An Interview with Talbot's Theologians
In this issue
- An Interview with Talbot's Theologians
- Talbot Authors
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus Focus
Sundoulos sat down to talk with Talbot’s Theology department – or more properly, the Department of Systematic and Historical Theology. The six members of the department are:
Sundoulos: What do you notice about students at Talbot these days? Do they care as much about theology or church history?
Henry: I have seen an increased interest in theology among our students in recent years. They see so many issues in their churches that are ultimately theological and require theological solutions. They seem more interested today in the application of theology to their ministries.
Alan: When I first began teaching, 25 years ago, students would be rather skeptical about whether we could learn from the church fathers. One of the most common questions I would get was “Are these people even saved? How can we learn anything from them?” I found my role at that time was to be a cheerleader for the church fathers: Look, they developed the doctrine of the trinity; we are indebted to people like Athanasius, that warhorse of the faith. But now the pendulum has swung in the other direction. There was a period in the last few years where evangelicals, and occasionally some students here, became more than just appreciative of the early church. They need to be reminded that these early church fathers are not in the canon. The fact that something is old doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good. Just because they are closer to the apostles doesn’t mean that they are more correct, as the churches of Galatia and Corinth make clear enough. Simply the passage of time does not turn a mistake into the truth by some miraculous alchemy.
Henry: I have also noticed an increase in diversity among our students. Some come with almost zero Christian background, and others who have been in the church since they were in preschool. There is also a great diversity in culture and background. This is a good challenge for us as professors, as we think about how to present our material for every student.
not really engaged. But if you talk about how churches counsel and minister to those who struggle with homosexuality, then they perk up and listen. They want theology to inform and supply ministry. They expect practical payoff to theology, which is a great expectation.
Ashish: Lately, students have an awareness of what is happening in the broader church. They know about the emerging church, and trends in discipleship. Students are reading widely, paying attention to what is happening in the broader church outside their own traditions. In class, they ask questions more directly about the applicability of a doctrine in particular ministry situations.
Bob: I wonder if in some areas, like eschatology, there is less interest in the last ten years than 40 years ago. Today, I have to persuade some of them that the Bible contains many chapters on eschatology! There is a reason for those passages. The thrust of student interest is more on the present effects of the kingdom. They are more interested in this than they are in solving eschatological problems.
Sundoulos: Tell me what you like about working in Talbot’s theology department.
Alan: I like all of my colleagues. I have to say that, since I was involved in hiring all but two of them. If I talk down about any of them, it looks bad on me. Seriously, they are a great bunch and, as you can tell, we have a lot of fun together.
Mark: I love that Talbot theology is biblical theology. All of us focus intensely on the Bible. There’s an esprit de corps here, much like I experienced with other missionaries when I served in the Ukraine. There’s a lot of collegiality here.
Henry: We have a close bond in friendship among the theology faculty. We support each other and pray for each other and help sharpen each other, as iron sharpens iron. We like each other. We also are supportive of other departments, rather than competitive with them. We talk with students about how other disciplines fit in with theology, and how each of our disciplines contributes to the whole.
Rob: I love being on the same page with them. When I hand off my Theology I students to my colleagues, I know they are going to get a good education. We have the same goals for the students. I’m glad to be on the team working toward the same ends.
Sundoulos: What new courses you have developed? Why?
Ashish: I have developed a Patristics seminar, which surveys the writings and theology of the first eight doctors of the church – Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Jerome, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzen, and Chrysostom. We read their works and focus on how we as Protestants can look at and apply the writings of the church fathers in our setting. I am also developing a class on architecture and art in the early church, which goes along with the book that I am writing on that topic. I have a class in development on theology of the Reformers, which I plan to teach for a tour class that visits Germany, Switzerland, England and Scotland.
Henry: I have started a class on the theology and practice of prayer. This is another area that students are very interested in. It is so important to study the theology of prayer, because most books on prayer are very popular and so they don’t address the theology of prayer. We are using some great textbooks: Knocking on Heaven’s Doors: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer by David Crump, and The God Who Hears by Bing Hunter (Talbot’s former Dean).
Mark: Pneumatology is the most recent class I’ve developed. Classically that topic has been organized around the person and work of the Holy Spirit. But because of my interest in biblical theology, I study the Holy Spirit in light of the biblical story, the narrative. We follow the story of the Spirit from Genesis to Revelation, with systematic theology sidebars, like the filioque debate. We also focus on transformative elements of the Spirit now. The nature of his person and work is to change us, personally and as a community, so that we can be effective for the mission. We have a lot of prayer projects so that students can get habituated in the topics that the New Testament reveals that the Holy Spirit is strong in. When they experience these things, they are trained to recognize the Spirit at work. The course is the culmination of a number of streams that the Lord has been working in my life.
