Theology

An Ancient Tool for Distinguishing Churches

Augustine of Hippo
Reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. The text appears here verbatim.

As a pastor, I am occasionally asked to explain the difference between two denominations, synods, religious organizations, or the like. Such requests are perhaps parallel to accountants and attorneys fielding the inevitable dinner-party query about a legal interpretation or investment option.

I tend to wince at these requests because they are never easy to address. Churches and denominations are finely layered, ever-changing works of art. It is not always easy to understand, let alone to articulate, the differences between religious groups.

But I have discovered a helpful tool by which to distinguish the foundational moorings of various Christian movements (with implications extending beyond Christendom). This measuring rod is provided to us by two fifth-century theologians who engaged in a classic debate which distinguishes the beliefs and practices of various Christian traditions to this day. Whether perceived or not, churches gravitate toward either the Augustinian pole, or toward the Pelagian pole, with most landing somewhere between these two opposing positions.

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A Plea for Theological Literacy

Reprinted with permission from Dan Miller’s book Spiritual Reflections. The text appears here verbatim.

I was born in Minnesota, and this great state has been my home for many years now. But I was raised near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I am not slow to acknowledge that growing up in one of the most history-rich regions in America has deeply influenced me.

An exceptional Junior High history teacher was pivotal in the nurture of my affections for history. But my interest was also fueled by repeated visits to the very sites I read about in the history books. These places were more to me than abstract concepts found in dry books. They were locations where I played and picnicked and listened on warm summer days to guides retell the fascinating stories of important people and key events from our nation’s past.

My family picnicked routinely on the banks of the Delaware River near where George Washington crossed to defeat the Hessians on that memorable Christmas night in 1776. I spent more than one summer afternoon running across the rolling fields of Valley Forge where General Washington’s troops lodged in crude log huts during the long winters of 1777-1778. I have toured Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. I have visited our nation’s capital, looked often through the crack in the Liberty Bell, and sensed the ghosts of Franklin and Jefferson as I stood in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed. I have visited the Old North Church, Betsy Ross’ house, and stood by the bed where Stonewall Jackson died in 1863. I have hiked through the fields of Gettysburg and stared in wonder at houses still scarred by bullets from the pivotal conflict waged there in July of 1863.

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The Foundations of the Fundamentals

Most fundamentalists are familiar with the “Five Fundamentals of the Faith” upon which early twentieth-century Fundamentalism was founded. The inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and His resurrection and physical return to earth are the absolute basics of an orthodox framework of Christian faith. What the last thirty years has revealed, however, is that these five fundamentals are not enough to safeguard orthodoxy by themselves, and are no longer sufficient as a test for orthodoxy.

A case in point is the issue of inspiration. Some of the most lethal attacks against the Scriptures in recent years have affirmed inspiration (and even inerrancy). At the same time, they have rejected the veracity and authority of Scripture (for example, see the recent book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship by Kenton Sparks; Baker, 2008).

The reason the historic five fundamentals are no longer a sufficient test for orthodoxy is the fact that they rest on a more basic metaphysical foundation that has been quietly undermined by philosophy. (In this essay, the term “foundation” has nothing to do with foundationalist epistemology.) Philosophers, and theologians who have been heavily influenced by philosophy, have ceded key aspects of the doctrine of God that seem to conflict with philosophy’s demands. Rather than keeping philosophy in its proper place as the handmaid of theology, some have allowed the servant to become master. In doing so, the foundation of our theology has been subtly undermined. If we do not take heed to the foundations of our beliefs, we will not know that the framework has been undermined until it is too late. We will be like front line soldiers resisting the visible enemy encamped across the field, while a stronger force tunnels underneath our lines preparing to attack from the rear.

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Interview with Rolland McCune on Systematic Theology

Note: This article has been cross-posted on Andy Naselli’s blog. It appears here verbatim.


Relatively few people agree with every single position taken in any comprehensive systematic theology, but it is valuable to consult a large number and wide variety of systematic theologies in order to understand how others correlate God’s revealed truth. For this (secondary) reason alone, a new multi-volume systematic theology by veteran seminary professor Rolland McCune is definitely worth adding to one’s ST collection.

About Rolland McCune

Rolland McCuneRolland McCune (b. 1934) is former president and current professor of systematic theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1981. He is the author of Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism.

Dr. McCune had a massive influence on me in college and beyond. In my review of Promise Unfulfilled (to which McCune kindly responded), I noted this:

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