Aspect 5(a): A Mission Driven by Biblical Theology (Revelation, God)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

For three decades now, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have united over their belief in the inspiration, inerrancy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.[1] Unlike those (such as Schleiermacher or Freud) who see Scripture as a human construction void of any revelation, and unlike those (such as Barth or Lindbeck) who see Scripture merely as a witness to divine revelation, we confess that the Christian Scriptures are the very words of God. This we have made very clear. What we have not made clear, however, is whether we are committed to allowing our high view of Scripture, and the concomitant doctrines of historic Christianity, to determine and shape our ministry methodology.

Because the Christian Scriptures are indeed the very words of God, we want to mold our strategies and methods according to those words.[2] And while this might seem to be a yawningly obvious observation, we must pay careful attention in light of the fact that often we do not allow the Scriptures to drive our methods of evangelism, discipleship, church growth, and church planting. We find ourselves speaking loudly about inerrancy, while undermining that same conviction by our practices.

One of the significant challenges in upcoming years, therefore, is ensuring that we build a theologically-driven missiology in which Scripture and sound doctrine provide the starting point, the parameters, and the trajectory for our method and practice. “It has become apparent,” David Dockery writes, “that a firm theological foundation is important for faithful Gospel proclamation. Pastors, theologians, evangelists, and lay people must work harder at closing the gap between theology and the work of evangelism so that our theology is done for the church and our proclamation is grounded in biblically based theology.”[3] We must consciously, carefully, and consistently seek to understand the biblical narrative and its implications for church practice, and in particular for our missiological method. Building a theologically-driven missiology is hard work because (1) as our global, national, and cultural contexts change from era to era our missiology must be re-worked and re-written afresh; and (2) proof-texting does not suffice to handle such complexities faithfully. Many of the particular challenges that we face are not addressed explicitly by Scripture. Rather, we must call forth the deep-level principles in the Bible and allow them to speak with propriety and prescience to the issue at hand.

This is not to say that we may not learn from extra-biblical sources. Arthur Holmes is right: All truth is God’s truth! We benefit from reading widely in history, current affairs, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, marketing, and other disciplines. It is God who has given mankind the capacities to develop such disciplines and who allows us the great privilege and responsibility of using those for his glory. While Scripture alone provided knowledge of special doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone), through our human faculties God has provided knowledge of other aspects of his good creation. God is the giver both of Scripture and of the created order, and the two are not in conflict with one another. When properly interpreted, they agree.[4] Therefore we do not ignore what we learn from extra-biblical sources, but we also must not allow anything other than biblical doctrine to have the driver’s seat in forming our method and practice.

Take, for example, the biblical doctrine of God, which is absolutely central to the life of the church but in some ways is overlooked in the mission of the church. The Scriptures describe how God does all that he does for the sake of his name, for his renown, for his glory. He created man for his glory (Is 43:7) and chose Israel for his glory (Is 49:3). He sent our Lord Jesus Christ so that the Gentiles would give him glory (Ro 15:8-9) and then vindicated his glory by making propitiation through his Son (Rom 3:23-26). He sent the Spirit to glorify the Son (Jn 16:14) and tells us to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). He will send his Son again to receive glory (2 Thess 1:9-10) and will fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14; Is 6:1-3). Indeed, all of this is so, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10).

God in all of his blazing glory stands at the center of the universe. He is the fountainhead of all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. And it is the increase of his glory that is God’s ultimate goal and man’s ultimate purpose.[5] An implication of this doctrine is that if our ultimate goal is to glorify God, we are set free from unbridled pragmatism. Ultimately, we seek to please God rather than to manipulate or coerce professions of faith, church growth, or church multiplication. We are directed away from the temptation to engage in evangelism and discipleship that subverts the gospel or the health of the church, and are free to proclaim the gospel God’s way and leave the results to God.

[1] Of course, not all Southern Baptist churches would affirm the inerrancy of the Scriptures. However, the majority of Southern Baptist churches do, and this is reflected in confessional statements such as the Baptist Faith & Message (2000).

[2] Thom Rainer makes this point in The Book of Church Growth in which he devotes one-third of the book to an exposition of the classical loci of systematic theology, explaining how those doctrines should drive our church growth strategies. The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles (Nashville: B&H, 1993).

[3] David Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 94.

