Theology isn’t meant to remain within the confines of theological college. Justin Brierley presents a rough guide to some of the most exciting (and controversial) concepts that are trickling down to Christians in the pew today
I’ve met more than a few Christians who take a dim view of studying theology. Either they are worried about it damaging their faith, or they dismiss it as irrelevant to the real world of Christian living.
Yet, every Christian, whether they know it or not, believes in some kind of theology.
Doctrine isn’t something that remains locked up in the ivory towers of academia for clever clogs to debate while the rest of us get on with being Christians in the real world. As new theological ideas gain credence they start to trickle down to us all, through the songs we sing, the sermons we hear and the books we read.
In the end your theology, good or bad, will shape your view of God, which will in turn shape how we act in the world today.
So what about when we are challenged with entirely new theological ideas? Admittedly anyone who claims to have come up with a novel interpretation of a longstanding Christian doctrine is more likely to have stumbled across an old heresy. We are warned in scripture to be wary of ‘every wind of [shifting] doctrine’ (Ephesians 4:14, AMP). Yet listen and discern we must, remembering that even giants of the faith like Martin Luther were denounced as heretics before their ideas gained popular acceptance.
So what are the new theological ideas you are likely to hear being debated if you step into a theological college today? Here are four that you may not have heard of.
NO. 1 ANNIHILATIONISM
Questions surrounding the doctrine of hell have burned (forgive the pun) in evangelical circles for a long time. A few years ago, Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Collins) resulted in the former megachurch pastor being accused of universalism – the view that everyone will be saved in the end rather than the unredeemed going to an eternal hell in the afterlife.
But there are more than the two options of universalism or eternal conscious torment (ECT for short) on offer in contemporary theological thought. A third option – which could be seen as falling between the two extremes – is the doctrine of annihilationism.
WHAT IS IT?
Annihilationism is the view that, rather than being kept in an ongoing state of eternal torment, the unrepentant cease to exist after death. Joseph Wood of Nazarene Theological College says, ‘Annihilationism may be understood as a logical outcome of a loving God. Rather than subject his created one to eternal torment, a loving act of God is to simply eliminate from existence those who freely choose to reject his gracious offer of salvation through Christ.’
The doctrine is sometimes referred to as ‘conditional immortality’ on the basis that all humans are created mortal and will cease to exist at death. Immortality is only bestowed by Christ on those who accept the gift of eternal life.
The most well-known proponent is US theologian Edward Fudge, whose 1982 book The Fire That Consumes (Verdict) argued that references to hell in scripture have been misunderstood, and that the Bible is consistently annihilationist. For instance, Jesus’ references to ‘the fire of hell’ in the Gospels invoke the image of Gehenna – the waste pit outside Jerusalem that constantly burned as rubbish was added to the fire. But the point of the image is that the waste is destroyed – not that it continues to exist.
Similarly, passages that speak of ‘eternal punishment’, such as the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, describe the eternal consequences of final destruction, not that the punishment itself lasts forever.
Conservative theologians have historically supported ECT and argued against annihilationism. As well as disagreeing with the biblical exegesis for annihilationism, there is a suspicion that annihilation is a sop to modern sensibilities that want to water down the wrath of God and the threat of hell.
Ken Brownell of London Theological Seminary says, ‘Annihilationism is often a halfway house for middle-class evangelicals on the road to theological liberalism. Certainly, some overly literalistic and speculative presentations of hell could do with some modification, but scripture demands that we believe that there is conscious punishment of the impenitent that lasts forever.’
Mike Reeves, head of Union School of Theology (formerly WEST) says, ‘Annihiliationism seems to make the fundamental error of having the creator annihilate a part of his own creation. But if that is the case, surely sin and evil have won (at least in part), and God has lost.’
Yet, despite the pushback, in recent decades more and more evangelicals have subscribed to the view, without necessarily having their orthodox credentials called into question. John Stott famously held to annihilationism, as do church leaders Michael Green and Roger Forster. [Update: Roger Forster has indicated he prefers to be known as espousing 'Conditional Immortality' as he believes judgement and hell fire in varying degrees of punishment follows death for those not in the book of life, before final annihilation. Eternal punishment, not eternally punishing.]
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The existence of a place of eternal conscious punishment is frequently used by critics of Christianity as an objection to the faith. How can an infinite punishment reflect the character of a just and loving God?
