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Professors John Frame and Steve Childers combine their almost 90 years of experience (Frame 49 Systematic Theology, Childers 22 Practical Theology & 15 in church planting and pastoring) to help you apply theology to life and ministry. Study the 8 foundations Scripture provides for developing sound theology.
Having answered the question, “What is theology?” we need to ask an even more important question: “What is sound theology?” In Christian theology, sound doctrine is teaching that agrees with the Bible.
But how can we know if our beliefs are in agreement with the Bible?
This chapter will help you learn how to develop sound theology that is true to the Bible and conducive to spiritual health.
What is Sound Theology?
Having answered the question, “What is theology?” we need to ask an even more important question: “What is sound theology?”
Sound theology is doctrine that is true and conducive to spiritual health.
At the end of the Apostle Paul’s ministry, he writes his final letter to Timothy, his son in the faith, saying:
“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13).
Paul considers sound doctrine essential for Timothy to flourish in his life and ministry.
Again, in that same letter, Paul warns Timothy of a large-scale rejection of the truth:
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
Likewise, Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, warns us about the impending danger of people with unsound doctrine coming into the church. He writes, “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
We all have beliefs about who God is and what he does. But the critical question is whether our beliefs about God are correct or incorrect. So how do we know the difference between sound and unsound Christian doctrine?
By Scripture Alone
In Christian theology, sound doctrine is teaching that agrees with the Bible. The historic Christian principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) affirms that the Bible is the only infallible authority in all matters of faith and practice.
Because Scripture is God’s inspired, infallible word, all statements of Christian belief must agree with the Bible. We must reject anything as our ultimate authority other than the Bible.
But how can we know if our beliefs are in agreement with the Bible? Don’t we need to rely on the expertise of the clergy and bible scholars to understand the meaning of the Scriptures? The short answer: No. Sola Scriptura affirms that the Bible’s teachings are clear to every reader or hearer of ordinary intelligence, without requiring special instruction.
Theologians refer to this as the perspicuity of Scripture. This means that if we have access to the Bible in a translated language we understand, we don’t need the clergy to explain its meaning to us. The Bible alone can give us sound doctrine, through the illuminating work of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) succinctly describes the perspicuity of Scripture:
Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. Chapter 1, Section VII.
However, this does not mean that all things in the Bible are equally clear. For example, the Apostle Peter refers to some things in the Apostle Paul’s letters as “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). What it does mean is that those things that are necessary for salvation are so clear that, with “a due use of the ordinary means” anyone can understand them.
Systematic Theologian Charles Hodge speaks of the clarity of Scripture:
“The Bible is a plain book. It is intelligible by the people. And they have the right, and are bound to read and interpret [it] for themselves; so that their faith may rest on the testimony of the Scriptures, and not on that of the Church.”
Hodge agrees with the Protestant Reformation message that people do not need priests to interpret the Bible for them. Instead, the Reformers believed the Bible is clear enough on its own to be “intelligible by the people.”
In both the Old and New Testaments, God calls ordinary parents to teach the Scriptures to their children (Deut 6:7, Eph 6:4). And the Psalmist proclaims the clarity of Scripture: “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130).
Clergy and Bible scholars are helpful and needed. However, they must be faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture that anyone can understand by just reading the Bible. Therefore, be on your guard against those who try to use their expertise in theology to contradict the plain meaning of Scripture.
On the other hand, the church as a community has made significant progress in understanding the Bible. And as a result of many controversies in the church’s past, written statements of biblical doctrine, called creeds and confessions, have emerged.
But many people hesitate to affirm Christian creeds and confessions written by mere humans. Some say, “No creed but Christ!” and “No creed but the Bible!”
Professing “No creed but the Bible” is a creed itself and one that the Bible does not support. If the saying is just another way of affirming that our theology must agree with the Bible, it is helpful. However, it’s often used to mean that Christians do not benefit from reading or referencing creeds, confessions, doctrinal statements, bible commentaries, etc. In that case, “No creed but the Bible” is a bad creed.
This is because when we read the Bible, we already have a doctrinal statement in mind, though it may not be in writing. We all have an existing set of core religious beliefs that shape our understanding of God, the Bible, and the world.
In fact, it’s impossible for any human being not to have religious beliefs, even if they believe there is no God. That in itself is a religious belief.
Under Scripture Alone
It is arrogant and even foolish to neglect learning from historical writings and traditions, but we must always see them under the Bible as our higher authority.
Remember, Scripture alone is our primary authority for determining sound doctrine, through the work of the Holy Spirit in our conscience. Therefore, we must test all teaching by the Bible to see if it is true.
However, no matter how sound our theology may become, Paul reminds us that our knowledge of God on this side of eternity is always limited: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
It’s humbling to realize that even our limited knowledge of God only comes to us because God takes the initiative and reveals himself. For God to reveal himself means he must adjust himself to our limitations by using human language and analogies from his creation. Calvin describes this as a nurse talking in baby- talk to a child she’s caring for so the child can understand.
Because of this, even the best analogies and comparisons about God fall far short of reality. For every human or created thing we say God is like, God is also unlike that. As Bavinck writes, “Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.”
However, Paul did not allow the awareness of his incomplete knowledge of God to keep him from pursuing a deeper knowledge of God. He reveals his continuing life passion when he writes, “that I may know him… not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own (Phil. 3:10-12).”
With Principles and Methods
With so many Christian creeds, confessions, and doctrinal statements written since the time of Jesus, which ones should we affirm?
Although the Bible is infallible, our understanding of it is not. Sometimes we make mistakes in interpreting the Scriptures. We’ll study the principles and methods of interpreting the Bible, called hermeneutics, later in this series. But first, there are foundational concepts that are important to understand in order to develop sound theology.
Just as we need to use a method to understand any discipline, so it is with theology.
Systematic Theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “If a man adopts a false method, he is like one who takes a wrong road which will never lead him to his destination.” We base everything we believe the Bible teaches about God on a set of foundational assumptions and methods.
The concern is that many of us never consider our underlying assumptions about God. We begin with the assumption that whatever our parents or culture believes is true. However, sincere, well-meaning parents and others, including pastors, often believe and teach unsound theology.
In the study of theology, the word prolegomena refers to the underlying assumptions and beliefs about theology we need to understand first. The
Greek preposition pro (means “before”) and legomena means “to say before.” So prolegomena refers to concepts we need to understand first in order to have a better foundation for what is coming next.
The goal of prolegomena is to equip you with a set of beliefs and assumptions, at the beginning, that will help you build a foundation for sound theology later.
Rather than just tell you what you should believe, we want you to go deeper and also understand why you believe and how your beliefs apply to all areas of your life.
So we’ll begin with a brief survey of some essential, biblical truths to help you lay a strong foundation for developing sound theology.
Apply Your Theology
A Mind for Truth
• What is sound theology? Why is sound theology essential for you to
flourish in your life and ministry?
• What is the principle of sola Scriptura? How can we apply this principle
to the teaching we receive today from church leaders and our study of doctrinal creeds and confessions?
A Heart for God
• Is hearing and reading the Bible alone sufficient for you to have sound
doctrine, through the direct, illuminating work of God’s Holy Spirit? Have you experienced this illuminating work of the Holy Spirit? If so, how?
A Life for Ministry
• What are practical ways you can follow the example of the Apostle Paul
and pursue a deeper knowledge of God and his will in the Scriptures (Phil 3:10-12)?
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