Proclaiming A Cross-Centered Theology is a book of essays composed by various theologians to help pastors understand what the Bible says about God, man, and the curse; about Christ and his substitutionary atonement; and about the call to repentance and sacrifice.
The book also equips pastors to develop and preach sound theology, because sound theology, says contributor J. Ligon Duncan, is essential to faithful ministry.
ByFaith talked with Duncan, who pastors First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Jackson, Miss., about the state of theology in the Church.
In Proclaiming A Cross-Centered Theology you argue that there are unhealthy attitudes today toward doctrine and theology. What have you seen and heard that leads you to that conclusion?
I have seen in both the general culture and in the churches attitudes that are anti-doctrinal in sentiment. People say that postmodernism is a “suspicion of meta-narratives.” I think that fits in with the suspicion of doctrine and systematic theology, that it’s seen as a meta-narrative that imposes itself on people and life, and is therefore suspicious. So, the postmodern mood can be blamed for a lot of it.
You see it in the church as well, in that so many people are suspicious of doctrine or dubious about the whole project of systematic theology. You read this in books—it’s really the majority report today, certainly in liberal theology, in moderate evangelical theology, in emergent circles, and in Pentecostal/charismatic circles. It’s really only in our neck of the woods [Reformed theological circles] that there is still a strong respect for doctrine and systematic theology—although I see the trends pressing some of our guys to be sheepish about their affirmation of the importance of doctrine and systematic theology.
In the book you write, “in days when the narrative form of biblical theology is attracting great (and deserved) attention, it is too often being pitted against systematic theology.” What’s the difference between these kinds of theology? How would they be pitted against one another?
Narrative simply refers to the form of story as the means of conveying truth. There has been a penchant for pitting story against proposition or doctrinal articulations—this has been growing for about a half century in the Protestant world.
Two more helpful terms might be biblical theology and systematic theology. If I were to define those two types of theology rather than narrative and systematic, I’d say that biblical theology looks at the Bible diachronically, that is it moves chronologically through the revelation of God’s redemptive plan. It asks: What’s the unique emphasis of that era of special revelation? It also asks: What’s the emphasis of the writer who’s being studied? That’s opposed to asking the larger question of systematic theology: What does the total deposit of special revelation say about this particular topic?
So, biblical theology [looks at the text] historically and developmentally, whereas systematic theology asks the question: What does the whole Bible say about X—whether it’s angels or predestination or humanity? Systematic theology studies the Bible synchronically as opposed to diachronically.
Now, systematic theology benefits from the insights of biblical theology. And biblical theology can’t actually be done without systematic theology. Some people think that you can do biblical theology without systematic theology, but actually you can’t.
They’re sometimes pitted against one another because there’s a myth that says that systematic theology puts the Bible in a straitjacket, whereas biblical theology liberates the text; it allows the text to speak for itself. That’s a false contrast. Biblical theology done wrongly is just as confining as systematic theology done wrongly. But when they’re done correctly—and they have been, gloriously, for well over a century in our particular tradition—then they work beautifully together.
Sticking with this idea of “narrative form,” you react pretty strongly to the claim that the Bible is a “storied narrative.” Why is that a problem? How does it relate to your concerns about theology?
All you have to do is look at the second half of the second book of the Bible to put the lie to the idea that the Bible is storied narrative. There’s zippo storied narrative in this portion of Exodus: it’s a description of how to build a tabernacle. When you get to Leviticus, the lie is again put to the Bible-is-a-storied-narrative idea. Now, there’s plenty of narrative in the Bible, but the Bible was not given to us as one complex narrative. We actually have to put that together because God didn’t give us a continuous, unbroken story.
While narrative is one of the great forms of Scripture, it is not the predominant form. Therefore, to make a statement that the Bible is storied narrative is just a reductionist statement. It serves—if it’s taken as absolutely true—to buttress a false view of the Bible.
Now, if we’re saying that the Bible contains so much storied narrative that we need to pay attention to that in our theology, well then that’s a different statement and one that’s much more worthy of consideration. But the idea that narrative form can be pitted against propositional doctrine is a false dichotomy.
It’s interesting, so many of the stories Jesus tells are actually designed to illustrate or defend the propositions He made. Jesus doesn’t use stories in opposition to propositional truth; He uses them to reinforce those truths, and to drive them home.
You have some clear-cut opinions about the assertion that this generation is unique it its preference for narrative to proposition.
I hear people say all the time that we can’t teach doctrine anymore because this generation likes story. Well, what generation hasn’t liked stories? We’ve always liked stories. There are stories from every time and every culture. So, there’s nothing unique to this generation with regard to stories.
One problem we do face in this generation is that there’s a resistance to stories that have an overarching explanation of everything in the world. This generation loves to debunk and deconstruct those. It’s a little ironic: People say that story is the answer to the problems of this generation because they’re open to stories. But actually, they don’t like stories that explain everything, and that’s the kind of story the Bible tells.
So the problem isn’t doctrine verses story. The problem is in pitting one against the other when they’re not in opposition.
Coming back to the negative attitudes about systematic theology: If a church is more about “deeds than creeds” or more about “people than propositions,” what’s the downside? What would a congregation be missing?
The danger there is that you could lose the gospel, because ultimately the gospel cannot be proclaimed wordlessly. In our generation people so often repeat that unidentifiably spurious quote from St. Francis of Assisi (though nobody can ever find it). It’s goes something like this: “Preach the gospel daily, use words if necessary.”
I agree with Tim Keller on this point, that if you really mean that, you may not understand the gospel, because the gospel cannot be preached wordlessly. We can prepare to share the gospel through deeds. We can confirm the gospel with deeds. We can show the effect of the gospel with deeds. But we cannot share the gospel without words.
