The Limits of Theological Knowledge
How Does One Put the Pieces of the Puzzle Together?
I never ceased to be amazed by the "surety" theologians and scriptorians "have" when they come to discuss theological knowledge. For the last 20 years I have engaged in a dedicated pursuit of theological understanding by probing into the many different interpretations of Christianity, and at the end of the day I have been left with some pretty major questions. It is some of these that I would like to share with you today.
Before I do I wish to state my assumptions openly, and in particular a major one, and it is this: I assume (and I think with good justification) that God at no time has ever left mankind at any one point on the earth with insufficient knowledge about Himself for an individual to make a decision to follow Him and so, in the broadest sense of the word, be "saved" and merit (by some means) a place in Heaven in the after-life. A God who left no means by which a man could identify his spiritual condition or the tools by which he could improve that condition or receive some sort of assurance that a person would qualify for Heaven would, in my opinion, be a capricious and unfair God.
All but a tiny minority of Christians (and I use the term "Christian" in its broadest sense to include everyone who claims the title, justly or unjustly) claim that God has providentially left mankind a set of Scriptures by which they might obtain salvation and spiritual rest. Though differing in size through the generations in which it was assembled, it has always contained sufficient instruction to lead man to lead a life pleasing in the eyes of God. Through different dispensations of time Yahweh, the God of the Bible, has caused men and women to enter into covenants with Him in which He promises to bless and reward those who observe to do what He says and to believe and live their lives according to the pattern which He reveals. If we take the span of time from Adam to the death of the apostles we may truthfully say that God has made these kinds of provisions available for mankind and always ensured that a complimentary written record and oral tradition was available for anyone who wished to know the truth. For those unable to avail themselves of this written Word or priestly teachings God provided for them by imparting to every man born into the world a conscience by which he may judge between right and wrong. And even though this conscience may be, and is, defiled by false upbringing, tradition and the unrepented false choices that man makes, nevertheless God in His mercy has decreed that a man shall be judged by the way he follows this conscience. So we are instructed by the apostle Paul.
Thus all mankind is provided for first within the geographical constraints of a small nation - Israel - and thence in all the world through the evangelisation of the Christian apostles and their successors. Naturally those who are judged on the basis of conscience who pass into the next world without ever hearing the fullness of God's Law or Gospel must, to answer the demands of God's holy justice, have the opportunity to hear and choose for or against the fullness of God's Truth. That judgment by conscience or feelings is only of limited value is confirmed by the apostle Paul who teaches that once a person is confronted by the truth he can no longer claim justification through ignorance. Truth demands a decision. And once it has been given, and a man has made his choice, the demands of justice must take their natural course and a man will be judged as to what he is worthy of in the next life.
I assume throughout my deliberation that God is love and just. I make that assumption on the basis of what is revealed in the Bible and make natural extrapolations from this of God's declaration of the nature of His personality. I observe, as I have already said, that God provides for those who wish to know the truth and leads them to it, even if His leading may take the searcher through partial truths as part of the journey to the fullness. I observe that in the life of any man there are times when he is more or less receptive to truth and that God adapts what He reveals in proportion to that receptiveness. He does not force us to receive what we cannot receive because of inner spiritual injury, mental retardation, or whatever. I believe God is sufficiently great and omniscient as to judge a man relative to his capacity to know, understand and respond. I have learned what I believe to be this truth in speaking to the victims of abuse of all kinds, and in particular with those who have been physically destroyed - often mentally - by drugs and alcohol. It is plain that many do not enjoy the same faculties as those who have never been such victims - their thinking is impaired, their responsiveness is slow, and they cannot understand (nor would want to) the complexities of some of the theological arguments that the leaders of denominations seem to expect of their flock in order to be "saved". And yet they have experienced deliverance from addiction and are fully alive in Yahshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ). They are new men and women, delivered from the bondage of sin, through a simple faith. This has had a major impact on my thinking about theology and I shall return to this key later on in my discussion.
