Theology: Foundations of Theology for Grace Communion International
Acts 17:11 tells us that the Bereans “…examined the Scriptures every day” to see if what Paul said about Jesus was true. The Bereans were engaged in theology — studying to know God.
The English word “theology” comes from two Greek words, theos and logia — meaning “God” and “knowledge.” Theology is what we as Christian believers do — we involve ourselves in “God knowledge” or “God study” seeking to know God as fully as we can. Theology is simply the study of God.
What we believe, and what a Christological, or Trinitarian, theology is all about, is that theology itself needs to emerge from God’s own witness to himself in Scripture.
The idea of studying theology, or even thinking about theology, can often be frightening to people. But really, everyone has a theology, whether they know it or not. Even atheists have a theology.
A college student once admitted to the college chaplain that she did not believe in God. The chaplain was curious, and so he asked: “Well, what sort of god is it that you don’t believe in?” She described an old man in the sky, someone who is just looking for people to do something wrong so he can zap them. And the chaplain replied, “Well, if that’s what you mean by the word god, then I’d be an atheist, too. I don’t believe in that kind of god, either.”
A person’s theology is really just their beliefs about God. Some people think that God is an angry judge; others believe that he is like a grandfather who means well but can’t do much. Others see him as a cosmic concierge who exists to grant us our every desire. Some people think of God as far off and unknowable; others think of him as near and accessible. Some people think God never changes his mind; others think that he is always changing in response to the prayers of his people. How people view God affects how they read and interpret the Bible.
When Paul tells us that Adam brought condemnation on everyone, and that Jesus brought justification for everyone, then we have to think about what that means about humanity and about Jesus and about salvation. When Paul says that we were baptized into Christ’s death, or when Jesus says, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” we need to think about what that means — and that’s theology.
A study of theology helps us learn to put all our various doctrines or beliefs or teachings together, to see if they are consistent with one another, or if they seem to contradict one another. But we don’t do theology just according to what sounds good to us. We are not the authority — God is. If he didn’t reveal himself to us, then we wouldn’t know anything for sure about him. But he has revealed himself to us, and in two ways — in Scripture, and in Jesus — and we know Jesus through Scripture as well. So Scripture should provide our foundation for theological thought.
At the heart of all our doctrines and beliefs in our denomination is the Bible. And yet, as is clear even from our own history (not to mention the history of the Christian church in general), people do not agree on how the Bible should be interpreted. A person’s theology, or their perspective on who God is and how he relates to humanity and how humanity relates to him, is like a lens though which people interpret what they read in the Bible. What we believe, and what a Christological, or Trinitarian, theology is all about, is that theology itself needs to emerge from God’s own witness to himself in Scripture. And God’s own witness to himself in Scripture is Jesus Christ. “If you have seen me,” Jesus said, “You have seen the Father.”
In Jesus, God fully revealed himself to humanity. Karl Barth once said you really can’t do theology. If theology is the study of God, the knowledge of God, how can the human mind ever study God? Well, there is a way — as he then pointed out. God fully revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
In our denomination, our theology is what gives cohesion and structure to our beliefs and establishes priority for our doctrines. It has developed over the years as we have worked through various doctrinal issues, all the while being careful to maintain a Bible-based understanding of who God is and how he relates to humanity.
God is known by faith, and by that we mean that we know God not merely as we hear about him through the Scriptures, but as we actually put our trust in him. In that obedient life, the Spirit engages us to think about and reflect on what God reveals about himself. That is why a Christological, or Christ-centered, theology is so important, so that we have the right starting place for our journey of growing in the grace and knowledge of God.
As our theology developed, we found the writings of Thomas and James Torrance and Karl Barth to be especially helpful because of their intense focus on the biblical revelation of God through Jesus Christ.
We have a Christ-centered, or Trinitarian, theology. That means not only that we accept the doctrine of the Trinity, but that this doctrine lies at the heart of all other doctrines. The central Bible truth that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, that he and the Father with the Spirit are one God, forms the basis for how we understand everything we read in Scripture.