So, if there is an absolute dichotomy meant by “deeds rather than creeds” or “people rather than propositions” what we really lose is the gospel, because the gospel has to be spoken.
Sometimes people use that language just to say that we need to redress the imbalance—where we’re all about spoken words and haven’t demonstrated the love of Christ or the reconciling forgiveness of Christ. That’s a wonderful corrective that I appreciate. But if one’s declaring an absolute—that theology doesn’t matter, that creeds don’t matter, that propositions don’t matter—if they’re saying that what really matters are deeds and people, then the great danger is that the gospel itself is lost.
If someone’s reading this and they’re not buying it, if they’re still wary of doctrine, if they want to know why we need it—what’s the bottom line?
If I were sitting across from someone who was wary of doctrine, the first thing I’d tell them is this: You have doctrine. It’s impossible to be doctrine-less. The only question is, is your doctrine biblical or not?
If we don’t think we have doctrine, we have a problem. Without doctrine we can’t bring the truth of Scripture to bear on our own thinking in a particular area. If we don’t hold to doctrine, then we don’t think [our ideas, attitudes, or opinions] need to be examined through the lens of Scripture. So I’d start by saying that everybody has doctrine.
Then I’d go to the Scriptures and show how the Bible uses doctrine for important things in the Christian life. In John 14, Jesus, in the upper room, uses specific doctrines like election and providence and His return and the Trinity. He uses all these doctrines to assure the disciples because He knows they’re about to go through the greatest crisis they’ve ever faced to that point in their lives. He knows they need assurance, and He knows that they’re not going to have it unless the Word of God captivates their minds. At the very least we see how those doctrines have sunk down deep in their hearts. We see that the disciples have embraced those truths as absolutely true.
In Ephesians 5, Paul says that husbands can’t love their wives as they ought to unless they understand what the atonement means for them, in their role as husbands. So, he tells them they need to love their wives the same way Jesus loved the Church in giving Himself up for her. So, the doctrine of the atonement is employed by Paul to make us better Christian husbands. He uses it to illustrate the effects of the gospel in our marriages.
You find passage after passage like this in the New Testament where doctrine is associated with practice. You find it in almost all of the epistles of Paul, where Paul will start with doctrine and move to practice. In Romans 1 through 11, for example, we see doctrine. Then, in Romans 12 through 16, ethics. He follows that pattern in Ephesians. You see him making the same deductions in the pastoral epistles; it is a standard form the New Testament uses—because doctrine is important to the living of the Christian life.
You argue that Christians, because they believe in absolute truth, have a decided apologetic advantage in a relativistic culture. What’s our advantage? And how do we make the most of the opportunity?
I know it’s counterintuitive since we live in a culture that purports to hate absolute truth. We may think, “Boy, it’s a real disadvantage apologetically, reaching out with the gospel when the people around me think that anybody who believes in absolute truth must have three heads and cloven hooves.” But I think, actually, that there are a number of contact points where our absolute truth is a decided advantage in engaging our culture, in sharing the gospel, and in defending the faith.
Here’s an example: We share our culture’s aversion to racism. As Reformed, evangelical Christians we understand that racism is an explicit assault on the image of God in man. As such, it’s heresy. But we have a theological reason. We know why racism is evil whereas our friends in the secular culture really don’t have a good reason for thinking that racism is wrong.
If you don’t believe there is any such thing as absolute truth, well then how could racism be absolutely wrong? And yet as Christians we’re able to say that it’s absolutely wrong in any and every circumstance because God has created all of us in His image. Therefore, I must treat every human being with dignity; I know that my Maker made that other person. And even if that other person is not a believer, even if that person is an enemy or a stranger, there are certain obligations that I have to him or her simply because they’re created in the image of God.
I think—even in a culture where people don’t believe in absolute truth—on things like this they have an inherent tendency to recognize, “Yes, that’s right. It is not just arbitrary that we treat people justly and kindly. This is how it ought to be.” They have an “oughtness” that’s been woven into them because of the image of God, and they can’t get away from it.
I was in a debate a year or so ago with a very intelligent Jewish philosophy professor. In the course of the discussion he was asked about absolute truth, and he replied that Jewish philosophers don’t believe in absolutes. Then, he began to bring his thinking to bear in his ethical views, saying that ethics are never absolute, that they’re always situational and cultural, that they’re determined by the community.
So, when it came to the question-and-answer time I asked him this: “Do you think that there has ever been a culture in which the Holocaust would have been morally acceptable? And if there [has been such a culture] how could we ever consider anything morally unacceptable in any culture? If there is not a culture in which the Holocaust is morally unacceptable, then isn’t that an absolute?”
His response was, yes, he could conceive of a culture in which the Holocaust was morally acceptable. I was absolutely floored. This was a secular college setting; I did not have the audience on my side. The moderator of the debate came back to me and said, “Do you have any follow-up questions?” And I said, “No, I do not.” Everybody in that room—I would say 80 percent of them were non-Christian and were suspicious of me as an evangelical Christian—but when he said he could conceive of cultures where the Holocaust was morally acceptable, he lost the debate.
I think this is precisely where Christians have an amazing apologetic advantage. People know that certain things are absolute—that ought to be or ought not to be. We can provide a tangible, rational reason. So, that’s what I mean when I say we have an apologetic advantage. We need to know how to utilize those points of contact where we share a sense of justice or indignation with the prevailing culture, and where their view is right, we can say, “Yes, you are right in your moral indignation. The problem is you don’t have any justification for it. I do, and here it is.” That’s something we ought to be doing regularly.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He’s also the author of two novels, Safe at Home, and Crossing the Lines, both published by David C. Cook Publishers.