On the Importance of Creatively Unoriginal Theology

This semester at Southeastern Seminary, I’m teaching an elective course on the theology of Andrew Fuller. I’ve been excited about this class for a long time. If you spend much time around me, you know that one of my burning desires is to help train a generation of pastor-theologians and theologians who are pastors. In my mind, Andrew Fuller is a great historical example of a missions-minded pastor-theologian in the Baptist tradition.

In our first class meeting last week, I attempted to make the case for the importance of studying particular theologians. In that discussion, I argued that any theologian worth his or her salt is “creatively unoriginal”; each of these words is important. Good theologians are creative, finding new ways to communicate doctrinal truth to the audience whom they are addressing, whether church or academy (or both). They recognize that passing on theological content is both an art and a science, so they try to frame theology in a way that captivates believers and contributes to spiritual maturity. They are the theological versions of poet-philosophers. As far as I’m concerned, dull theology is an epic tragedy that cheapens the significance of doctrine and can, at times, even push people away from the faith. Good theologians are creative.

But good theologians are also unoriginal. Contrary to academic trends in some circles, the task of the theologian is not to say something new, but rather to say something old—apostolic, even. Good theologians attempt to sound as much like the apostles as they can in their content, even as they try to sound as much like the culture as they can in the way they package biblical truth. I once heard a seminary president say something like this: “you’ll never hear an original idea at our seminary.” While the theologically faddish among us will dismiss a comment like that without a second thought, I think I know what that brother was saying and I’m with him all the way. The church doesn’t need theological originality; that’s the stuff of which heretics are made. The church needs theology that is creatively unoriginal.

If you are involved in a ministry of preaching or teaching God’s people, commit to being as creatively unoriginal as you can be. Fellow pastors, this is the type of theology that feeds the sheep and builds up the church. Fellow professors, this is the type of theology that equips your students to be the type of pastor-theologians who make a lasting difference in local churches.

(Image credit)

For the Record (Greg Welty): What is a “Christian Worldview”?

[Editor’s Note: Greg Welty is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern and holds the D.Phil. from the University of Oxford. As one well qualified to think, talk, and write about the intersection of Christian theology and philosophy, we asked Dr. Welty to explain a “Christian worldview.” What do you think?]

“Christian worldview” is a trendy term among evangelicals. But what does it mean and why should we care? Let’s consider three questions about the term that can occasion clearer thinking about the topic.

Is “Christian worldview” a misleading term? After all, the world is a pretty big place, almost unimaginably big. Isn’t it impossible to ‘view’ all of it at once? There are at least a billion facts about the table in front of me that I do not know and will never know. So at best a worldview is a fragment or subset of knowable facts that are out there. Which facts should be included in a ‘worldview’ and why? It’s not as if God explicitly lists for us, in Proverbs or Ephesians, which propositions should make the cut. (The term ‘worldview’ doesn’t even appear in the Bible.)

Is “Christian worldview” redundant? Christians already hold that whatever God has revealed for us to believe, we should believe it – full stop. God is creator, providential sustainer, redeemer, and judge, and whatever he has done in these or any other capacities we should believe he has done, and live in light of it. And we already have terms that convey this fundamental idea: ‘theology,’ ‘biblical doctrine,’ ‘systematics’. How does ‘worldview’ add to this notion in a helpful way? If a “Christian worldview” is just my believing whatever God tells me to believe, then it’s not clear why I need a separate class on this in seminary.

Is “Christian worldview” trivial? Let’s recognize that there is now a tradition of reserving the term for Christian teaching on broad themes that intersect with the main areas of philosophy. Worldview is metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and Christian worldview is what God says on those topics. This seems to narrow things down:

1)    Metaphysics is about what is ultimately real. Well, God and his creation are ultimately real. Solipsism – the view that only I exist – is false.