God has provided, more or less, a continuous flow of revelation to His people from the days of Adam to the end of the apostolic era. And then, suddenly, it stopped. Did the revelation dry up because of wickedness or was it a part of the divine plan? If the former is true, was the wickedness that followed the apostolic period greater than that which occurred during biblical times when revelation through priests and prophets continued unabated? This question is important because many smaller Christian groups claim that the fountainhead of revelation died after the death of the apostles because of apostacy, and some even claim that God withdrew His authority to administer the Gospel at the same time. But is such a conclusion warranted by logic? Was the darkness that followed the apostolic era greater than the gross idolatry and wickedness of Nimrod and the Mesopotamian kings? Was the apostacy of God's people worse than the gross evil perpetrated by the Israelites when they stooped to the abominations of child-sacrifice to Molech and every imaginable pagan iniquity? Did the "apostate Christians" sink lower than the Israelites? My answer must be no, because inspite of the gross evil that was most certainly committed in the Name of Christ, inspite of the clear departure from the revealed Word, inspite of the wickedness of the Catholic Inquisition, inspite of the spiritual destitution of the Middle Ages, nothing that the fallen Christians did could be construed as being any worse than the immorality to which the Israelites descended and which they paid for with slavery in exile.
If what I say is true then I have, for some, a perplexing question: If during the times of grossest wickedness in Israelite times God continued to speak and warn through His prophets, who recorded their warnings on parchment and which we have today in His Word, why was not a similar process followed in the post-apostolic period? Could it be that by the time the apostles had died and their writings were collected together with the Old Testament to form what is called the Bible, that the lord God had already given to man ALL THAT WAS NECESSARY FOR HIM TO BE SAVED?
If He did not -- and this is the key question -- why did He then wait for HUNDREDS OF YEARS until recent times to give modern revelation to sort the mess out which He seemingly was unable to sort out back in the first and second centuries A.D? Or if we set aside God's apparent inability to set things straight, why did He apparently leave mankind for nearly 2,000 years to grope in the dark with a collection of scriptures (the Bible) insufficient for salvation?
I ask these questions really within the context of the claims made by the Mormons with whom I have been dialoguing quite intensively over the last few months for as most of you know the Mormons claim that there was an apostacy shortly after the death of the apostles and that the authority to prosecute the building up of the Kingdom of God was not restored until over 1,500 years later by angels through a young man called Joseph Smith. I, and other members of the New Covenant Church of God and fellow evangelicals, have challenged this religious world view on the grounds that I am discussing here.
The Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) have an elaborate theology which goes beyond anything written in the Bible, acceptance of which, in one form or another, is necessary for salvation. Thus a man would not be allowed to join the LDS Church if he did not accept their doctrines of Three Gods, salvation through legal priesthood authority, the Bible is corrupt and unreliable and therefore new books of scriptures like the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants must be accepted to resolve the confusion caused thereby, etc..
If what the Mormons teach is true then God deliberately left the world in confusion and darkness until the 1820s, implying that nobody was worthy enough to do the work of the Mormons, not even the great ones like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, the Wesley brothers, and countless others who brought spiritual life and freedom through their faithful adherance to God's Word to the ebst of their mental ability. I have read the testimonies of so many men and women who experienced the joy of God's redeeming grace in the pre-Mormon era that I would have to desert all reason, common sense and my own experiencing of the Holy Spirit to believe that such were deluded or were led up the primrose path by their "corrupt" Bibles.
Mormons like to retort that the division of the Christian denominations is evidence of apostacy and the need for a new revelation to bring the unity of "one Lord, one faith and one baptism". Whilst I would not disagree that such a state of affairs is desirable or that contemporary revelation can facilitate such an ideal, I would most emphatically deny that God was not at work between the Third Century A.D. (or whatever date you believe the "Great Apostacy" started) until the 1820's in the way that He intended to be, or that he did not leave enough truth and light for searching souls to obtain a full and complete salvation. For God not to have left such would have been an act of gross negligence on His part.
