I grew up in close proximity to fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches; my primary theological degree is from a conservative evangelical theological college; and I have been employed since 1994 by Baptist churches embracing a conservative evangelical identity. So it goes without saying that reflection on theological method has not loomed large in my spiritual formation, theological education, pastoral practice or professional writing.
I have, of course, for many years ordered my life and work according to specific theological convictions and assumptions, and employed specific methods (and dismissed other methods) in arriving at these. But this has rarely been a deliberative and systematic task, despite my keen interest in intellectual enquiry and an occasional tendency to think “outside the box.”
As a teenager, I once asked the only elder in my local church whom I respected (the other elder, a Queensland police officer, was later jailed for sex crimes) whether he had any books on theology. I wanted to explore biblical concepts such as covenant, justification, reconciliation and sanctification, and he seemed to have an impressive library of maroon and dark blue hardback tomes.
“We don’t have time for that sort of thing,” he said, and pointed me to his library, which turned out to comprise largely nineteenth-century biblical and devotional commentaries by Plymouth Brethren greats such as John Nelson Darby, C.H. Macintosh and William Kelly. Between the covers of those books I learned a lot about the spiritual meaning of the tent pegs of the ancient Israelite Tabernacle, the distinction to be made between “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven,” why the Plymouth Brethren movement was the only true church, and the identity of the whore of Revelation 14. For my sins, I also went to a Brisbane bookshop and purchased Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Theology (IVP, 1981), which I found immensely rewarding, and which I still use from time to time in preparation for preaching in churches and lecturing at Morling College.
At theological college, it is hardly surprising that theology was taken more seriously, both as an academic discipline and as a formative practice. My college, now known as Malyon College, the Baptist theological college of Queensland, was part of a consortium which included what is now called Crossway College (aka the Bible College of Queensland), where theology was taught by Dr Peter Ralphs, an evangelical minister of the Uniting Church. Students could in principle enrol in subjects at either college. For timetabling reasons, I applied in 1993 to study theology at Crossway, but was advised that it was a requirement of Malyon College that all students study subjects in theology at Malyon under Rev Jim Gibson, an evangelist then in his first year of teaching theology and freshly returned to Australia from graduate studies at Dallas or Denver Seminary (I can’t now recall which it was). Queensland Baptists did not want potential ministers of their churches taught theology by a Uniting Church minister. I later discovered that parallel purity rules applied among NSW Baptist churches, with devastating consequences for the denomination, albeit with regard to Catholic priests.
Theology at Malyon in those days involved a series of talks about “the Gospel Man” and related fundamentals, supplemented by drawings of a stick figure on the blackboard (the “Gospel Man,” who progressively grew limbs, hands, feet, ears, eyes, mouth, and hair – I seem to remember that the hair represented the gifts of the Spirit, though I don’t know why).
For degree students like me, there were also guided readings of Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology (Baker, 1985), photocopied articles and chapters from a range of journals and books such as J.I. Packer’s “What did the cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution” (1973), and John Hick on “The myth of God incarnate” (1977). In later years there were also scores of pages of typed notes (often printed on beige, pale green, pink and mauve paper, presumably to inspire interest) on theological themes, written by Jim’s father and former Malyon Principal Dr Ted Gibson, with additional notes on themes and issues by Dr Stan Nickerson and Dr David Denton. All of these were helpful, and I still have most of the notes. But questions of theological method were either not discussed or I was too busy reading in the back row to notice.
There was, however, one exception: I recall attending a lecture where Jim Gibson raised the issue of prolegomena in theology (the practice, largely among Protestant theologians, of prefacing a seminal theological treatise with explanatory or clarifying remarks regarding structure, sources of authority, and/or methodology). We discussed various basic approaches known to us, such as beginning a systematic theology with an exploration of the nature of the Trinity, or the nature of divine revelation, and concluded that a good way to both organise and introduce a systematic theology would be by defining “the gospel.” I never did see the fruit of that wisdom.
Part 2 to follow…