In John 14, the apostle Philip asked Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus replied, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” In other words, Jesus reveals to us what the Father is like. Jesus shows us a God who is love, is compassion, is patience, kindness, faithfulness, and goodness. God is like that all the time.
Some people imagine that the Father is angry at humanity and really wants to punish everyone, but that the Son intervened for us and paid the price to save us from his Father’s wrath. That’s quite confused, because the Bible says that the Father is just like Jesus. The Father loved the world so much that he sent his Son to save the world. It’s not like Jesus was working behind his Father’s back — no, it’s just the opposite: the Father was working in and through Jesus. The Father is just as eager to save humanity as Jesus is.
When Jesus was born, he was Immanuel, which means “God with us.” When the Word became a human being, he showed us that God is present with humanity, and he is working for humanity. We are his creations, and he doesn’t want to let us go to ruin. When God came in human flesh, he, as a representative of humanity, was able to do what other humans had not been able to do. As the perfect human, Jesus offered God perfect worship, and a perfect sacrifice, and God accepted this worship that was offered on behalf of the human race. Just as in Adam we are all condemned, so also in Christ we are all acquitted, and accepted, and welcomed into the love and fellowship of the Trinity.
As we study Jesus, we begin to see God and his relationship with us as his creation — with humanity. So we began to view the Scriptures through that lens, and we noticed that many others had done likewise; men such as Athanasius and in our modern times theologians like Karl Barth had looked through this same lens, and we began to interact, to participate in a dialectical discussion with the writings and the thoughts of these great Christians from ages past. As we did, we began to focus more and more and more on a certain theology, the theology of adoption, the theology of God’s love for humanity. How God wanted to take us into himself and share his life with us because he is a God of love — a God who gives, and a God who shares.
Thomas Torrance is widely considered to be one of the premier Christian theologians of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion in 1978, and his book, Theological Science,received the first “Collins Award” in Britain for the best work in theology, ethics, and sociology relevant to Christianity for 1967-69.
Torrance founded the Scottish Journal of Theology and served as moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1976-77. He served for more than 25 years as chair of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh, and is author of more than 30 books and hundreds of articles.
Torrance, following in the theological tradition of Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzen, is a leading proponent of what is called Trinitarian theology: theology rooted in God’s own revelation of himself through the Scriptures in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Scriptures, human life and human death find their meaning only in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who in becoming human for our sakes has brought humanity into the eternal joyous fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. Because Christ has done in our place and on our behalf everything needed for our salvation, all that remains for us is to repent and believe in him as our Lord and Savior.
When we take seriously passages about the width and breadth of God’s gracious and powerful reconciling work in Jesus Christ, such as Colossian 1:19-20, some people respond with “You’re just teaching universalism.” Colossians 1:19-20, as you probably know, says: “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Paul wrote the passage, not us, not Karl Barth, not Thomas Torrance. Barth, responding to accusations that he was teaching universalism said, “…there is no theological justification for setting any limits on our side to the friendliness of God towards humanity which appeared in Jesus Christ.” We have no reason to make apologies for the wideness of God’s grace. Paul also wrote, in 1 Timothy 2:4, that God “…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Still, as Barth pointed out, God declares an eternal “No” to sin, and God’s “No” is the power of God by which evil is overthrown and negated, and its power and future denied. God rejects and opposes all opposition to himself, and yet in Jesus Christ, God’s elect, all humanity is indeed elect and reconciled, as Colossians says.
But kingdom life is none other than a life of faith in Jesus, not a life of unbelief. That means that even though all humanity is elect in Christ, unbelieving elect aren’t living a kingdom life; they aren’t living in the joy of fellowship with the Father and the Son and the Spirit. So if it were to be that everyone would ultimately enter into the life of the kingdom, and that is not something we are given to know, but if it were to be, it would only be after repentance, which is turning to God, and faith in Jesus Christ. “Now this is eternal life,” Jesus said in a prayer to the Father, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” There is no salvation outside of a life of faith in Jesus Christ.
That’s what hell is all about—life outside the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit—life, if you can call it that, in the dark, outside the king’s banquet, being left to the miserable fruit of one’s own self-centeredness. Call it fiery, call it outer darkness, call it weeping and gnashing of teeth — the Bible uses all those metaphors in describing the existence of those who refuse to embrace his grace and love, that amazing grace and love God has even for his enemies.