Finally, the Mormons claim that a new revelation is needed to establish the Zionic Kingdom, the Israelite Christian Theocracy that they maintain they possess (for they believe that they are "Israel"). Whilst we at the New Covenant Church of God accept that new revelation is indeed necessary for the establishment of Zion (and have been receiving such ourselves for the last decade), we reject the idea that God called for such to be started in 1830 with the organisation of the LDS Church. Rather, we claimthat according to the Bible, this theocracy does not begin until the Theocratic Ruler, which is Yahshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ), returns to the earth to inaugurate the Millennial Kingdom. Mormonism claims, therefore, to be a work before its prophetic time and (for reasons I will not discuss here) to have an exclusive legalistic authority which we maintain they do not have, which they obtained from deceiving angels ("nephilim") bringing "another Gospel", a syncretism of Christianity with occultism and gnosticism.
I wish to end this brief discussion by looking at the kind of theological knowledge that is in actual fact needed for this present Church Age, a non-theocratic age, a Kingdom which Jesus said was "within", whose presence He further maintained was "not of this world" and therefore no threat to the ruling powers of the nations (meaning also that there was no provision for the Mormon temporal kingdom of "Deseret" or anything like it claiming a national status. Indeed, "Deseret" was dissolved, Utah became part of a secular nation, and instead God chose to restore the nation of Israel in Palestine where it has always exclusively been and where it is supposed to be today). If we accept that God has always left us enough knowledge in His Word for man to obtain salvation, what, then, is the minimal theological knowledge that He needs?
Ever since I was a student at University I have had my head burrowed in books of theology, trying to make sense of the mysteries of the Universe. Many of the same questions which were unanswered twenty years ago remain unanswered, in a final definitive sense, today. I discovered that the intellectual pursuit of theological knowledge brings no finality in terms of a complete understanding of things. The only things I have come to be "sure" of are those which I have been able to live and experience. To take the question of the Godhead, I must truthfully say that I do not know exactly how the Godhead is constituted, though the Lord has revealed some things to me. And it seems to me that God has deliberately left the Bible the way it is so that we may be absolutely sure of the things we need to be sure of and has left untied ends that we cannot be expected, or do not even have the capacity, to tie up. He could, if He had wanted to, have providentially inserted a few verses here or there giving a statement on the exact composition of the Godhead. But He has not. We may, of course, approach this from the angle of the sceptics and say this is evidence that the Bible is man-made, and since man does not know, he has not dared to formulate the constituency of the Almighty. But I would strongly disagree with this postulate for in my experience the nature of man is the very opposite - driven by a compulsive need to live in an ordered universe, man tends to make bold statements about truth to satisfy what he believes is important for his well-being. Thus had man written the Bible I would expect somewhere a statement that reflects Mormon, Christalephian, Worldwide Church of God, Rabbinic Judaism, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, or any other dogmatic belief about God. The fact the Bible doesn't do this testifies to me both that it is not man-made and that such a knowledge is not essential to our salvation.
Let's be honest, we all have limited intellectual capabilities. Some are more intellectual than others. Moreoever, the Gospel of Yahshua (Jesus) is for everyone and must therefore be comprehensible to everyone. I would not expect to explain to one of my saved ex-alcoholic or ex-drug addict friends the mysteries of the Godhead, because such is utterly irrelevent to them. The most they need to know is that Yahshua (Jesus) is Lord, Saviour and God. And with this simple faith I have witnessed hundreds of souls being saved and receiving new, stable, alcohol- and drug-free lives, often instantaneously. I have further noticed that such deliverances occur in the churches where the simplest doctrines are taught. And this is, I believe, as God has ordained it.
