Theology and Identity

The task of theology is multi-layered and multifaceted. Behind its obvious component of exploring the Bible’s teaching on the major doctrinal loci there are many other factors that influence the task and its outcome.

At the most basic level there is the issue of our presuppositions about Scripture. (This is, of course, as much an issue of faith as of philosophical perception.) How we regard the Bible – notably in terms of its authorship, authority and integrity – will have an enormous impact on how we understand and apply its message.

Then there is the issue of how to exegete its text. This obviously brings us into the realm of linguistics and the original languages of Scripture. This is a relatively narrow and technical field, but not one that stands on its own. The business of translation always involves questions of interpretation. So translators cannot restrict their work to pure lexical analysis. They inevitably find themselves making judgements based on the wider contexts.

This in turn opens up into the broader realm of hermeneutics (principles of interpretation).  This aspect of biblical and theological studies has increasingly become a source of confusion and controversy in the church’s task of guarding the truth over past two centuries and is very much a live issue for today’s church.

From there the focus shifts into the different components of theology proper: biblical theology, historical theology and systematic theology. And it is in these areas that we not only see the dimensions of individual doctrines taking shape, but also how they fit together in the seamless unity of biblical truth.

The final phase of the task lies in the application of theology. And, although this comes at the end of the process, it nevertheless feeds back retrospectively into its earlier stages with both positive and negative effect.

There is, however, another dimension to the task of doing theology that is very often overlooked, but which has far-reaching implications for its end product. It is the fact that theology is closely bound up with our sense of identity. Or, more specifically, the complexity of our sense of identity – for good or ill – will colour the whole process of how we handle the Bible and seek to distil its message.

Sinclair Ferguson alludes to it in his aphorism, ‘there is no theology without psychology’. It also falls within the orbit of Cornelius Van Til’s well-known dictum that there is ‘no neutrality’. And the late Robert Sheehan made reference to it when he described some Christians as being not simply conservative in their theology, but ‘pathological conservatives’ by nature – thus pre-determining their conclusions on a whole range of issues: theological or other.

John Calvin makes the most perceptive comment of all in regard to this issue in his frequently quoted, but only semi-appreciated statement that the sum of all wisdom consists not only in the knowledge of God, but also ‘the knowledge of ourselves’. How we develop our theology will not only be shaped by how we come to know and understand God better through his revealed word, but also how we come to know and understand ourselves more fully.

Why does this matter? Because too often our lack of self-perception and genuine self-understanding can skew the way we interpret Scripture and formulate our doctrine. We are blind to the fact that we ourselves are factors in the whole process. And the fact we are sinners only serves to complicate it further.

There have been glaring examples of misinterpretations of Scripture and misrepresentation of its message that have arisen from personal prejudice: issues of race and slavery are but two of them. But there are other more subtle ways in which this has happened and continues to do so.

Some of the highest profile examples of this have come to light in the history of denominations within the church where identity and the interpretation of particular doctrines have been elevated to the point of justifying major divisions. And these divisions often crystallise most notably (and tragically) around the question of who may participate in the Lord’s Supper.

For some, church government has been emphasised at the expense of the underlying organic unity of the church as the family of God. For others it has been questions of baptism, or whether or not it is right to sing hymns in worship, and for others still, what translation of the Bible is deemed acceptable.

Clearly in all these areas, there are indeed issues of theology at stake; but there are also issues of personal identity. This is true especially when it comes to seeing these issues in terms of what makes our church (or theology) ‘distinctive’. Whereas there is a proper place for recognising the distinguishing features of our theological framework or churchmanship, that should not be at the expense of recognising the breadth of authentic Christianity. Hence all churches (and Christians) need to recognise and appreciate the role of the Catholic Creeds of the Faith.  More than that, this needs to go hand in hand with the spirit of catholicity that has marked all the defining phases of church history and the robust theological and spiritual leadership that directed them.

We need to remind ourselves that our true identity as Christians is not found in whatever church we belong to, but in Christ. Bearing this fact in mind will give us a healthy perspective on ourselves and at the same time it will encourage us to cultivate a deeper appreciation of our fellow-believers – even if we do not dot and cross all of each other’s i’s an t’s. This keystone tenet of orthodoxy must serve as the ultimate factor in what shapes both our identity and our theology and, in turn, enable us to appreciate our shared identity in the church universal.

Mark Johnston