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Review Essay, Keeping the Balance

Theology and preaching Downes believes we are living “in an age where biblical illiteracy is rampant, and privatised beliefs are the norm”. Consequently, “it is essential the whole revealed will of God is known both in the church and in the world”. Preaching must be both expository (that is, “explaining what the Bible teaches and how they relate to each another”). To engage in theology is to begin answering questions like “Who is Jesus Christ?” and “What happens to people when they die?” The actual answers to those questions are the end product of systematic theology. It is the preacher’s imperative not only to expound on scriptural passages accurately and explain the Bible correctly, but also to instil in his or her listeners “a right understanding of the whole of Christian truth”. This will require a commitment to theology—and more specifically, to systematic theology.

What is theology? Downes defines theology succinctly as “the knowledge of God”. For the Christian, this is drawn from God’s “general revelation” in God’s redemptive acts, in scripture and in the incarnation. Theology is made up of three parts: a “confessional element”, which is what the Church believes; “reflection on this confession”, which is “the attempt to understand confession in the present by [1] ranging over the whole of God’s disclosure in Scripture, [2] humbly recognising and receiving the labours and insights of the church throughout history, and finally [3] untangling what is confessed from the prevailing trends of the day that intrude upon the life and thought of the church”; the “cultivation of virtues”, which is about building wisdom for life, grounded on the first two elements.

Drawing on the tripartite concept of theology conceived by David Wells, ten sub-disciplines that “inform reflection” and “feed the cultivation of virtues” are duly noted: exegesis, which tells us what a given biblical text said to its readers; biblical theology, which gives us the total message of a Bible book on this or that subject; historical theology, which shows how Christians in the past viewed specific biblical truths; systematic theology, which restates the faith topic by topic as a whole in a way the present generation can understand; apologetics, which seeks to defend and commend the faith as rational and true; ethics, which systemises the standards of Christian life; spiritual theology, which studies how to maintain sanctifying communion with God; missiology, which tackles evangelism, church-planting and charity; liturgy, which shows us how to worship; practical theology, which explores how to further God’s work and glory in home, church and society. Systematic theology, although fourth on the list, is crowned by Downes as “apex and fulcrum” of the other nine disciplines, being “the sum of the first three” and “the source of material for the remaining six”.

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2006

About the Author: W. Simpson, PhD (University of St. Andrews, Scotland), is a physicist and writer with an interest in theology, currently engaged in scientific research in the middle-east.

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