The simplicity of biblical truth is the death-blow to theological pride. It does not allow anyone the right to proclaim a "superior doctrine" beyond what is written in the Word because to such the Lord rarely, if ever, demonstrates spectacular, repeating, signs. I have seen in the evangelical movement miracles take place on a daily basis - deliverance from alcohol, drug abuse, violence, libidos gone wild, homosexuality, etc., which tend to be very rare occurences in churches which are blinded by theological pride or deviance. When I look at the most desperate segment of humanity I observe that deliverance is taking place amongst those who interpret the Bible no further than it chooses to reveal itself without further speculation. I do not, in saying this, say we should not search for more theological light (for this is something that the New Covenant Church of God has most certainly done, and continues to do) but I do say that it is important to get the right perspective and to focus on that which saves. Yes, we at NCCG have been given, and are being given, the blueprint for the Zionic Kingdom to come which even now we are living in our first proto-colony; but all of this is secondary to the main thrust of the evangel, which is simply, saving faith. We do not, as others do, declare that the Bible is not enough for this simple saving faith, for we believe that a person can come to heaven and obtain the highest rewards through following a simple Biblical faith. Where we differ from Mormons, for example, is that whilst we do claim new revelation, new theological insights, and all the emerging attributes of the "fullness", we claim no exclusive legal priesthood mandate, no final complete doctrinal truth, and no scriptures that are disjunctive with the Bible. We do claim a unique call and teach that special persons have been called into NCCG but we do not claim that all are called into it. We believe, and fully accept, that people are called into various churches where their natural dispositions (the results of their spiritual and moral choices) may be adequately ministered to and catered for. Do we claim that we have knowledge that most other churches do not have? Yes, we do. Do we claim that this knowledge is necessary for salvation? No, we do not. Why, then, do we have it? So that those who wish to live a more complete, pure and satisfying life may enjoy it if they so wish (thus aiding their sanctification), as well as preparing themselves and their families for the Great Tribulation which is to come in places of refuge. Does this, in a way, constitute what may be termed an "élite church"? No, it does not. It means simply that God has sent to NCCG those who are especially gifted for the ministry to which they have been called, as well as those who have been called to be ministered to and to serve in their own right according to their abilities.
I have recently been reading a number of very interesting evangelical and Mormon bulletin boards and watched as the particpants have argued theology. Though I intially participated enthusiastically I realised in the end that much of what was being addressed fell under the category of "open-ended" doctrine from the biblical perspective. I will conclude with one further illustration of what is an "essenial doctrine" and which causes no amount of friction between evangelicals and Mormons (whom I know the best), and that is the Doctrine of Salvation.
The Bible is, in many respects, a giant jigsaw puzzle. For some, it poses enormous problems, leaving them befuddled. In the end they often declare that as a revelation it is "inadequate" and in need to further prophetic "clarification". It is here that groups like the Mormons and Christian Scientists claim new revelation. Whilst the concept is by no means invalid, the problems arise when the new "interpretations" and "revelations" contradict what the Bible has already said instead of being legitimate expansions of it. The Godhead doctrine is one of those thorny issues made more contentious by LDS polytheistic ideas contradicting the strict monotheism of the Word. The result is a convoluted apologetics that tries to harmonise disparate and and often mutually exclusive ideas.
For others, there is no problem and they discover that the Bible naturally harmonises its doctrinal statements. Most evangelicals like ourselves believe that a believer animated by the Holy Spirit will be given the correct interpretation and be shown how the puzzle naturally fits together. The New Covenant Church of God has rarely had problems harmonising the Bible because we work from the position of allowing the Bible to interpret itself using its own symbols. It would be a strange God indeed who gave a revelation that could not be interpreted save by means of systems external to it. Given the disparate time periods in which the Bible was written, with its peculiar idioms, some knowledge of the customs of ancient peoples and the structure of their languages is important, though not always essential.
Let us take a look at the Doctrine of Salvation. If we examine some of the "pieces" of the puzzle we find several parts:
1. Salvation is by faith alone, that a man does not boast of his works;
2. Faith without works is dead;
3. We are called to be perfect;
4. We are to obey the commandments;
5. We are saved by the blood of Christ;
6. We are rewarded in the next life according to our works of righteousness;
7. The letter kills, the Spirit gives life;
8. If you falter in one point of the Law, you have broken the whole Law
...and so on.
