Authority and History in Theology

By: Rev. David Smith, pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Greensboro, NC

The term theology derives from two Greek terms theos, meaning God, and logos, which had a variety of meanings in the ancient world such as word, reason, matter, or declaration. An author’s intention with the term in the context in which it was used guides us in how to understand the author’s meaning. Perhaps in the broadest sense, the term theology, as it is often used, simply means “a word about God.” Yet, Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34), and from the heart “flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Because our theology is what we believe about God it is seen in the way we live.  According to the Apostle Paul, everyone has some knowledge of and beliefs about God (Rom. 1:18-23). We can say this even of those who deny the existence of God (atheists) or deny that they have enough knowledge to affirm God’s existence (agnostics). Both the atheist and agnostic make declarations about God. Everyone, it turns out, has a theology.

Like all subject disciplines, theology can be broken down into various interrelated categories that are filled with particular content. Since theology is a word about God, we are right to consider the source or sources of our beliefs about God. So, it is understandable that one of the clearest and most concise theological documents ever written—the Westminster Confession of Faith—begins by addressing this matter of how people acquire their knowledge of and beliefs about God. In other words, it begins by addressing the issue of authority in theology.

Of course, every subject of human knowledge relies upon authorities that speak about that subject. Yet, in every subject matter there are “competing” authorities, or authorities that sometimes contradict each other. Such contradictions force decisions upon us as to who we will believe. Deciding on the reliability or trustworthiness of a source of information or knowledge can sometimes be difficult and frustrating. It is perhaps fair to say that many have concluded that there are no trustworthy authorities regarding knowledge of God. Ah, but even that claim actually rests on an authority—the person who made it! You see, in the end, every time we consider the reliability of authorities, we are exercising our authority to evaluate their reliability. In the end, how we evaluate the reliability of any authority on any subject matter is a process, isn’t it? This is no less true regarding our theology. Indeed, it is especially true of our theology, because when we deal with the topic of God, we are dealing with a vast subject of supreme importance that has marked all of human history. There’s a lot to sort through in theology!

One of the reasons why I believe in the great value of studying the history of theology is because it can be an extremely helpful way to navigate this matter of authority. One of the things we learn when studying the history of theology is not only how people in every generation have worked at discerning the most reliable authorities on knowledge of God, but also what they concluded about what these authorities actually teach about God.

During the mid-seventeenth century, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), with its Shorter and Larger Catechisms, was written as a summary statement regarding what was to be believed and proclaimed in the Church of England. It is the result of nearly 1700 years of accumulated development in the study and application of the Bible, and theology by godly and gifted men. The WCF addresses the issue of authority in one’s claims about God, by first dealing with the Holy Scriptures (how God has made himself known) and then God the Holy Trinity (what God has made known about himself). This sequence—Scripture then God—reflects how we creatures in time and space can arrive at a true, sure and certain knowledge of God. It affirms that we are on sure footing in theology when we submit to God’s authority ministered through his written word.

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) members vow that the doctrines and principles of the church’s standards, which include the WCF, are founded upon the Scriptures. They also vow to submit themselves to the church’s government and discipline. Ministers and elders in the ARPC, who are in charge of its government and discipline, vow that the doctrines contained in the WCF are the expression of their own faith, and resolve to adhere to its doctrines. Thus, we are a branch of the Lord’s Church under God’s authority with a clearly expressed theology by which God’s trustworthy authority is expressed. If you want to mature as a faithful church member upholding the theology warranted by Scripture, read and re-read the Bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

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