The Bible confronts us with a wonderful, amazing, reconciliation in Christ that is so broad as to encompass not only all things on earth, but even all things in heaven, Colossians tells us in no uncertain terms. Yet God calls on humanity to receive, to accept, that grace he so powerfully bestows on all humanity in Jesus Christ. But for those who refuse it, who persist in their rebellion, and in their rejection of God’s grace for them, hell is what remains for them. As Robert Capon puts it, God will not allow them to spoil the party for everyone else.
Ancient Greek philosophers reasoned that since God is perfect, that must mean that he never changes, and that he never has any feelings, because if he would ever change, then that would mean that he wasn’t perfect before the change.
So they thought of God as static, the so-called “unmoved mover” who made everything happen, but who could not ever change course, because to do so would call his perfection and his power into question. This kind of God would never dirty himself by getting involved with people and their problems. He was far off, watching, but not directly and personally involved. This concept of God has often affected even how Christians think about God.
But the Bible reveals a different sort of God — one who is not constrained by the limits of a philosopher’s logic. God is completely sovereign — he can do whatever he wants to do — and he is not limited by any external rules or ideas or human logic. If he wants the eternal Word to become a human being, then he does it, even though it constitutes a change. The God of the Bible is free to be whoever he wants to be — free to become what he was not before: the Creator; and free to create human beings who would be free, who could go astray, and God is even free to become one of those human beings in order to rescue humanity from its rebellion and alienation.
In this theological thinking, it is not our logic that is in charge — God is the one in charge, and our task, our desire, is to try to understand God not the way that we might reason him out to be by our finite forms of logic, but rather to seek to understand God the way that he has actually revealed himself through the Bible in the person of Jesus Christ.
Throughout church history, people have defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” We believe, and now we want to understand as much as we can about what we believe. It’s like we’ve fallen in love with someone, and we want to find out as much as we can about that person. Theology is faith, trying to understand more about the God who loves us. And we must seek that understanding in the context of God’s own revelation of himself as Father, Son and Spirit revealed to us perfectly in Jesus, the Son of God made flesh for our sakes.
When it comes to theologies, it is not so much a matter of a particular theological perspective being totally “right” or totally “wrong.” It is more a case of how adequate a particular theology is in fully addressing believers’ biblical understanding of God and how God relates to humanity. We have found that of all approaches to Christian theology, Christo-centric, or Trinitarian, theology reflects and adheres most faithfully and carefully to what God reveals about himself and humanity in the Bible.
We should keep in mind that theology is a journey, not a destination. We will always be seeking as clear and adequate a theological vision as we can in order to soundly convey the biblical vision and understanding God has given us over 15-plus years of doctrinal reformation. Theology includes the task of seeking adequate thought-forms to convey doctrinal truths in a rapidly changing world.
Many people today, even believers, are afraid: They’re afraid of their standing with God, worried that they’re not measuring up, that they’re not doing enough, worried that their sins and failures have cut them off from God’s love. That’s what theologies that start from ideas of, say, holiness, or of judgment, cause. So instead of taking confidence in Jesus, and knowing that Jesus has already done for them everything God requires of them, instead of knowing that Jesus is their perfection, their obedience, their faithfulness, they suffer under a burden of guilt and anxiety.
When we know that it isn’t our righteousness but Jesus’ righteousness that has already put us in good standing with God, then we are freed from ourselves and our sinfulness to trust in Jesus and to take up our cross and follow Jesus as we could never be free to do when we’re afraid that God is mad at us. A sound, biblically rooted theology will always start with and be centered in Christology, because in Scripture we are confronted with a God who chooses to be God in Jesus, with Jesus and for Jesus. If we let the Bible forge our theology, we cannot look outside of Jesus to understand who God is, or to define God.
In Jesus we meet God as God really is, the way God himself has revealed himself to be, as the God who is for us, because he is for Jesus. We find that the Father loves us unconditionally, that he sent Jesus not out of anger and a need to punish someone, but out of his immeasurable love and his unbending commitment to our redemption. The love we see in Jesus is none other than the love of the Father, because the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father and they are one. That means that when we know Jesus Christ, we know God the Father.
