If we are to get the message out, we had better get it right.

Theology does not seem to be necessary to many believers because they associate it with the abstract speculations of an academic elite far removed from their situation. This is unfortunate, because in actual fact it is the proper activity of the whole people of God reflecting on their faith, and it is of the utmost practical significance. Christianity is a missionary religion, and if we are going to get the message out, we had better get it right!

The apostles often remind us that the church needs mature minds. We need to grasp the central vision of the Good News, and communicate it in a relevant and coherent way to those both inside and outside the kingdom. We have not only to describe the theology of the biblical witnesses, but also to explain what the truths they conveyed might mean for our generation. For this task God has given the Spirit to be the teacher of the people of God, and to bestow gifts of knowledge and discernment to those charged with the care of the flock of God.

There are three obvious functions that good theology can perform. First, it edifies the church, which is founded on and lives by the Word of God. The church must be constantly reminded of its truth basis in the inscripturated Word. The function of theology is to keep the church’s memory fresh and to rouse it from the lethargy of forgetfulness with respect to important features of God’s revelation. The true church must be apostolic, rooted in the soil of the biblical witness.

Second, theology is summoned to preserve the truth, because the church is always in danger of losing it. In this world, where evil powers are abroad, the truth is never safe, and we are charged with guarding the gospel (2 Tim. 1:14). One thing that worried Paul was the possibility that Satan might deceive the church by his cunning and lead it astray from a pure devotion to Christ (2 Cor. 11:13). Vigilance is required because we stand in constant danger of twisting or losing the truth of God. We dare not lower our guard or relax our watchfulness.

Third, theology is the art of communicating the gospel in all its richness. Karl Barth once wrote that for him the best apologetics was always a good theology. If we would just display the beauty of God and the gospel, and show it for what it is—the pearl of greatest price—hungry souls would be attracted to it. Biblical answers are relevant to contemporary questions; the work of theology is to show how they are.

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But how is good theology achieved and what is its method? It helps to think of theology as a form of translation in which we are conveying the original message given in the idiom of an ancient day and deposited in the Scriptures, and translating it into the more familiar language and idiom of our own time and place. There are two things translation is not: (1) It is not a mindless repeating of the original message without regard for the explanation that may be needed to understand it. (2) It is not a transforming of the gospel to make it fit contemporary presuppositions. Theological translation involves fidelity to the original message and text of Scripture, and creativity in the face of the contemporary hearers and their context.

Theology is in essence a bipolar activity that strives to integrate the biblical text and the modern context so that the revealed message may be understood by people who hear it. It is a dialectic that requires a faithful stewardship toward the Word of God on the one hand, and a cultural sensitivity to modern hearers on the other. Theology must be conservative and contemporary; it must guard the gospel while communicating it intelligibly in the contemporary world. It can never be finished for two reasons. For one thing, we can never exhaust the Word of God so that there is never anything else to learn; for another, the contemporary contexts are legion and constantly changing. There is always more truth to break forth out of God’s Word.

It is impossible for one theological system ever to gain the supremacy and then never lose it. That is as it should be. And lest we think we are left to our own resources in this bipolar activity, let us recall that the Spirit has been given precisely to enable us to penetrate the truth and apply it to fresh situations (John 16:12–15).

What do we find when we apply this insight about method to contemporary theology? Basically, we see the familiar polarization between liberal theology with too much human creativity and too little theological fidelity, and conservative theology with a defensive fidelity and a timid approach to translation. In the case of liberal theology, we have John Cobb’s admission in his reply to Pannenberg’s essay about his Christology (published in Cobb’s Theology in Process) that what is crucial for Pannenberg is what was originally revealed, while for him contemporary perceptions are also of decisive importance. One need not try to be slavishly faithful to the New Testament, Cobb believes, when it does not seem appropriate. Liberal theology then breaks the theological dialectic and ceases trying to be consistently faithful to the Scriptures.

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In the case of our conservative and evangelical theology, the problem lies on the other side of the bipolar ellipse. For understandable historical reasons, we tend to adopt a defensive posture in relation to the biblical pole, and are quite anxious about developing confident, positive visions of God’s truth for our generation. We are more comfortable with producing theologies that answer the errors of liberal work than in venturing forth with relevant proposals that would cause people to take notice.

It may be that the conservative evangelical movement has been called chiefly and precisely to raise a voice in this century against easy accommodation to the culture, and is not expected to do much more. Even a voice against error can have a positive effect if it saves the church from apostasy. But ought we to settle for such a limited role? Do we not have a vision of the grace of God that is both congruent with the biblical witnesses and culturally dynamic and compelling today? Surely we do, and surely the initiative in theology need not stay in the liberal circles, but can pass once again to classical Protestantism.

How can we make progress? We can go back to the psalmist: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (119:18). God has not stopped illumining the Bible’s significance for every person and situation. Guarding the gospel is not all we are called to do. We are also called to give a good account of it before a needy world. We are not called to advance our sectarian empires, or to pull down the strongholds of our fellow Christians’ witness. We are called to stand together, pleading with God for the insights that will enable us to communicate his precious Word effectively to a lost world.

May the new generation of evangelical leaders who are swelling the ranks of biblical Christianity in North America be faithful enough and creative enough to defy the proud obstacles of our age which resist the knowledge of God, and bring every thought captive to obey Christ. Then we shall see a mature and effective Christian church in the year 2000, which will be strong enough to complete the Great Commission and usher in the king.

CLARK H. PINNOCKDr. Pinnock is professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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