Intuitive Evangelical Theology versus Scholastic Evangelical Theology: “Classical Christian Theism” as Case Study
I have long been impressed by how foreign scholastic evangelical theology is to even the most devout, biblically literate evangelical lay people. What do I mean by “scholastic evangelical theology?” I don’t know a better term for the “official” theology taken for granted and promoted as “orthodoxy” by many conservative evangelical systematic theologians. When I was in seminary we were required to read Calvinist Baptist Augustus Hopkins Strong’s Systematic Theology and the book of the same title by Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (not to be confused with revisionist Reformed theologian Hendrikus Berkhof). They are stellar examples of what I mean by “scholastic evangelical theology,” but there are Arminian-Wesleyan examples as well (though not as many, I would dare to say).
When I read Hodge, Strong, Berkhof and their contemporary successors among conservative evangelical theologians I am always impressed with how, in my opinion, nobody just reading the Bible would ever even guess at some of what they promote as “orthodoxy”—especially in the doctrine of God. Of course there are differences of nuance among them, but, for the most part, they all articulate, defend and promote as “biblical orthodoxy” what is, in my opinion, a barely Christianized version of Greek philosophical theology. The story of that begins, of course, with the second Christian Apologists Justin Martyr and Athenagoras and the Alexandrian church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Even Athanasius and the Cappadocians were steeped in it—although they struggled to Christianize Greek philosophical theology. I don’t think they were entirely successful.
Take the doctrine of God’s “aseity”—absolute self-sufficiency. According to Protestant (and Catholic) scholasticism, including much conservative evangelical theology, God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. He is “pure actuality without potentiality.” Who would guess that from just reading the Bible? I wouldn’t. And yet it is touted by many conservative evangelicals as orthodox doctrine not to be questioned. To question it is to dishonor God and detract from his glory!
I’ve taught Christian doctrine and systematic theology for thirty-two years now and I have one recurring experience when introducing students who grew up in evangelical Christian homes and churches and are themselves biblically literate to standard conservative evangelical teaching about God’s attributes. They usually say something like “I’ve never heard anything like that.” And often “where’s that in the Bible?” I have to agree with them that much of it is foreign to the Bible, alien to Christian experience, and spiritually deadening. How does one relate to a God “without passions?”
This is where narrative theology (about which I have posted here before) can be helpful. Our doctrine of God should not be derived from philosophical presuppositions about what is appropriate for the divine but should be derived primarily from the biblical story of God—beginning with Jesus Christ as the fullest revelation of God’s person and character and spreading out from there to embrace the passionate God of the Bible who dared to open himself up to pain and peace, sorrow and joy in relation to the world and who could do that because feelings and emotions are part of being personal and God is eternally personal. Having appropriate emotional feelings is part of being in the image of God whereas scholastic theology tends to portray the image of God as reason ruling over emotion, being apathetic.