A Student’s Changing Theology
I was first introduced to the limits of theological truth as a young ministerial student at Bible college. As part of our training, we were encouraged to find positions of service in local churches such as ministers, youth ministers, or Sunday school teachers. Since I was still acquiring the knowledge necessary for Christian Service, I occasionally found that some of the things I had been teaching were partially negated by what I was learning in class. Concerned that I had inadvertently been preaching falsehoods, I wondered if I should stop preaching. However, I learned that my preaching and teaching could still make a meaningful contribution to the spiritual growth in congregations.
The temporal character of my theological knowledge did not resolve when I received my four-year degree, or by several other degrees. If we are honest, our learning in any subject (especially theology) is a lifelong process. We never arrive at the point where there is nothing left to learn. We should never stand on a pedestal to declare that we have now arrived at absolute truth; our utterances no longer questioned. Taking such a position would surely by blasphemy, since God alone is omniscient. Instead, it is a hallmark of both intellectual and spiritual maturity that the more we learn about a subject, the more we realize how little we actually know. Great knowledge does not breed arrogance, but humility.
The Disciples’ Changing Theology
We can also see the limits of theological truth in the lives of the disciples. Their understanding of who Jesus was only gradually developed during the course of Christ’s ministry. Although in face-to-face contact with the Son of God on a daily basis, the disciples’ theology was patchy at best. As they walked and talked with Christ and witnessed his miracles, their understanding (their theology) of who the son of God was gradually deepened. Only after Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit did their understanding come fully into focus.
John finally came to fully understand the divinity of the Son of God and would later open his gospel with this beautiful and powerful proclamation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1–5).
The Church’s Changing Theology
The limits of theological truth can also be seen with regard to the church’s changing theological positions. The church struggles with the same human limitations that the disciples did before the Holy Spirit led them into truth. Unlike the theology of the disciples, however, the church’s theology has not been perfected but continues to change through time. We believe that the Holy Spirit also dwells within us. Yet, it is painfully obvious that we have not always allowed the Spirit to lead us into all truth.
It can certainly be argued, as C. S. Lewis did in Mere Christianity (1952), that there is a central core of beliefs that the majority of Christians down through the ages have adhered to, whether they are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. This central theological core has not significantly changed over the last two millennia. Occasionally, theological debates have arisen over one or more of these central tenets of the faith, but more frequently Christians have spent their time arguing over theological points that are secondary, or even tertiary to this central core of beliefs.
Ceasing to Disagree
Nevertheless, we can only work with the knowledge that is available to us during the course of our lives. As good stewards of the Word, God expects us to use what is given us and not to live in willful ignorance. Each generation of Christians has the sacred task, not only to remain faithful to the Scriptures, but also to try and understand the Scriptures in terms of what we currently know about the world around us. As Peter encouraged us: “Do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:14–15).
“Nigel Brush considers theology to be an essential discipline in the search for truth, that is nonetheless conditioned by human limitations and cultural perspectives, and therefore in need of continual review and revision. He develops his thesis by exploring some notable theological mistakes, both ancient and contemporary…Brush’s very thoughtful treatment is a realistic case for intellectual and spiritual humility about our theological beliefs.”
Michael L. Peterson (Asbury Theological Seminary)