Assembling the pieces has been the source of much doctrinal controversy. The problem is not so much with the pieces themselves (for most acknowledge that all have a place in the puzzle) but with the order in which we assemble them and the emphasis we place on them.
Let us look at some false emphases. There are some who say that faith is so important that works are irrelevent. Various hersies have emerged historically whereby some groups say that sinning is not as important as forgiveness -- they therefore say that forgiveness gives more glory to God and that therefore repetitive sinning is all right. The fact that other scriptural "pieces" contradict this notion does not seem to bother them.
At the other extreme are those who say that we cannot be saved unless we obey all the commandments. Some Messianic groups focus on the 700+ commandments in the Bible which very few, I would venture to suggest, could even remember, let alone do.
Then there are the various "inbetween" shades of faith and works.
Some of the debates I have seen on the bulletin boards have generated more smoke than light as one side throws its favourite "piece" into the analytical pot and the other its own. This scriptural ping-pong gets the combattants nowhere very fast. Sometimes Bible-believing Christians and Mormons resort to pitching one part of the Bible against the other as though the Bible itself were divided on the issue. Some churches go so far as to reject Paul and claim his teachings to be a heresy - those who take this position to its logical conclusion usually end up as Muslims, Gnostics or unbelievers. Some, like Luther, wished to be rid of the Letter of James, denouncing it as a "straw gospel" because it did not, at first, fit his emerging doctrine of grace. (Critics of Luther conveniently forget that he later accepted it and reconciled it to his teachings). Indeed, many have challenged the Bible Canon because they have felt that certain writers contradicted their own doctrinal hobby-horses, and others have used the rather lame excuse that the Canon was brought together by "apostates" whilst continuing to use the book as a canonical work! The issue of the canon aside (for this is a complex issue), what we do have is authentic and has been recognised as so by all Christians for two millennia. Almost every group I have known that began accepting the Bible as a whole but then started rejecting various parts have ended up in one form of paganism or another. The providential gathering and preservation of the Biblical books is one of our major assumptions which we have defended historically elsewhere, not least the fact that God would not leave His people rudderless.
To understand the Doctrine of Salvation we must consider every piece of the puzzle, as one should expect of so important a doctrine. Some of the conclusions that New Covenant Christians have arrived at are as follows:
- Salvation is past, present, and future;
- Salvation is both an event (the new birth), and a process (sanctification);
- Salvation is both jurisdictional (external) and personal (internal);
- Jurisdictional salvation is by faith alone;
- Personal salvation is by works;
- Salvation is both of the individual and of the Body (church/nation), the one not being without the other in the complete sense;
- Salvation is by faith alone, that a man does not boast of his own righteousness;
- A fruit of one type of salvation (internal) is love which leads spontaneously to good works and natural obedience to the commandments;
- A lack of good works is the evidence that salvation is either only partial or not at all;
- A person who tries to earn salvation through his own works, who feels compelled by something other than divine love, evidences that he is not saved in the biblical sense;
- Salvation in its ultimate sense belongs solely to the spiritual realm though it naturally has manifestations in the physical;
- Salvation includes (1) our admittance rights to heaven (eternal security); and (2) the rewards that we obtain there, the two being on different though to some extent overlapping premises;
- Salvation in the New Covenant is not obtained through the legalistic induction into a priesthood conveyed by the hands or authority of men or by membership in a particular church through baptism and confirmation;
- Salvation involves being actively serving in, being committed, obedient, and loyal to, a church into which one has been called, which may involve serving a partially true church, with the ultimate responsibility being to embrace the truest church unless otherwise instructed by the Lord to remain where he/she is;
These are just some of the "pieces" which I have thrown off the cuff (there are more). Once all the pieces have been gathered, they assemble themselves. Where errors have crept historically in is where one or more pieces have been de-emphasised, neglected, or ignored -- accidentally or deliberately.