In Jesus, God reveals himself as our Creator and our Judge, and also as our Reconciler and Redeemer. In other words, the God who made us and whom we stand under as our Judge is also the one who reconciles and redeems us. That means we can believe him and trust him instead of being afraid of him and hiding from him. In Jesus, we are free for obedience and faith because we aren’t relying on our own obedience and faith, but on his. That takes our minds off ourselves and rests them in Jesus.
In Trinitarian theology, which is centered on Jesus as God’s perfect revelation of himself, we see that 1) God is free in the fullness of his divine love and power to be with us and for us and 2) that humanity, secure in God’s grace manifest in Jesus, is free to be with God and for God. That is because Jesus is both the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity, exactly as God reveals himself in the Bible.
The Christian life is a response to God’s grace. It is letting God’s grace work in us, change us, and shine through us. Paul said, “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me.” His grace works in us, and as we are united to Christ, we have a new life, and we walk in newness of life, in a new way — a way that is being transformed by Christ in us.
We are not working our way into salvation, or trying to obey Jesus in order to be a child of God. No, by grace God has already said that we are his children. That is who we are, and that does not change. God says to us, “You belong to me. Now, I invite you to live a new way, a better way, a way that gives meaning and purpose to life. I invite you — I urge you — to join and enjoy the life of love — the way that has worked for all eternity. I invite you to the banquet, to the party, to the never-ending fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
As we began to look at certain doctrines, every doctrine was viewed through the lens of Jesus Christ. As time has gone by, we have seen that our statement of beliefs has held up very well and we are coming more and more into a fuller and fuller understanding of the implications of this theology of adoption, of God as Trinity and as God fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
The articles and Statement of Beliefs posted on our website express the official doctrines of our fellowship and discuss our theological vision. We are adding high quality biblical studies, Christian living and theological material to our website continually.
Christo-centric, or Trinitarian, theology originates as far back as the early Church Fathers with Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers. Some of the greatest theologians in modern history have devoted their life’s work to explaining the relationship between God’s triune nature and his redemptive work on behalf of humanity.
It is important that our preaching and teaching reflect sound theology, and that it remain rooted in the good news, the biblical revelation of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God in whom we live and move and have our being.
Theologians whose work has been of special help to us in understanding and articulating a sound, Bible-based theology would include Karl Barth, Thomas and James Torrance, Michael Jinkins, professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Ray Anderson, professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, Colin Gunton, Robert Capon, Gary Deddo, C. Baxter Kruger, Donald Bloesch, Michael Green and others. We have also found the writings of C.S. Lewis of particular value, although Lewis was not a theologian, per se.
Although it is not necessary to agree with every single statement in any particular book, we are able to recommend a number of books on theology that we believe provide a sound and faithful reflection of biblical doctrine. These would include such books as:
- Invitation to Theology, by Michael Jinkins
- The Mediation of Christ, by Thomas Torrance
- Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth
- Worship, Community & The Triune God of Grace, by James Torrance
- The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, by Thomas Torrance
- The Trinitarian Faith, by Thomas Torrance
- Theology, Death and Dying, by Ray Anderson
- Judas and Jesus: Amazing Grace for the Wounded Soul, by Ray Anderson
- On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius
- The Christian Foundations Series, by Donald Bloesch
- The One, the Three, and the Many, by Colin Gunton
- Across All Worlds, by C. Baxter Kruger
- The Great Dance, by C. Baxter Kruger
- The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, edited by Elmer Colyer
- How To Read Thomas F. Torrance, by Elmer Colyer
- The Humanity of God, by Karl Barth
- Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis
- The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
This is not a complete list, but it’s a good start. Most pastors will find Michael Jinkins’ Invitation to Theology especially helpful as a one-volume, easy-to-read, basic theology text.
We also have more than 120 video interviews with Trinitarian theologians. For these interviews, and many more, visit our videos section: You’re Included – Videos
Source: GCI Video – Foundations of Theology, originally produced March 2007. Republished as a transcript in 2016.