Theology Thursday - Thinking for Yourself

In this excerpt from his systematic theology text,1 Millard Erickson explains some lessons for today, in light of the contemporary theological scene. He challenges the reader to go beyond a narrow set of pre-packaged doctrines; to think independently and responsibly.

A second lesson that we may learn from our survey of the present-day theological scene is that a degree of eclecticism is both possible and desirable. This is not to suggest the incorporation of ideas from a wide variety of perspectives that presuppose mutually exclusive bases. Rather, it is to note that today issues are generally being treated on a less strongly ideological basis. As a result, distinctive systems are not as readily produced. We need to keep our doctrinal formulations flexible enough to recognize and utilize valid insights from positions with which in general we disagree. While we are to systematize or integrate the biblical data, we ought not do so from too narrow a basis.

A third lesson to be derived from the present situation is the importance of maintaining a degree of independence in one’s approach to doing theology. There is a tendency to simply adopt a theological giant’s treatment of a particular doctrine. But the result of unreserved commitment to another person’s system of thought is that one becomes a disciple in the worst sense of that term, merely repeating what has been learned from the master. Creative and independent thinking ceases. But the fact that there are no undisputed superstars, or at least very few of them, should spur us to being both critical of the teaching of anyone whom we read or hear and willing to modify it at any point where we think we can improve on it.

Notes

1 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 69-70.  

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josh p's picture

Kind of an interesting quote. There is a huge draw to adopt a monolithic system of theology in my opinion. Years ago it was Scofieldian dispensationalism. These days it’s reformed theology. It takes a lot of discipline to force one’s self to really evaluate the Biblical support for a given position.
Then there are those who are theological contrarians, the mavericks always searching for a point of disagreement. It takes just as much discipline to focus on the gospel and not allow other issues to sidetrack fellowship. Those issues may be significant enough to modify fellowship but there should at least be an acknowledgement that a gospel believing and practicing person is our brother or sister.

His point about superstars is also interesting. That is the real problem with the Christian celebrity culture that has developed IMO. It was the same for the “big men” IFB churches. People find their favorite guy and their brain turns off. This was true to a degree of myself with John MacArthur as a newish believer. Then when I started to come to some other conclusions I was accused of being prideful by a friend for disagreeing with someone of his learning. In reality it takes a lot of humility to change one’s theology because you have to admit you were wrong and we have all been there. SI has certainly challenged my beliefs at times and caused me to reevaluate what the Bible has to say on a given issue. Thanks for posting this Tyler.

Bert Perry's picture

With Josh, I've got to agree that one of the nastiest features of a lot of fundagelical churches is more or less a monolithic adherence to all of the doctrines of the head pastor, and it tends to produce a lot of really sloppy thinking, and not inconsequentially a fair amount of strife when people are understandably not convinced.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Erickson wrote this in 1998. I wonder if he'd still agree that we don't have evangelical "big men" anymore, in the sense of a towering theological figure like Carl Henry. What has certainly changed is the celebrity aspect of Christian leadership, which is not at all the same thing as a towering theological figure.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Ed Vasicek's picture

Good comments, everyone.  Wonderfully relevant quotation. And great read -- Tyler, thanks for posting.

Tyler R wrote:

Erickson wrote this in 1998. I wonder if he'd still agree that we don't have evangelical "big men" anymore, in the sense of a towering theological figure like Carl Henry. What has certainly changed is the celebrity aspect of Christian leadership, which is not at all the same thing as a towering theological figure.

I don't know that Carl Henry was that towering of a theological figure.  I personally do not think any theologians have garnered more respect (on the conservative side in my lifetime) than D.A. Carson and Wayne Grudem.  Although I don't see eye to eye with him on everything, I think D.A. Carson is perhaps the greatest theologian/scholar of my lifetime (even though my theology resembles more closely Charles Ryrie, another great).

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

ScottS's picture

Learning from others is great and laudable, but since people are fallible, doing one's independent homework is also indispensable.

My whole paradigm shift to my position on atonement was because (1) I could see truths in both the limited and unlimited position that seemed (a) in conflict, yet (b) still each true; so I felt people were missing something in the thought process on atonement when they were wholesale taking either of the two major positions. Then (2), because I independently combed the Bible for the solution to the truth conflicts, that provided a means for (what I believe) God making clear how the atonement's payment for sin had to tie directly to anyone being resurrected from the dead (believer or unbeliever). Then finally (4), my later historical studies revealed how there were believers both ancient and modern that made this same connection with various levels of clarity.