"THERE IS A SUSPICION THAT ANNIHILATION IS A SOP TO MODERN SENSIBILITIES"
The common traditionalist response is that, as Anselm (1033-1109) argued, a sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment. Conversely, annihilationists say that extinction seems a more fitting form of punishment from a loving God than infinite torment, which owes more to medieval imagery than the Bible, and can remove a significant barrier for some people who have objections to the faith.
As far as theology shapes our view of the character of God, it could be argued that annihilationism, if truly biblical, should be welcomed as a correction to a view of an eternally wrathful God. But wherever we stand on the nature of hell, Christians should be concerned to try to believe the same things that Jesus believed, not what medieval or modern concerns dictate.
NO. 2 THE NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PAUL
One of the most significant scholars in the world helping believers to understand Christianity in its Jewish context is NT (Tom) Wright. Yet Wright has also accumulated many critics (especially in Reformed circles) for the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ that undergirds parts of his writing. So what is the New Perspective, and why does it divide opinion?
WHAT IS IT?
While there are many variations from different theologians, in a nutshell, NT Wright’s version of the New Perspective is a fresh understanding of what Paul really meant when he wrote about law, works, grace and justification in his letters to the early Church.
Five hundred years ago Luther, Calvin and the Reformers declared that they had recovered the true gospel of Christ to counter the indulgences and errors of the Roman Catholic Church. Paul, they said, preached in Romans and elsewhere against the keeping of ‘the works of the law’ (Gal 3:10) to show that it was impossible for any works, penances or good deeds on our part to contribute towards our salvation.
WHAT THE NEW PERSPECTIVE DID FOR US
Kent Brower of Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, explains the significance of this new theological view:
Pauline scholarship is now firmly post ‘New Perspective’. Two crucial gains in understanding Paul, the Jewish follower of the Jewish Messiah, can be noted.
First, our picture of the Judaism at the time of Christ is now more closely aligned to what Judaism might have looked like under the power of the Roman Empire. Its fundamental belief was not particularly ‘salvation by works’. Instead, it affirmed the gracious choice of Israel.
Second, Paul’s view of salvation is increasingly understood not only in terms of being ‘justified’, that is, being brought into a right relationship with God, but crucially, as participation in the Messiah and in the direction that God is taking the entire created order. God’s people join in God’s mission.
While valuing the contribution of the great reformers, NT Wright says that we’ve been misled by them on this score. When Paul preached against the ‘works of the law’ he had in mind first-century Christians who were being led to believe that if they kept to the boundary markers of Jewish ethnicity – observing dietary food laws, circumcision etc – they would be more assured of salvation than if they did not. Paul corrected them that being ‘in the Messiah’ was the only marker needed to designate redemption. But good works generally are not disqualified by Paul as a sign of our salvation – indeed, he often speaks of the way in which his own efforts to bring people to Christ will be counted to his credit on the final day (1 Thess 3:19).
Proponents of the New Perspective, such as EP Sanders, have also argued that the relationship of Jews to the covenantal law was not as legalistic as has been suggested by interpreters of Paul. Rather than ‘salvation by works’ by keeping to the law, they viewed their inclusion in the covenant as a gracious work of God.
"THE NEW PERSPECTIVE IS A REVOLUTION IN HOW I THINK ABOUT FIRST CENTURY JUDAISM"
The great danger of Wright’s theology, according to his critics, is that it undermines the truth recovered by the Reformation: that we are saved on the basis of God’s grace and not our own works. But Wright himself denies that he is supporting any such regression. He affirms that anyone who is saved is saved by grace and not works, but that this doctrine is not actually supported by the parts of Paul’s writing that are typically cited. As he has said of the Reformers: ‘It is possible to get to the right answer for the wrong reasons.’
Perhaps Wright’s most well-known critic is the American pastor John Piper who wrote The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright (Crossway). He took issue (along with many Calvinists) with Wright’s view on what Paul meant by ‘justification by faith’ in Romans. In reformed theology, justification is typically seen as the ‘imputing’ of God’s righteousness to us when we accept Christ. Justification effectively constitutes our conversion and salvation.
