The Christian doctrine courses at Bethlehem College & Seminary are central to undergraduate education not because they are, as “systematic theology,” the capstone or goal of each student’s course of study. Rather, these courses are important because it is here that we aim to form students’ habits of theological imagination. They are, to borrow one theologian’s phrases (despite not borrowing his understanding of them), a critical moment in our students’ education in which they learn the habits of “taking time” and “making sense.”
By “taking time” we mean the humble and patient listening in which Christians should engage as they seek to make sense of the world into which God has placed them. At Bethlehem, we listen first, last, primarily, and everywhere in between to God in Scripture. But we also aim to cultivate a patient humility in students by which they will learn to hear the understandings of God, the world, and His Word that other Christians have offered up in the past. We do so knowing that this moment of education is unique for students as it may be the only time in their lives that they have the luxury of a focused time of theological study. But we also do so hoping that this is the first of many moments of “taking time” throughout their lives, praying that the Lord God will cause the fruit of humility and patience to adorn all their personal interactions, whether via books or face to face.
“Making sense” is the next step. Having taken time to hear patiently and humbly words of the Bible and the judgments of others, we then seek to put them together in a coherent way. Lining up various claims, including our own experiences in the world, willy-nilly is not the task of these courses because that is not the task of theology. Theology’s task is to help Christ’s church “take every thought captive to obey Christ,” “making sense” by trying to imagine what must be the case for every word in the Bible to be true (as another theologian has defined systematic theology, and which turns out to be a rather difficult intellectual endeavor). This means attempting to answer questions of theology raised by our hearing of Scripture – How can God’s one name be “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? What does it mean that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man? How can we begin to understand that God “is” and is Himself before and without His creation? – by fashioning or borrowing concepts and distinctions which provide our minds a measure of satisfaction that we’ve been faithful to every word of the Bible.
We aim to do so because mature disciples of Jesus are ones that “have the mind of Christ” and are “transformed by the renewing of [their] minds,” being given the Spirit of God such that “we might understand the things freely given us by God.” A subset of those disciples are called by the Lord to serve the whole family of God by thinking deeply about the nature, coherence, unity, goodness, and beauty of God Himself and of all things in relation to God.
Viewing being a mature disciple from the angle of “family membership” also shapes how and why we teach theology at Bethlehem. When a person is saved from sin and death by God through faith in Jesus Christ, she is also adopted into the family of God, now partaking of the blessings given to Abraham and his many offspring. As such, she is also inducted into this family’s story, most significantly the story found in Scripture but extended into the story of the church after the close of the New Testament. It is a family full of crazy uncles, wayward children, sometimes admirable and sometimes regrettable ancestors, none of whom we get to choose. Nevertheless, we call them “brothers and sisters” in Christ. Since they, too, were once hearers of God’s Word, trying to take time and make sense, we call our students to include a study of these historical, non-contemporary theological judgments in their own beginnings of making sense of God and His world.
Perhaps a worked example can shed more light.
In attempting to answer the question Jesus poses to Peter – “Who do you say that I am?” – students are studying the doctrinal locus commonly called “Christology.” Their work involves much more than reading a short chapter summarizing the orthodox position; they must bring their previous study of the “whole counsel of God” that anchors all we do at Bethlehem and then go deeper into portions that speak to Jesus’s person and work (e.g. Phil. 2:6–11; 2 Cor. 5; Rom. 5; Col. 1; the epistle to the Hebrews; the gospel according to John; Isa. 40–66; and many many more). Praying humbly that the Spirit of God would give them “wisdom and insight,” they must then wrestle with how all of these widely varying claims in Scripture can be not only true about one person, but also how they can be “for us and for our salvation.” Next, we take time to listen humbly and patiently to others from the history of God’s family that have attempted to make sense of these realities about Jesus: in the debate between Cyril and Nestorius, how did each theologian read these same passages of Scripture? What concept did Cyril create to best explain all of what the Bible teaches about Jesus? What aspects of our salvation through Jesus get lost by Nestorius’s account? These primary historical sources are read together and discussed together in a class session, and illuminated by later Christian theological writings (e.g., Herman Bavinck’s dogmatic account of Christ and Fred Sanders’s contemporary explication of Chalcedonian Christology). Finally, these same students read a novel by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō, Silence, then interact charitably and critically with its portrayal of the suffering Jesus in the life of its main character: How does this novel make sense biblically of Jesus and His relation to the suffering Christian? What is gained and what is lost, or what merely goes unsaid? What effects on this portrayal might the author’s Christian experience in the 20th century have had?
All of these elements – Bible, interpretation, history, literature – come together in the Christian doctrine courses to aid the development of godly, humane theological habits of mind. Why? The obvious first response is to “know what you believe and why you believe it” in a more doctrinally precise way. Yet, such systematic theology training is a task of the church only insofar as it serves the church: theologians are to be one more way in which the church strives to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Unity, maturity, steadfastness of God’s family are the goals for Christian doctrinal education. Ultimately, the highest goal of such theological “taking time and making sense” is the praise of the Triune God and the joy, satisfaction, peace of God’s people. And the most important theological truths that our doctrine students must struggle to make coherent in their heads and in their hearts: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
Assistant Professor of Theology