Reflections on World-Changing Theologians, Part 2
As we wrap up our A to Z series on “Theologians Who Changed the World,” let us examine these men through a kind of near and far approach; think of it as the difference between a microscope and a telescope. Looking at history and theology as a whole, the church has had different emphases at various points in time. If we were to follow a systematic theology through church history, we would notice that the patristic period showed a marked interest in apologetics because of its unique vantage point of establishing Christian doctrine and defending it against heresy. In this time period there are some excellent documents defending the trinity and outlining the deity and humanity of Christ – key issues that were very important then. In the reformation, the major concern was justification by faith – a soteriological emphasis. In the 1800’s, we see a focus on the doctrine of Scripture because German rationalism attacked the historic reliability of the Bible. Conservative scholars responded by defending classic elements of the doctrine of the Word of God – inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency. This area of study continued throughout much of the 20th century as well. The 1900’s also brought a strong emphasis on eschatological ideas due to the rise of dispensationalism. Conferences, books, and new ministries yielded a mass of information which brought about many schools of thought on biblical prophecy. Advocates of amillenialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism began to write more on this subject. In more recent times, there has been a broad-based interest in ecclesiology. Discussions abound over church leadership, church structure, worship styles, ministry types, and leadership principles.
That is the telescopic view of the church, but close up we are reminded that much of what the old, dead theology guys talked about is just as relevant to us now as then. The writings of Augustine and Irenaeus on the doctrine of the trinity inform us as we prepare for battle against groups who deny the trinity today – Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, United Pentecostal Church (UPC.) T.D. Jakes is a popular name who would fit into that group. Trinitarian belief is of great importance to us and must be defended. The early church saw the need to defend the faith against error as paramount and we must continue the fight. We suffer because of false doctrine and we must stand against it. What do we do when the prosperity gospel shows up, when our people are being influenced by Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, or Creflo Dollar? We must take a stand on the truth of Scripture, just as the early church had to do. We should learn from their struggles and tenacity for the absolute authority of the Word of God. What about the reformation? Some might think, ”Surely Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and others are just old dead guys with no relevance to us today.” Not so! They speak to the modern church world in many ways. Consider the “Solas,” listed here in English for brevity: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, the Glory of God Alone. These are vital concepts that would speak to any age. They are not ancient dust covered concepts. Under the microscope of theology, we see how very helpful ages past are to life right now.
We could almost find it amusing to realize just how human these theologian/authors were. The tendency is to place these great men of God on pedestals, but they quickly fall from any hero worship. We must celebrate their positive contributions while also realizing their fallenness. Some were passionate to a fault about their beliefs. Constantine used the idea of Christian and rule for the catholic church which imposed the bloody and ruthless crusades (no Monty Python here,) in the reformation. Many who differed with the magisterial reformers were executed, the Puritans burned witches at the stake, others got in arguments, used profanity at times, and generally were disagreeable. We can see men like Dabney who wrote incredible theological volumes and yet viewed those of other races as inferior to his own. Mistakes and sins have been committed. We see our sinful nature in the leaders of church history. If we hold them up to any standard of perfection, they will fail because they are like us – sinful human beings. We must be realistic even as we appreciate their contributions.
In the end, we see that theology was important to many men and women – so important that they were willing to lay down their lives. We talk about theology, but truly they were laying down their lives for Christ and His kingdom. Do we take our theology that seriously? If the government came in tomorrow and said we could no longer believe like we do without facing the penalty, would we continue or cave? The theologians of church history encourage us to take a position. We can be fortified as Martin Luther. when he gave this response: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Prayerfully, we should take our doctrines and studies and ministries that seriously. The apologetics and the doctrines of church history ought to inform us in a way that we are immoveable on all that matters.
Church history includes drama, excitement, mystery, violence and every form of mayhem. There is plenty here to hold our attention. The one constant in all we have looked at is the Bible. The patristic era was filled with a quest to understand true doctrine from the Bible. The reformation was all about a return to the Bible – ad fontas – and the modern era has been marked with a refinement of how we make use of the Bible. It is our prayer that this look at theologians has encouraged, challenged, and strengthened you in your walk with Christ. We are the next generation’s history books.