But Wright says something different: ‘Justification is not “how someone becomes a Christian”. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian.’ So, justification is not the act of conversion, but rather is the way by which God vindicates that we are now included in the ongoing covenant that he first established with Abraham.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Wright’s critics say that he is steering a path away from orthodoxy. But Wright says too many people have accused him of heresies he simply hasn’t committed, and that his reading of Paul gets us back to the real meaning of scripture, rather than an interpretation clouded by the theological concerns of the 16th-century Reformers.
Conrad Gempf of the London School of Theology says that the value of Wright’s body of work easily outweighs the potential pitfalls some see in the New Perspective: ‘For many, the danger in the New Perspective is that it can be interpreted to water down Pauline justification by faith. For me, it is not so much of a change in Paul’s Christian theology, but rather a revolution in how I think about first century Judaism, particularly Paul’s Jewish background and how I think about his Judaising opponents.’
NO. 3 OPEN THEISM
Perhaps the most controversial of all the new theological ideas listed in this article is Open Theism, a new view on the divine sovereignty of God.
When Greg Boyd, teaching pastor of Woodland Hills Church, Minnesota, first wrote in support of the doctrine in the 1990s, other church leaders in the area denounced him as a heretic and called for his dismissal from the theological college where he taught. But Boyd leads a growing number of evangelicals who promote or are sympathetic to the doctrine, such as the late Dallas Willard, and Michael Lloyd of Wycliffe Hall. [Update: Michael Lloyd has clarified that he is not an advocate of Open Theism. While he appreciates Greg Boyd's writings, he doesn't follow him into Open Theism.]
WHAT IS IT?
Open Theism is a new contender in the long-running theological question of how human free will and God’s foreknowledge work together. Traditionally there have been two camps:
Calvinist theology says that God ordains all things according to his will, including those who will be saved. This view ultimately limits the scope of human free will, as God’s sovereign will has already determined every event and decision.
Arminian theology, on the other hand, holds that God desires for everyone to be saved, but that humans may freely resist his call to repentance. Humans have free will, but God still has divine foreknowledge of what will happen in the future.
Open Theism goes a significant step beyond Arminianism. It submits that human free will cannot be truly free if God always knows what the future holds. In love, God has bestowed free will on his creation. But in order to allow us true freedom to choose, God has purposely limited himself to not knowing everything about the future.
In most versions of Open Theism, natural causes will inevitably dictate much of the way the future plays out and God may supernaturally know some aspects of the future (which allows for prophecy in scripture). But the way humans exercise their free will could lead to different possible futures, and therefore the future is open, not closed.
The view feeds into a wider theology that creation is subject to a cosmic spiritual battle between Satan and his angels who rebelled against God, and those who are joined with Jesus in bringing God’s kingdom on earth. Although God will eventually win the war and the new creation will one day be established, the outcome of our daily ‘spiritual battles’ are not a foregone conclusion and depend on our part in the process.
THE PROS AND CONS OF OPEN THEISM
David Wilkinson, principal of St John’s College, Durham says:
I find a great deal that attracts me to Open Theism – the vulnerability of love, the uncertainty in the world disclosed by quantum theory and chaos, and the biblical material of a God who has freedom to change his mind in answer to prayer. However, I don’t think it does enough to engage with themes such as new creation and resurrection, which speak of God’s sovereign actions in shaping the future.
Many people! Open Theism is regarded with a strong degree of scepticism by many scholars and is branded a heresy by those who say it denies an essential attribute of God – that he is all-knowing. While Open Theists believe their case that God only knows some of the future is both philosophically and biblically defensible, Calvinists say that scripture teaches that all of the future is ordained by God.
Bob Letham, from Union School of Theology says, ‘If God has no certain knowledge of future events neither he nor we can be sure that Christ will win or that heaven itself will be secure from another fall.’
"HUMAN FREE WILL CANNOT BE TRULY FREE IF GOD ALWAYS KNOWS WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS"
Chris Sinkinson, lecturer in apologetics at Moorlands College says that Christians should be wary of embracing ‘novel’ doctrines: ‘Theology teaches us to take the long view. Does this perspective really provide a coherent way of understanding the full range of scriptural teaching? One implication is that God is within time, growing older and more knowledgeable with each passing day. Such a God-within-time creates a lot more problems than it solves and that’s why it is not only Calvinists who refuse to endorse the Openness approach.’
