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Doctrinal Literacy

This entry is part 6 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

How do churches teach Christian doctrine thoroughly and cohesively? I suggest four ways, the first two of which I’ll deal with in this post.

First, a conservative Christian church needs a pulpit ministry that systematically teaches through Scripture. I am very thankful for those who have written extensively on expository preaching, or modeled it with their ministries. It is also gratifying to see a renewed emphasis on biblical theology, and the need to teach it from the pulpit. These are gratifying trends, and it is unlikely that church reform will begin anywhere but in churches committed to this kind of teaching. A systematic, ongoing teaching of texts in context is a certain way to teach the whole counsel of God. Good expository preaching will include a mixture of biblical, systematic and practical theology mixed into one meal. Topical sermons are valid forms of instruction, insofar as they are expository preaching with a multiplicity of texts.

A good pulpit ministry will include both positive and negative. It will explain what is good and right, and where necessary, expose theological and methodological error. No substitute exists for the consistent preaching of God’s Word.

Second, a conservative Christian church should encourage theological education among its members, beginning with its leaders. Theological education goes beyond the scope of a pulpit ministry, and seeks to catechize Christians in a broad understanding of Christian doctrine. This is never more needed than now, in our day of doctrinal minimalism.

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One sees the effects of poor theological education in a kind of volatility among church leaders. I have seen more than one young pastor abandon theological positions he has barely understood, and have been guilty of similar impulsiveness myself, at times. For example, it has become popular to abandon dispensationalism. One wonders, of those that do, how many had read someone like McClain before doing so? I am not an Arminian, but should I not have read someone like Roger Olson before repudiating Arminian views? Not thirty years ago, Calvinism was hardly popular, but today it has a healthy following. This is partly through the excellent pulpit ministries of some modern Calvinists, but it may also be partly because we Christians are influenced by what is popular.

My point is not to defend or attack any of these positions, nor to impugn the motives of any whose theological position changes. All of us change somewhere. I respect the man who changes theological traditions if he fully understands what he is leaving and what he is embracing. Nor is it to disparage genuine resurgences of neglected doctrines. My point is merely to show how fickle our theological convictions seem to have become of late. It does not seem to take what it used to to change a man from cessationism to continuationism, to convince a man of theonomic postmillennialism, to persuade a man of bus ministry or orchestras or whatever the case may be. Where true, this phenomenon resembles Paul’s description of immaturity in Ephesians 4:14.

This kind of theological volatility is partly remedied with sound theological education. The kind of theological education worth its name must ground a man in exegetical skills, views of biblical theology, exposure to various systematic theologies, an understanding of the historical development of doctrine, and even a grounding in dialectical and philosophical concerns. The pastor who is privileged to have had such an education must do his best to grow something similar in his church. Though the pulpit ministry will teach much of what is needed, it is almost certain that it cannot achieve the level of theological literacy needed by itself.

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To create a thorough and comprehensive understanding of Christian doctrine, the pulpit ministry will need to be supplemented with some kind of evening classes, adult Sunday School courses, or other formats where more specialised skills like hermeneutics, exegesis, biblical theology, systematic theology and historical theology can be taught. Whatever the format, its presence can do wonders for theological literacy in a church. A pastor would do well to harvest the burgeoning resources in print or online, and build something of a theological reference multi-media library, with recommended texts, lectures and sermons. Seminaries exist partly because, at some point, churches stopped doing this. This is not to say that a local church, particularly a newer, smaller one, will always have within itself the resources to do this. But in an era of doctrinal fast-food, every church should strive to be a place where a wholesome, comprehensive view of the Christian faith is taught.

This is important for another reason. The theologically literate are better able to judge the relative importance of doctrines to one another. Armed with such knowledge, they are able to judge how serious the differences are between themselves and other Christians, and how much collaboration is possible. The current tribalism in Western Christianity is a symptom of doctrinally illiterate Christians frantically trying to identify us and them in terms of associations, alliances, groups, denominations, colleges, conferences, and coalitions, instead of careful comparisons of doctrine and the implications thereof. Christian catholicity is greatly aided by theological literacy.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

2 Responses to Doctrinal Literacy

  1. No, you didn't need to read Olson before repudiating Arminianism, but I suppose it'd have been just fine if you did.

    I certainly have no quarrel with theological education in the church, and I'm no fan of theological volatility. But I didn't need to read Olson before I rejected Arminianism any more than I needed to read Calvin before I rejected paedobaptism or Finney before I rejected revivalism. You seem to be affirming a form of theological nativism—as if we need to embrace the particular views of whatever sect we happen to have been born into until we read its best texts. Sometimes, the Bible is plain enough. For example I wouldn't encourage kids from Mars Hill Bible Church to make sure they immerse themselves in Bell and McLaren and Pelagius before they abandon it.

  2. Ben,

    Your points are valid if applied to Christians across the board. In that section of my post, I was referring more to teachers and spiritual leaders. That is, a self-identified Arminian pastor ought to read Olson (or someone like him) before becoming one who repudiates Arminianism. A spiritual leader's shift in positions carries more weight, and has more consequences; therefore, he ought to properly understand what he leaves and what he embraces. Certainly, no one needs to immerse himself in error before leaving it. I don't see classical Arminianism in the same category of error as Pelagianism, so that's why I used Olson as an example. The point is simply that spiritual leaders ought not to be swept up in trends, but carefully understand the theological positions they reject and embrace. Very often, a reading of primary sources achieves that. You're right, it is not always necessary, but it is probably the best way.

    I could have been clearer, and your comment helps clear up a possible misunderstanding. Thank you.

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