Rob: I’ve developed several seminar classes that take students through the works of major theologians: John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Jonathan Edwards. I wanted to read Calvin, so I built a class around it. I did my doctoral work on Barth, so I wanted to expose students to his works. These great figures in the history of the church are far finer thinkers than most today, and they’re often more deeply committed to and have a deeper knowledge of the scriptures. They are great minds, great souls, great churchmen. Their work is absolutely exciting, and it challenges us. Whether we agree with them or not, they were trying to apply the gospel, the Word of God, to wild circumstances that we would not know how to negotiate.
Sundoulos: Rob, many evangelicals are skeptical about Barth. What is the benefit of reading him?
Rob: They are right to be skeptical about Barth. But I would also to be skeptical about aspects of Luther and Calvin. Shouldn’t we be a bit skeptical of anyone we read? The problems in Barth’s theology are obviously of a different order than the problems in Luther and Calvin. But where Barth is good, he is magnificent. For all his faults, he is remarkably theological, scriptural, and missional, and so is worth reading.
What are you writing about lately?
Ashish: Sacred art and architecture in the early church. I am looking at how the early church’s sacred space reflected their biblical, theological views, how that reflected their spiritual lives. I am exploring how that is relevant to us as Evangelical Christians today. Sacred space and art in the early church often communicated profound theological truth in non-verbal ways. Our primary source of revelation is God’s word, so we need to read art through the lens of scripture, not the other way around. Good art touches the heart and engages the mind. Good Christian art can help us appreciate our theological heritage better, and help us question some of our presuppositions.
Bob: I am writing a book on the heart. Not many students have ever been told of the importance of meditation and how to meditate on the Scripture. But the Bible (Psalm 1, for example) says that blessing comes from meditation, not from reading. People don’t know how to feed themselves from God’s life from the Scripture. The book is basically a kind of a theology of the heart. God deals with us using our heart. It’s the most important anthropological term in the bible. What is the heart and how do you change it? If you change the heart, you change the man or the woman.
Alan: I am writing a book titled 40 Questions on Heaven and Hell for Kregel’s “Forty Questions” series. It’s an attempt to address common questions and misconceptions people have about the afterlife. I like it, because I get to make up the questions and, if I’m lucky, answer them.
Sundoulos: What are you doing to bring good theology to the church?
Alan: In the fall, I did an eight-week series on cults in my church, stimulated by the interest in Mormonism generated by the recent presidential election. Covering cults is a good way to get in good theology through the back door, as we talk about orthodox theology in contrast with error. I also lead a small group, and plan to use them as guinea pigs for my material on 40 Questions on Heaven and Hell.
Ashish: I recently gave a seminar at a Hispanic church that invited me to give a history of the Baptist movement. So I took them through a history of the Protestant movement, showing them how Baptists fit into that. Recently, Mark Saucy and I spoke on the sovereignty of God at Shepherd of the Hills. I’m also involved with two missions agencies in India, helping them develop their vision for their mission.
Henry: I am working on a book on memorizing scripture, taking a personalized approach, so that rather than using a system that is already made up, the person picks verse that fit their interests and concerns. I also teach a Sunday School class of senior citizens. They have a love for the word and the interaction with lesson is really exciting.
Mark: I serve as an elder at my church, and focus on men’s ministry. I work with Malachi Dads, which helps train men in jails to be good dads. I also teach in the Urban Ministry Institute, which uses a seminary-like curriculum to train released prisoners in bible, theology and pastoral ministry. I have recruited some of our Talbot students to also teach at TUMI, and we provide mentoring for them to help them learn how to teach better.
Sundoulos: It seems that many popular books on theology have been published in recent years. What do you think about that?
Henry: In popular books, we have moved somewhat from how-to type of books to books about how God relates to every issue, which is good. But the downside is that many of them are overly speculative and imaginative. They are not solidly theological, with sound exegesis underlying the conclusions. We feel that Talbot really has a combination of sound biblical interpretation joined to sound theological conclusions.
Sundoulos: What are some of the hot-button topics in theology among our students? How are you responding to them?
Ashish: Most new trends are “old birds with a new walk,” as Ravi Zacharias puts it. Part of our response to these questions is based on how the church has responded to these questions in the past. After the publication of Love Wins by Rob Bell, there were many questions about heaven and hell: is the eternality of hell just a theological construct that the church invented? As the New Perspective on Paul became more influential: how do we respond to this theologically? Did Augustine and Luther get it wrong? When people question substitutionary atonement: how has the church articulated this doctrine throughout history?