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The question of whether God knows the future could radically reshape our perception of God, and in turn how we understand evil. Open theists believe that their view makes more sense of suffering, as God never ordains it. The blame for it cannot be laid at God’s door, but is rather an outworking of human free will and the ongoing cosmic spiritual battle.
But does dispensing with God’s foreknowledge and predestination leave us with a world that becomes too random? Many people find comfort in the belief that ‘God is in control’ or words such as ‘from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny’ in the songs we sing. But when it comes to Open Theism, although God is manifestly on our side, he isn’t necessarily in control of the events going on around us.
NO. 4 JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES
Less controversial is our final theological idea – in fact, it tends to be greeted with enthusiasm by evangelicals of every stripe. It is the trend towards the historical view that the Gospels contain the testimony of first-person eyewitness accounts about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The research has been popularised by Richard Bauckham, former professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews, in his prize-winning book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans).
WHAT IS IT?
For much of the 20th century, academic study of the historicity of the New Testament was dominated by a brand of theology known as ‘form criticism’. Largely populated by liberal scholars, the mainline theological institutions tended to cast doubt upon the historical credence of much of the writing in the Gospels.
It was assumed that the Gospels themselves were set down long after the fact and pieced together from anonymous community traditions. As such, large parts of the events described and the words recorded would have been later accretions of theological invention and legendary embellishment.
In recent years, however, that view has been increasingly challenged. Modern scholarship has been able to show that the Gospels were likely first written down relatively close to the life of Jesus, and within the lifetime of his followers. What Bauckham brought with him was a great deal of evidence that the Gospels themselves are filled with telltale signs that the authors were reporting the eyewitness testimony of the very first followers of Jesus.
For instance, Bauckham records how the writings of an early Church father Papias give evidence that Mark’s Gospel is based primarily on the recollections of Simon Peter. His influence was assumed by the early Christian community, but is also borne out by the fact that Peter plays such a key role in Mark’s Gospel and is included at the beginning and end of the Gospel.
WHAT THE STUDENTS SAY
Students from the London School of Theology share how their studies have impacted their faith:
‘I have an increased confidence in what I understand as I read, learn, listen and reflect. God seems bigger somehow, life appears more colourful and the energy levels are soaring. It is also enhanced by the journey we are all on together in community.’
‘Studying theological concepts has helped me in the pursuit of theological truth as I understand and test theories. This has helped me to preach and teach with conviction, knowing the reason for what I believe.’
‘Studying theology has changed the way I see the world and the way I view God and, consequently, the way I live my life. I believe that if you remember why and who you’re studying, you can’t help but change the way you do things.’
But what has perhaps been most remarkable is the way that Bauckham has brought other lines of historical research to bear in his case for the reliability of the New Testament. In 2002, Israeli scholar Tal Ilan published research on how common certain names were among first-century Jews. Analysing the New Testament for the frequency of names and cross-checking it with Ilan’s findings showed that there was a striking correlation between the two records.
The Gospels are full of the same names that were being used in the time and place that Jesus lived, lending strong support to the conclusion that the Gospels were recorded by people alive at the time, not invented at some hazy distance from the events in a different part of the world.
As mentioned, the majority of evangelical scholars have welcomed Bauckham’s research. More liberal scholars are less confident in his conclusions, however, especially when they claim to overthrow long- held views.
For instance, all form-critics would take it as indisputable that John’s Gospel is a later theological work produced by an anonymous religious community. Yet Bauckham claims that John was indeed written directly by the ‘beloved disciple’ of Jesus, and that, despite its more theologically reflective tone, has the greatest claim to be written directly by an eyewitness of Jesus.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Sinkinson summarises why Baukham’s affirmation of the historicity of the New Testament matters:
‘In an age of increasing scepticism it is important to emphasise how strong the historical credentials of the New Testament are. It is quite an irony that such material has been largely ignored until relatively recently in New Testament studies. The wealth of literary evidence for the historical Jesus puts other ancient personalities into the shadows!’
Visit a primary school today and you’ll find that electronic whiteboards have replaced chalkboards, and teaching methods are very different to when you were a child.
The same could be said about theological education. Times change, and while the core of the gospel remains the same, new theories about doctrine regularly arise.
So, don’t be afraid of new ideas, but listen, learn and discern, for we are all called to ‘correctly [handle] the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).