2)    Epistemology is about the sources, structure, and limits of knowledge. Again, God and his creation are knowable in a variety of ways (Scripture, reason, experience, intuition), though Scripture is our primary source of knowledge of God, our primary source of the most important truths about creation, and has ‘veto power’ over any other alleged source of knowledge in any area. Global skepticism – the view that we cannot have any knowledge at all – is false.

3)    Ethics is about whether there are objective norms for human behavior, and if so, in what do they consist? (Rules? The best means to the best ends? The cultivation of virtue?) Relativism – the view that all ethical norms are relative to individuals or cultures – and nihilism – the view that there are no norms at all – are both false.

But by narrowing things down to what the Bible unambiguously teaches us in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, don’t we border on triviality? “Don’t be a solipsist! Don’t be a global skeptic! Don’t be a relativist or nihilist!” These preach well, but they are pretty thin gruel for Christian growth and guidance. It’s not even clear they’re distinctively Christian claims. (Lots of non-Christians believe these things). Is this handful of truisms all we can say on the topic of philosophy? And how many genuine solipsists, global skeptics, and relativists/nihilists are out there anyway?

Thankfully, “Christian worldview” doesn’t have to be misleading, redundant, or trivial. It does involve getting the right answers on matters of being, knowledge and value, and being able to explain why they are the right answers. But it goes far beyond this. A Christian worldview is about using all the resources of Scripture to illuminate the whole range of traditional philosophical disputes, by opening up theological avenues of insight and argument typically neglected in a secular context. It’s not that we’re limited to citing isolated Bible verses in an attempt to decide technical philosophical disputes (although if a verse does speak clearly and relevantly to any question, then go for it!). Rather, as Christian philosophers we seek to show again and again how the existence of the triune, incarnate God who has created all things for his glory and who is reconciling all things to himself matters for how we address the deepest questions of being, knowledge, and value. This God is not a new dashboard ornament we add to our collection, a thing among many other things we can believe in. He is the One in whose light we see light, and in whose absence all is darkness.

Space permits just one example. A perennial philosophical dispute is over the existence and nature of ‘universals’. What is justice? What is goodness? What is wisdom?

1)    Are these just words, bits of language we’ve invented for various practical purposes, labels that at best refer to subjective ideas in our head but which have no reference to anything existing distinct from us or independent of us? (That would be nominalism.)

2)    Do ‘justice,’ ‘goodness,’ and ‘wisdom’ instead refer to something that only exists in individual things and nowhere else? (That would be ‘moderate’ or Aristotelian realism.)

3)    Do they refer to something that exists over and above us and everything else in the world, something that would exist even if there was no physical world at all? (That would be ‘extreme’ or Platonic realism.)

4)    Or is there room for an additional view here, the view that universals are in some way true ideas in God’s mind that he has by nature, true ideas that God has of his nature and power? This would be a God-centered view of universals that combines the best of the preceding views.

  1. As in nominalism, they are ideas (divine ideas).
  2. As in Aristotelian realism, they exist in an individual and not apart from an individual (God).
  3. As in Platonic realism they exist quite independently of us and anything else in creation.

So God is the exemplar of justice, goodness, and wisdom. Creatures only have these things insofar as they imitate God, the standard. Suddenly the most abstruse debates of the ancient, medieval, and modern periods become matters to which a theologically-informed ‘worldview’ can speak, and in a way that displays how our faith contrasts with other ‘faiths’. This contrast isn’t misleading, redundant, or trivial, and it exists in dozens of other areas besides this one.

This is ‘faith seeking understanding’: by faith we already believe that God exists and that he has ideas of his nature, but our faith seeks further understanding of how these and similar truths can help illuminate a whole range of inquiries about the world. In this way Christian philosophy (or a “Christian worldview”) becomes a pathway to intellectual maturity, by repeatedly leading us to see that God is at the center and not the periphery, no matter the subject of discussion.

Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith-you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that in principle categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions-I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism-the full immersion of professed believers-is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism-or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine-is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.