For New Covenant Chistians the problem of understanding salvation came when we understood that salvation is both inner and outer, jurisdictional as well as spiritual -- in short, that there are different types of salvation. Then we understood that there was a certain order, namely, that salvation is first and foremost by faith alone by which we declare our utter helplessness and place our hand in the hands of the Master as total dependents and approptriate His atoning blood by faith, such that when the Father looks upon us He sees Christ. We walk before the Father shielded by the blood - always - and always on the basis of faith. When the Father sees us, He sees only Christ. But when Christ sees us, He sees us for what we are - redeemed propositionally, with a guarantee of Heaven if we continue to walk in His grace, but in need of getting "cleaned up" literally, or to "overcome" as the Book of Revelation puts it over 8 times, in order to obtain the highest rewards, not for themselves but in order to please Christ. Thus we seek perfection in order to please our Lord, not for what we can "get" - thus the question of pride-free motive becomes paramount.
I am thus a sinner, covered by the blood so that all the Father sees is the perfection of Christ, with a guarantee of heaven so long as I do not spurn grace and deliberately sin, inspite of my sinfulness and imperfections. That covering comes solely by faith. I am saved by grace though I may fall from it if I persistently sin after a period of grace, the length of which is known only by God but which I may nonetheless recognise by certain spiritual signs in my life.
At the same time as being saved by grace I am striving to be obedient, in joy and love, knowing that this pleases my Lord and am content to let Him work out whatever rewards I may ultimately be entitled to in the next life. I do not need to be in a "true church" to do these things but I do need to be where He wants me. I do not need an elaborate theology on the Godhead or other periphetal doctrines (such as the substantial nature of the Lord's Supper) to do this but I do need to understand and accept that my Saviour is God, and thus able to save in the final, complete sense. The most important theology I will ever have is that which reveals my sinful tendencies so that I may repent and turn from that sin in the grace and power of Christ. The Law does that for me, as Paul taught. Therefore I anxiously search the Scriptures so that I may find out what the ultimate, perfect life is for me -- that which I may aspire to, in the security of my jurisdictional salvation, and that which I may not. Whilst I believe I can only obtain the salvation of faith in this life (unless I have not heard the Word), I believe I may continue to go on to perfection in the next life, through the continued empowering grace of Christ. I am not as anxious about the latter as I am about the former, making sure that when I sin that I do something about it as quickly as possible before the day of grace expires. I know that I am innocent and not judged so long as I am ignorant of sin so I do not fear I will lose this salvation if at the last day I am still walking in sin ignorantly (as I am sure I will be). This gives me spiritual rest whilst keeping me on my spiritual toes!
Over the years, the theology of "unessential" doctrines has become less and less important to me. I wish to see what is needful in this life for what I am called to do and be. Though I have an intellectual curiosity still, it has definitely slid down the rungs of my ladder of priorities.Time is short - we do not have forver to "work out our salvation in fear and trembling" so we need to prioritise, and learn how to do it before we grow old. The theology that I need is the theology that is needed for everyone, no matter their intellectual acumen or lack of it. If I forget this then I am in danger of becoming élitist, which the Gospel of Yahshua haMashiach (Jesus Christ) is not. If I cannot teach the Gospel to the simplest peasant, then I have lost something of its spiritual heart and may need to repent of pride somewhere. At the same me I have a responsibility given me by commandment to defend the Gospel against the attacks of both the simple as well as the intelligent so that souls are not led into delusions and end up seeking for a counterfeit salvation which will leave them in desperate straits in the end. I have been involved in "salvation by faith without works" and "salvation by works" churches; the former has left be starving and the latter unsure of where I stood before God. I believe I have now found the biblical way taught by the first apostles. Here I have both rest as well as a desire to go on to perfection. And for both I have only Yahshua (Jesus) to thank and praise.
This page was created on 17 June 1999
Last updated on 17 June 1999
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