Systematic Theology, pt. 2

by Randall S. Frederick

Continued from part 1

Where Christians differ from one another greatly is not in their theology, but in their ethics. This is to say that, for clarity, Christians might agree with the teaching of Jesus and the Golden Rule – love and obey God above all, do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for this is the fulfillment of the law according to Paul. But while Evangelicals say this and share this, they fail to recognize the words as they reside on the page. Evangelicals fail to embody the Christian practices, instead continually returning to their ethical models (instead of scripture) and allowing scripture (instead of their ethic) to inform their lives and religious experience.

Theologically, Christians and Evangelicals share many beliefs – the sovereignty of God, the hope for an eternal dwelling in the presence of God, a belief in the aspirational goodness of humanity tempered with recognition of the corrupting influence of sin in the world. Ethically, there is great difference of opinion between Christians and Evangelicals. Where the two camps break without reconciliation is over their interpretation and prioritization of what can be defined as the voice of God. Despite claims and protestations to the contrary, Christians routinely emphasize and prioritize the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospels while Evangelicals, at their best, emphasize and prioritize the sayings and teachings of Paul as recorded in the Epistles.

Where Evangelicals confuse the narrative, confuse discourse, and confuse one another is conflating theology and ethics, setting aside the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures as it relates to history, law/ethics, and prophecy/politics to prefer instead, in order: The Epistles of Paul, the Revelation of John, the Gospels, and the lesser epistles. The scriptures that Jesus and Paul would have read and been informed by is “set aside” by Evangelicals – practically dismissed while vocally affirmed in toto. Having worked and lived with churches and faith communities for over  decade, it is glaringly obvious who has read the Bible and who pays it lip service.

Don’t misunderstand, I affirm the teachings of Paul. I just don’t prioritize them or find them binding because Paul is clearly constructing an interpretation of the Story of God in light of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Paul is finding a way to merge the teachings of Hebrew Scripture – the law, the prophets, the histories – with the revelation of God’s Spirit and the visiting of this God on Earth through the Christ. He does not equate himself to God. He does not equate himself to the Christ. He even speaks on heresy and false interpretations of his contemporaries who are engaged in the same work – reinterpreting the Story of God. But he never places himself equal to Jesus and he certainly never seeks to “set aside” the law, the prophets, or the histories. This is not a “setting aside,” which he condemns regularly in his epistles. It is an informed interpretation of the present based on what has come before.

Evangelicals do the very thing Paul condemns, which is ironic. They place Paul’s ethics above the revelation of the Christ and say the two are the same. Which is alot like saying the coffee bean is the same as the cup of coffee. There are many differences between the bean and the cup, and there are many steps in-between that alter the flavor and brew. Or, we might say, this is like the claim that dating and having a family are the same. They are two very different experiences, one commonly preceding the other and giving substance and form to what follows. While yes, individuals will (hopefully) continue to date over the duration of a relationship, and yes individuals can certainly have a family without dating (indeed, it is possible to keep the two entirely and distinctly separate), one informs the other more than the other way round and are two distinct experiences. Having a baby with someone and building a shared life is not the same as the initial meeting.

Christians, unlike Evangelicals, make use of these differences and allow each to inform and invigorate the other – theology informing ethics and ethics informing theology rather than seeing them as either synonymous (the case of many Evangelicals) or mutually exclusive and antagonistic (the case of Fundamentalists who believe in strict literalism, whether Evangelical, Muslim, or another faith).

In the last entry, I talked about the role Wayne Grudem had had in shaping Evangelical theology with the publication of Systematic Theology in 1994. His work extends past this, though. He was the general editor of the ESV translation of the Bible, published in 2008, and it’s pretty telling that he co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in the Nineties when male Evangelical leaders were “failing” and “falling” every weekend and female “speakers” were taking over more pastorates. Nothing screams gender insecurity like founding an organization to defend and protect “Biblical” roles of men and women. I take it with a grain of sympathy, perhaps, that he was an editor on a new translation of the Bible, even while I also think it is interesting that his professional work is not in translation or biblical criticism except as it relates to the extraction of “timeless truths.” No expert in biblical languages names Grudem as a biblical interpreter. He was never an interpreter and his translations are woefully off base, misinformed, and at times laughable. It requires a great deal of hubris to say you can speak for God, as many ministers do. It takes even more to “translate” what God has said and continues to say across cultures, millenia, and context. But here I must relent, since Grudem is hardly the first man to write a systematic theology or to attempt to make sense of theology or even the first to claim that the Hebrew scriptures should be set aside.

Grudem writes in Christian Ethics (2018) that he holds “a conservative view of biblical inerrancy” and because of this feels “that the entire Mosaic covenant has been abrogated and is no longer binding on us.” Further, he puts forward a very Modern excuse (the exceptionalism and relativity that he challenges and shames in both Christian Ethics [2018] and Systematic Theology [1994])when demotes the Hebrew Scriptures to secondary status, writing that “we can still gain wisdom from it (the Hebrew Scriptures) if we bear in mind that it was God’s plan for the people of Israel for a previous era in history.”

Using Grudem’s own translation, the ESV, Jesus is recorded in Matthew 5:17-19 as saying

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

How Grudem’s position can be reconciled requires a great deal of textual gymnastics and, as stated, requires both exceptionalism (privileging his own position) and relativity (the laws are eternally binding to all of the people of God, but only if it’s relevant to the current claim being made). This kind of loose theology and ethical construction is what allows Grudem to set aside the law and the prophets on some things (like gender roles and his defense of war), but hold to it later on issues like gay rights (which he denounces), gender equality (which he denounces), and acceptance, even support of corrupt leaders (which he affirms), inhumane treatment of other humans (which he affirms in his Politics According to the Bible [2010]), exploitation of natural resources (which he affirms and encourages in Politics According to the Bible), and division of races (which he affirms in Politics According to the Bible).

