while anticipating a more literal fulfillment in the coming Millennial Kingdom. This new twist upon Dispensationalism clears up a lot of interpretative headaches, includes the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2.
I label the other trends listed below as negative ones.
Negative trend one: The "New Perspective" on the apostle Paul. E. P. Sanders wrote a work over 25 years ago that asserts that our understanding of justification is based upon the "Lutheran captivity of Romans." According to the "New Perspective," Paul believed one enters the New Covenant by God’s grace through faith, but that one remains in the New Covenant by faithfulness to God’s commands and keeping the Law. Like other false systems of salvation, man and God cooperate for salvation. But Paul clearly teaches us that salvation is totally a work of God, and no part of it is of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Negative trend two: "Open Theism." This is the belief, advocated by Clark Pinnock and others, that God does not know what is going to happen before it does. He only knows what is real, and, since the future is not real right now, God does not know it. According to this view, God can project what is likely to happen, but our free will presents him with a constant wild card. Besides contradicting a vast array of Scripture, Open Theism advocates a weakened God who would prevent disasters if he knew they were coming. This god might be interesting, but he is not the Sovereign God of the Bible! Yet this view is gaining popularity.
The Bible teaches that God knows everything beforehand, down to the detail. Psalm 139:4 reads, "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD."
Negative trend three: "Rejection of Imputed Righteousness." Robert Gundry has led the charge against the idea that when we accept Christ, we are legally given Christ’s righteousness. Like the "New Perspective" on Paul, all of a sudden the Bible does not mean what we have taken it to mean these centuries. Although it is true that as we walk with the Lord, we become more righteous, it is not this righteousness that makes us right with God. Additionally, we do not grow into the righteousness of Christ: we have it now.
Salvation is a present possession, not merely a future hope.
The Word is clear: in Philippians 3:9, Paul declares how he gave up non-Messianic Judaism and accepted Christ so that He might, "be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith…" and 2 Corinthians 5:21, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The "Great Exchange" worked two ways: we gave Jesus our sin; He gave us His righteousness. That’s the heart of the Gospel.
Negative trend four: Politically correct theology. This covers many issues. All of a sudden the Bible no longer means what we thought it meant for centuries, whether we are talking about women pastors, homosexuality, the eternality of hell, the impossibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ, or a "gender neutral Bible." If we have any convictions at all, we are considered intolerant; we are only allowed to have preferences. If we speak out against error, we are guilty of judging (but it is okay for others to judge you as being judgmental…figure it out!).
Negative trend five: "Believers who are not born-again are still saved." Although it is true that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are saved, it is impossible to believe in a saving way without being born again. So promoting Christendom or religion is replacing the call for individuals to personally covenant with God. All of a sudden people who are religious but have not been born again are to be considered as brothers and sisters.
We need to recall what Jesus told Nicodemus, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). If an individual has not been resurrected to spiritual life, religion cannot save his soul. We need to reaffirm this most basic evangelical belief.
Negative trend six: "The Emerging Church" movement. The movement, lead by Brian McClaren advocates a "dumbed down" Christianity that is more about action and ignores important doctrines. Biblical literacy is not crucial, but instead, a "Christianity for the sake of Christianity" attitude prevails in McClaren’s works, in my opinion. Dangerous stuff.
Such challenges to sound doctrine are not new. They will certainly continue and intensify because many within the Bible-believing community are uncomfortable with the clear but sometimes offensive teaching of God’s Word. So, all of a sudden, God no longer means what He says. The temptation to rationalize God’s Word to make it more palatable to the current culture will nurture compromise after compromise.
Fortunately, we live a day when solid Christians have many resources. Some of these movements will fade into oblivion; others may plague us for decades. But, as a Christian, you need to be on the lookout because one thing is certain: false teachers are experts at making their errors seem good and reasonable. That is why you cannot merely rely on your instincts: we all need to learn to think critically. But to think critically, we must have a solid foundation based upon a knowledge of God’s Word.
Reprinted from the July 2005 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA