Weighing Theology by Dr. Mark Soto

This is an article written by Dr. Mark Soto that first appeared in GraceConnect Magazine.

“I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God,” A. W. Tozer stated.[i]

Today we are watching the systematic dismantling of orthodoxy by those who would claim to beorthodox. One might ask, how is this possible? The answer is that we have left the gate of theology unguarded because we do not have a proper understanding of theology and how it should work in the church. We need to do some hard work in the days ahead if we expect to be able to properly proclaim the Word of God in a manner that is able to engage the culture, youth, and those who are disillusioned with the Church.

When I was taught theology years ago, almost every theological statement carried the same weight and importance.  Theology was used to divide those who were fellow believers but who wanted in some way to be culturally “relevant.” The term “relevant” is used quite liberally in evangelical circles but I doubt one could find five people with the same definition of the term.

When I engage college and seminary students in the study of theology, I establish early on that not all theology is equal. Throughout this short article, I will use illustrations to help make my point.

dogmaThe most significant area of theology I will call dogma. That is an arbitrary term but one that can help people to think properly about the importance of these theological propositions.

Dogma is the top of the theological spectrum. These are explicit statements of Scripture regarding those beliefs that are necessary to determine whether one is saved or lost, a believer or an unbeliever. This might be called orthodoxy, or the beliefs outlined in some of the great creeds of the early church. There are frankly not many theological propositions that can be put into this category because everyone who is saved should in some way be able to understand its implications.

This category demands that we begin with explicit statements about the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Nature of the Gospel, and the key elements related to the entrance of Christ into the world and his life, death, burial, and resurrection and physical return to the earth. Again, this is what we who are Orthodox believe.

The next category comes below dogma and I have called this doctrine. These are logical constructions of theology that define us as groups, denominations, assemblies, fellowships, etc. Each group has a theological bent that is drawn from Scripture but is logically put together to draw conclusions compatible with the historical commitments, beliefs, and articulations of those who have come before. We forget that these are believers who embrace the dogmas above!

doctrineIn fairness, some of these constructions are more significant than others, but essentially I encourage students to consider their own theology and to begin to hold this area with a little less willingness to fight, call one another apostates, or condemn those with whom they disagree.

Now the great challenge is to work through (with the leadership of church, group, or denomination) what theological beliefs belong in the category of doctrine. What are the implications for cooperation, and how should one treat those who are different in these areas? Too often we hold the right view of Scripture but a wrong view of doctrine!

traditionThe third area I call tradition. These are things that are a part of our culture, our preferences, what we like when we think of “church.” This area separates us by placing an emphasis on culture, preference, and opinion. We use Scripture to justify our beliefs but they are really only cultural traditions and not Biblical doctrine.

It is a struggle trying to determine what theological issues and beliefs go into each category. Asking what is dogma, what is doctrine, and what is tradition is an absolutely necessary exercise that too many groups have never engaged. When I teach this, I give my students a list of more than a hundred theological beliefs and ask them to place them in the proper category. The exercise is instructive as they struggle at times to determine which concept goes into what category. Translate this to a practical understanding of what is happening in evangelical churches across America. For too many years, young people have watched my generation and those older make issues of doctrine and tradition equal with issues of dogma. It looks like this:

all dogma

We then have condemned others for not only issues of dogma but also tradition and doctrine. These very astute young people recognize that some of those things are just not that important. Then along came the emergent movement, which helped young people question everything. What we now see looks more like this:

all tradition

Issues of doctrine and dogma have been lowered to the level of tradition and everything is culturally discerned. There is not a list of dogmas or even doctrines that inform us how we should live in this culture. Everything is up for grabs because everything is really unimportant.

The problem is the older generations often have made everything about truth and have shown no grace to those who differ. Yet this present culture has lowered everything to the level of tradition and has thus eliminated any truths that can be known with assurance. The end result is a theology with an abundance of grace and almost no truth. Jesus should be our example where in John 1:14 we read that Jesus, the Word, “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace AND truth.”[ii] We need desperately to do the hard work of identifying what belongs in each category. It should look like this:

correct order

We should be willing to die for dogma. When it comes to doctrine we should make practical decisions about how to band together and cooperate around a common set of beliefs. Tradition should be completely negotiable. I should be willing to surrender any preference for the sake of others!

As Christians, we need to begin the hard work of knowing which battles to fight and what we should be willing to surrender in order to teach our young people how to “understand the times” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NASB). Maybe we would keep more of them in the church, instead of losing them to the secular culture.

[i] Tozer, A. W. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, page 2.

[ii] NASB (1977).

Editor’s Note: Dr. Mark Soto teaches in the School of Ministry Studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary where he is the program director for the M.A. in Ministry. He and his wife, Carol, are members of the Winona Lake (Ind.) Grace Brethren Church.

 This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of GraceConnect magazine. To receive your free subscription to GraceConnect magazine, send your mailing address to amyers@bmhbooks.com.


Feature Friday: God’s Greatest Word to Man by Homer A. Kent

There have been times in human history when God actually talked with people. He spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden. He spoke to Noah and Abraham. One of the great truths of the Bible is that God has communicated with men in words. 

People are still searching for a closer relationship with God. They ask such questions as: “Is God Real? Does He really Love me? Does God still speak to people today?” 

We are not the only Christians to wonder about God’s present interest in us, and look longingly at the past. The original readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews felt the same way. They knew God had formerly spoken with their ancestors, but they were uncertain about the present. The writer reminded them of their past, and then he showed them that God had done something even greater for them. He had blessed them with His greatest message. That message was God’s greatest word to man, and is the basis of every blessing we can hope for. But there is something very different about this message.

In Hebrews 1:1 the writer said that God had frequently spoken, “long ago to the fathers” (NASB). He was talking about Old Testament revelation, more than 400 years before the time of the New Testament. God had done this “in the prophets.” These were men, and occasionally a woman, to whom God gave a special message. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel were among the group. God did this “in many portions.” No one prophet received the whole message. It came piecemeal, in fragments. God’s message also came “in many ways.” He spoke to the prophets in dreams, visions, by angles, and even by special events, such as a burning bush. Jewish people rejoiced in their heritage, and a glorious heritage it was!

But in Hebrews 1:2 the writer says that God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” This reminds us of the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Matthew 21:33-46) who missed the landowner’s  property during his absence, kept the profits for themselves, and beat the owner’s slaves whom he sent to collect the produce when the harvest was over. Finally the landowner decided to send his son, thinking they would certainly respect him, but instead they killed the son, foolishly supposing they would now become the heirs. This is what God had done when He sent His own Son to the world. There could be no higher messenger than this. 

Now if God’s greatest message to us involved God’s Son, wouldn’t you like to know what that message was? When Jesus was here, He said some wonderful things recorded in the four Gospels. But the writer of Hebrews doesn’t quote any of those statements of Jesus. Instead, he describes Jesus Himself, rather than giving any of the Words of Jesus. The fact is: Jesus is the message. He Himself is The Word of God (John 1:1).

The author of Hebrews goes on to give seven characteristics of God’s Son in Hebrews 1:2b-3. He describes Him as “heir of all things” (Psalms 2:2-8), the Creator “through whom also He made the world,” possessor of deity (“the radiance of His Glory” – “the Glory” is one of the names of God. See 2 Peter 1:17), the perfect revealer of God, “the exact representation of His nature,” and the One who “upholds all things by the word of His power.” 

The final two characteristics of Jesus are of special importance to us. He became our redeemer (“He made purification of sins”), and is presently exalted (“sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”).

So what is God saying to us in this greatest word to man? Simply, that He is the Sovereign Lord who keeps His promises, that He knows our deepest longings, and that He loves us and has done something to help us.

And what should be our response to Jesus, who is God’s greatest word to man? Surely we should respond with joy in knowing that we have been redeemed and will be with Him in glory forever. And we should be filled with thanksgiving, and submit to the Lordship of the Divine Son, whom God has sent to be our Savior.

(This has been reproduced from a devotional entitled Selah. The author is former President of Grace Theological Seminary Dr. Homer Kent.)

For more information on GTS please go to http://www.grace.edu/seminary.

What We Believe Wednesday

When looking for a seminary, I knew that I wanted to attend a school that was doctrinally sound and that stood for truth. In an age where society defines truth as subjective I was trying to find the seemingly impossible: a seminary that not only believed in absolute truth but also a seminary that stood up for the Truth.

Being “doctrinally sound” is the battle cry for almost every seminary. Yet, many times these mantras are followed by contradictory claims in their classrooms. I found at Grace Theological Seminary (GTS) that there isn’t a contradiction between the classroom and the doctrinal statement.

The first doctrinal statement that we are featuring deals with what we at GTS believe about the Bible. The following is taken directly from GTS’s doctrinal statement:

The Holy Scriptures
We believe in the Holy Scriptures, accepting fully the writings of the Old and New Testaments as the very Word of God, verbally inspired in all parts and therefore wholly without error as originally given of God, altogether sufficient in themselves as our only infallible rule of faith and practice (Matt. 5:18, John 10:35, 16:13, 17:17, 2 Tim, 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21).

Thanks for reading. Check back every Wednesday for an overview of what GTS believes and if you are curious and can’t wait a week you can go here and view GTS’s full doctrinal statement.

For more information on GTS please go to http://www.grace.edu/seminary.

Post written by current MDiv student and Seminary Representative C. Ringler

The Who, (what, why, how and other questions)

Picking a seminary is tough.

There are so many questions that seem to build on one another: what is the institution’s doctrine, who are their professors, how much does it cost, are there available jobs, should I get a MDiv, what about a MA or ThM, is seminary right for my family, is seminary right for me? 

There are many more questions that pile on these others, yet, the most important question about seminary is “Am I called?”

The emphasis of this blog is not to give you an answer to that last question. That is something that you must pray about and earnestly seek the wisdom of God and those who are close to you. However, in this blog we do hope to highlight various aspects of seminary, particularly Grace Theological Seminary, and we hope that this information can help you through your process.

The Who: 

Every good friendship I have ever had, from kindergarten to seminary, started with an introduction. So, let’s get the formality out of the way.

Grace Theological Seminary (GTS) is located in Winona Lake, Indiana. We have been here since 1939 but are actually two years older than that. Our original seminary was located in Akron, Ohio. Since the beginning of the seminary GTS has been known for having wonderful professors who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and boldly stand for the truth of the Gospel. We can boast in God’s grace that we still stand on these truths.

Today, just like 76 years ago, GTS is committed to teaching, training and transforming men and women to be leaders in their local churches, communities, and the world. GTS is a dedicated community that strives to create passionate people for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Our faculty have served the Lord in a multitude of ways and have had titles that include senior pastor, missionary, women ministry leader and college campus pastor. These men and woman who serve their students love the Lord, their families, and are dedicated scholars who mix academia with practical ministry.

GTS is the seminary of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren (FGBC). We have many FGBC students as well as Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, IFCA and Independent/Non-Denominational amongst others. 

Now that we have been introduced I hope you will come back again to read more about Grace Theological Seminary.

For more information on GTS please go to http://www.grace.edu/seminary.

Post written by current MDiv student and Seminary Representative C. Ringler

A blog about Grace Theological Seminary