So basically my theology on atonement developed:

  1. By reading theology, seeing the modern theological conundrum and being in a position of indecision myself
  2. By independently reading the Bible apart from a specific theological bias on the conflicting topic, trying to find the solution 
  3. By reading historical theology, seeing if there was any confirmation for my belief in others having recognized the same solution

Anytime one has doubts on their theological position, they should be open to exploring for solutions (and maybe that exploration may reinforce the doubted belief, but maybe it will supplant it, and if so, hopefully with some more biblical belief).

Thanks for the quote!

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

josh p's picture

Ed, I agree that Carson is pretty special. When was the last time you heard someone (even another theologian) say, “Man, Carson is way off on this one!” People of course disagree with him but they seem to do so pretty hastily.

When I think of the celebrity culture of Christianity I am thinking of the more popular level guys. I don’t think the average man or woman in the pew is reading much Carson. Instead they are reading people regurgitating him. It would be interesting to know what most people’s first impulse is when they have a theological quandary: Ask their own pastor or search their favorite celebrity pastor’s website. In a sense this shift in evangelicalism is a paradigmatic one since it reflects a theological consumerism that outsources the role of the local church in Christian education. Maybe this is not a new problem but it sure stands out now. The unfortunate result is of course a tendency to diminish the theological preparedness of the small church pastor which only reinforces the need/desire to search elsewhere.

T Howard's picture

josh p wrote:
It would be interesting to know what most people’s first impulse is when they have a theological quandary: Ask their own pastor or search their favorite celebrity pastor’s website. In a sense this shift in evangelicalism is a paradigmatic one since it reflects a theological consumerism that outsources the role of the local church in Christian education. Maybe this is not a new problem but it sure stands out now. The unfortunate result is of course a tendency to diminish the theological preparedness of the small church pastor which only reinforces the need/desire to search elsewhere.

Josh, I don't see people going to other sources for their theological quandary as an issue. Let's be honest... compared to just 25 years ago we have access to so many good theological resources worldwide at the click of a mouse. This is such a boon for personal theology inquiry and learning. That being said, I actually think it keeps the small church pastor on his toes. He realizes that when he has members who search things out, he can't just phone it in on Sunday morning.

A pastor friend of mine did not have a formal theological education when he assumed the senior pastorate of a small church. However, there were several church members who did and who would challenge him (in a good way) about certain things he taught or doctrines he said he held. This prompted him to begin his formal theological education. He is now working on his M.Div.

All good.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Josh wrote:

When I think of the celebrity culture of Christianity I am thinking of the more popular level guys. I don’t think the average man or woman in the pew is reading much Carson. Instead they are reading people regurgitating him. 

Josh, I think many of the popular level authors of which you speak DON'T read Carson. Some popular authors might not even know who he is!   Look at this link from CBD to make the point: https://www.christianbook.com/page/bestselling-christian-resources/bests...|1000816

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

On the topic of "thinking outside the box," I'm reading Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God right now, and I've ordered his Theology of Hope via inter-library loan to read when I'm finished. 

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

josh p's picture

Tyler, I think we both have the perspective we should have given our respective roles in the local church. As a pastor you should desire to be challenged biblically and encourage people to listen to other pastors. As a “man in the pew” I should respect and encourage my pastor. I certainly rejoice in the study tools available (I’m reading several theology books right now!) but I’m talking more about the tendency of believers to choose a surrogate internet pastor. I know people who rarely make it to church but won’t miss their favorite radio preacher even one day a week.

Bruce Rettig's picture

Ed,

Clicked on the CBD link.

Wow!

Point made.

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

TylerR's picture

I was given a excellent set of "pre-packaged" doctrines at Seminary, from a fundamental, Baptist, dispensational perspective. Here's what I refined since I've graduated:

  • I now believe the New Covenant is for both Israel and the Church. I don't believe it's exclusively for Israel.
  • I de-emphasize the dispensations in favor of the Biblical covenants. I never speak of dispensationalism. I believe in Ryrie's sine qua non, but that's about it. 
  • I believe in open communion, with the Supper being for anyone who is part of the New Covenant and trying to live a holy life for God. I no longer hold to close communion. 
  • I believe there is more continuity between the Old and New Covenants than some dispensationalists are willing to admit. 
  • I believe some dispensationalists try too hard to be dispensationalists.
  • I'm open to see some form of "already" in Christ's kingdom, while preserving the fact that it hasn't been established yet
  • I don't believe Paul was arguing against the Old Covenant in Galatians. I think he was arguing against the perverted form of it which was common in the Jewish culture at that time. 
  • I don't believe "new evangelicals" are the enemy. I think theological revisionists are the enemy, which is what fundamentalists used to believe. 

This doesn't mean I don't appreciate the foundation I got at Seminary. I do! It's just that people need to be willing think for themselves, and sometimes that means that (gasp) you might disagree with other people. I know people who toe the theological party line they received 30 years ago, and not one thing has changed. Don't know how they do that.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

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