A Case Study: The Role of Christian Women

Grudem is not the first to offer a “systematic” theology. But let’s observe those his theology have influenced by looking at one issue, that of the role of women in the Church. Grudem’s loose theology allows men like Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky to claim on May 10, 2019:

There’s just something about the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice. It’s a question of authority. I think that’s what makes people nervous, but the apostle Paul makes that argument ‘I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.’ This is where you go back to the original controversy in evangelicalism and in Southern Baptist life. What really was the key issue is biblical authority. Did the Holy Spirit inspire Paul to say that or not?

Owen Strachan, professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. makes it even more explicit. “For a woman to teach and preach to adult men is to defy God’s Word and God’s design.”

This emphasis on the Pauline epistles to the neglect of the Gospels, church tradition and history, cultural context, social progress led speaker Beth Moore to fume against her evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the culture of misogyny “baptized” in scriptural interpretation.

All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture. Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.

Evangelicals refuse to allow the Hebrew Scriptures to inform their ethics because it’s all they have. The testimony of scripture, both Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures, routinely denounce the division of theology from the lived experience and the consequences of this kind of sin, the sin expressed in ignoring God’s voice (written or experienced) to insulate and protect one’s own presuppositions.

Ezekiel 34 denounces the behavior of Evangelical leaders and their facade of “ethics” over the will of God.

The word of the Lord came to me: Human, go prophesy against the religious leaders. Prophesy, and say to them — to these “shepherds”, these “religious leaders”: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings. You exploit. But you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you “shepherds,” hear the word of the LordAs I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LordThus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GodI will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Evangelical leaders, their theologians and most outspoken voices, will never embrace the testimony of God. They can’t. If they did, they would lose too much. And, the Bible says, it is their refusal to do what is right that will cause them to lose everything in this life and the next. This is a gamble Grudem is willing to make, apparently, for the present notoriety his work affords him and those like him.

Strachan has regularly appealed to Grudem (instead of scripture) to inform his views on gender. Notice how Strachan structures his argument, how he uses Hebrew Scripture – which he sets aside – to defend his belief in Evangelical “tradition” of woman. In his May 7, 2019 essay “Divine Order in a Chaotic Age” he writes,

In terms of local church polity, God does not tell us to select leaders according to gifting and talent. The Lord working through the Spirit calls only godly men to provide spiritual leadership, shepherding, and teaching for the gathered assembly of God’s people (see 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). All this, as we have said, is spiritual and ecclesial order. It is dependent on God’s making of the sexes:  Ἀδὰμ γὰρ πρῶτος ἐπλάσθη εἶτα Εὕα–“for Adam was formed first, then Eve,” Ἀδὰμ being the first word in the Greek text of 1 Timothy 2:13. Men preach in the church, Paul teaches, because Adam was made first, and Adam was not deceived by the serpent (1 Tim. 2:14). The verse flow mirrors the flow of thought: the breakdown of creation order in the garden of Eden led to the deception of the woman and the fall of humanity. The stakes are terrifyingly high when it comes to the design of God in the world of men.

Strachan uses the ethical model he has presupposed, then anachronistically “reads back” the interpretation he has presupposed to affirm his conclusion. Women are lesser (because they are more susceptible to deception), therefore the “biblical” order is to ignore the prophets (matching Strachan’s “cherry picking” or “proof texting” of scripture, I here offer Isaiah 44:3, Joel 2:28, Ezekiel 39:29 which affirm the inclusion of women in the sharing of God’s goodness and also Isaiah 43:19-20 and Isaiah 35:6-7 which offer that those who cannot speak and even animals and the land itself will speak of God’s goodness. To deny that women are allowed to share in the fulfillment of these verses is to claim that God prefers animals, dirt clods, and piles of rocks to women, a leap in logic that defies the creation narrative which culminates in the creation of women) for Paul, who claimed that his gender and social norms were his own “and not of God” (I Corinthians 7:12).

Paul is explicitly, directly, openly, without confusion putting forward the idea that ethical norms he puts forward are not necessarily from God. They are not divine revelation. They are not scriptural interpretation. They are not sufficient for theological insight. Paul distinguishes that ethics can still be good and worth affirming even if they are not “revealed” by God, by Christ, or by the Spirit of God.

Ethics are not scripture.

They do not replace scripture.

Theology and Ethics should not be conflated, confused, or blurred like Grudem tries to do. They are very much distinguishable, and indeed must be for a Christian theology.

This is why, having living among and served together with traditionalists, I can affirm their expression of gender norms. If a couple wants to live out traditional gender norms, where a male partner “goes out” and works while a female partner “stays behind” and shares in the relationship domestically, this is a beautiful thing worth affirming. But it’s beauty and affirmation does not make it Godly, does not make it Christian. And, understanding this, Christians appeal to a higher law than their own interpretation or lived experience. They continually – like Paul – seek out the ways of God, distinguish between their own opinion and the words found in scripture, both Hebrew and Christian. They order their beliefs differently, placing the emphasis on something other than their ethics and always, always differentiating between ethics and theological insight. One can have a systematic ethic without a systematic theology, and Christians are the ones who are constantly trying to build a viable theology that welcomes an ethic without first being informed by it.

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