Rob: My contemporary theology class is reading Bart Ehrmann, andt authors engaging in debates about homosexuality. But often enough, real insight into these theological hot-button issues comes not by jumping into the controversies. It comes from deeper study of Christian doctrine itself.
Why should people care about historical theology?
Ashish: Some students find it fascinating to study how doctrine developed. For example, the ransom or classical theory of the atonement dominated for a thousand years. The substitutionary view was not absent during that time, but certain aspects of classical theory were highlighted before Anselm – a strong emphasis on the incarnation, and on the power of sin rather than the guilt of sin. How did the church (east and west) talk about atonement? We truly stand on the shoulders of these great giants - we don’t do theology in a vacuum. Don Fairbairn, a historical theologian at Gordon-Conwell, says that we not only look at what the Bible says, but also look at what the church has said that the Bible says. We need a panoramic view of our faith, celebrating the saints of God who have gone before.
Alan: History forms a kind of ballast. It keeps you from coming up with something that deviates too far from the foundation. In modern times, we are not likely to make any true, positive advance, for example, on our understanding of the two natures of Christ. There seem to be certain periods of history when certain issues gain a lot of attention. There is no one period, or one thinker, who got it all right. We don’t invent theology ex nihilo every generation; we can learn a tremendous amount by looking at the full span of the history of doctrine.
Bob: History is the best canon outside the Bible to determine truth. But we need to be careful: the church fathers should not be made normative. They did not know the Bible better than say, Calvin. They did more thinking on christology and the trinity, but not much on eschatology, for example. I think that people’s attraction to the church fathers is somewhat related to a weakened understanding of inspiration. People experience confusion about theology, so they want normative interpretation, and they think the church fathers will supply that.
What is one theological issue that you wish the church at large were better informed about?
Rob: Jesus. Anything about Jesus. We call ourselves Christians, but the percent of time that we think about the person and work of Christ is very low, at least in any clarity and detail. In the church, we don’t draw on our rich Christian tradition for what it has seen about Jesus. Very often, our theology is relatively unconnected to Jesus. We think about God without thinking about Jesus, we think about predestination, about conversion, without thinking about Jesus. I think we will gain exegetical insights and theological profundity if we look at all theology in light of Jesus.
Mark: I’m interested in theology that is aimed at the heart, not only the head. That’s what theology was meant to be. I would have spiritual formation assignments for students even if it wasn’t a Talbot requirement. Theology means something in life, something in ministry. Theology must also be taught right. God’s method of teaching is story, poetry, drama and symbol, not so much creedal and propositional. We need to go deeper than just creeds and doctrines. We have to pay attention to how we teach in the church. We teach as new covenant teachers to new covenant people, teaching new covenant truth in a new covenant way to new covenant hearts. For example, we should never lay an imperative on someone without giving an indicative. We need to attend to the way the Bible presents truth.
Alan: When the Protestant Scholastics of the seventeenth century took on a theological opponent, they tried to look for what they called the foundational lie, the proton pseudos. Before they attack all the other problems, they address the central error or root cause. As I look at some of the problems that are happening today in the church, I think we need to really understand and take seriously the doctrine of sola scriptura. A lot of churches will say that they see Scripture as authoritative. But do we see the Bible as just one source of authority that must be harmonized or tempered with other sources, or as the sole source for doing theology? Now, I think it is perfectly acceptable that once we have looked at what Scripture says, we may then look at other fields and disciplines to aid in our explanation or defense of it. Instead, we often see the tail wagging the dog: we first decide what views are possible based on philosophy or science or psychology or culture, come up with what we want to believe, and then look around to find Scriptures to back them up, if we can. But Scripture alone is the principium cognoscendi, the foundation of theological knowing.
Henry: I think we would be shocked at evangelical response to questions like: “why do you believe in authority and inspiration of scripture, or the humanity and deity of Jesus.” Evangelical churches are not as equipped as we might hope to teach people to understand these issues. They don’t know what they should believe or why they should believe it. We need good theological preaching – something to help people be clear about what they believe, something to challenge their theological convictions. Sometimes, we need to put the cookies on a little higher shelf. We need to avoid dumbing down our sermons.
Bob: I’m not convinced that the church is convinced in the actual power of the word of God to save and transform people. They think “If I don’t have flashy videos, I can’t see people come to Christ.” If they really believed in the power of the Word to transform people, then they would be teaching the Bible a bit more. The church is a bit confused about its real mission during this age. Are we are here to transform culture? Do we have a cultural commission and a great commission? That’s confused. When the church really wants to impact culture, they minimize the real distinctives of Christianity, like propitiation and judgment. We want to accommodate too much in order to be heard. When we focus on just overcoming social problems, then we become more moralistic, and the message of Christianity is lost.