[4] This is not to say that theologians and (natural or social) scientists never disagree. Often they do, but the disagreement is not found in any inherent conflict between Scripture and the natural world, but rather in theologians’ and scientists’ interpretations of the two. Either group might err and either group is therefore subject to correction. Because of our idolatry and the effects of the Fall, God’s special revelation provides “the lenses” through which we study the created order. See David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 259-94.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, in his The End for Which God Created the World, gives the most well-known and extended reflection upon this doctrine. Technically, The End is the first part of a two-part book by Edwards entitled Two Dissertations. See Two Dissertations, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8 (New Haven: Yale University, 1989). It should be noted, however, that although Edwards was a Calvinist, this doctrine is not one that should be trumpeted primarily or exclusively by those who are angry racer free

Augustine for the 21st Century (4): What Were Augustine’s Starting Points and How are They Relevant for Today?

Augustine teaches us to use Christian doctrine as a lever to unseat false prophets such as Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens.

Augustine defended Christianity from one basic starting point: the biblical narrative is true and it alone explains the world within (existential viability) and the world without (empirical adequacy). He knew that his interlocutors did not agree. Augustine understood that, as Romans 1 puts it so damningly, the Roman pagans were busy suppressing the knowledge of the truth, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping the creature rather than the creator. In response to their idolatry, therefore, Augustine presupposed and proclaimed the truth of the biblical narrative. He used certain basic Christian doctrines (God, Creation, Man, Sin, Redemption) as starting points to show the falsity of the competing Roman narrative.

Those same doctrines provide starting points for us in defending the gospel in a 21st century context.

Take, for example, the doctrine of man in relation to atheism. As I wrote in an article in Spring 2007, “The problem with atheism, as with other worldviews, is that it is not able to account for the unique nature, capacities, and ends of human existence. Inevitably, it tends toward either an enthronement or a denigration of humanity, unable to strike a proper balance.

At times, atheists tend toward the enthronement of humanity. This might seem an obvious move; if one chooses not to worship God on His throne, the next best thing would be to enthrone oneself. This can be seen in Humanist Manifesto II, which states that, ‘At the present juncture of history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable.’

At other times (or ironically, at the same time), atheists denigrate humanity. A glittering example of this is Peter Singer, of Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer, like Nietzche and others, realizes what a radical revisioning of mankind must take place. For him this means that we cannot base our ethics on the imago Dei or argue that our immortal soul distinguishes us from the animals. ‘By 2040,’ he writes, ‘it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.’[1]

For Singer, the moral status of a human being is defined, not by his being created in the image of God, but by his consciousness and ability to function. Those humans who are most conscious and functional have more worth and moral status that those who are less conscious and functional. Healthy teenagers and middle-aged folks, then, are worth more than babies and old people, and certainly more than the mentally and physically handicapped.

For this reason, certain non-human animals have higher moral status than certain human animals. A donkey or a dog will often have superior consciousness and function than a defective human baby. It is for this reason that he believes one might find instances when infanticide is acceptable; sometimes, he thinks, it would be more wrong to take the life of an animal than to take the life of a defective baby.[2]

Furthermore, since Singer does not hold to the imago Dei, which gives a clear line of delineation between humans and animals, he has no problem suggesting that inter-species sexual activity is sometimes acceptable. In some instances, sex between a man and an animal might be mutually satisfying and, therefore, not problematic. He hurries to say, however, that with small animals such as chickens or ferrets, sexual activity might be painful for the animal and would therefore be problematic.[3]

Singer’s re-definition of humanity finds company even in popular culture. Take, for example, the movie Bicentennial Man (1999). In this movie Robin Williams is a robot who is on a two-century journey toward becoming ‘human.’ At one point in the movie, he begins to use the word ‘I,’ signifying that he has now become self-conscious. He is now every bit as ‘conscious’ as human beings, and the implication, it seems, is that he has therefore achieved humanness.”[4]

Atheism-like any worldview other than Christianity-cannot make proper sense of mankind. It tends toward either the enthronement or the denigration of humanity. The imago Dei is essential for understanding humanity. It makes sense of who we are; indeed, it renders coherent the socio-cultural activities that surround us and pervade our lives. As we image forth God through our capacities for spirituality, morality, rationality, relationality, and imagination, we are able to live distinctively human lives. Our work in the sciences is possible because of our ability to reason. In the arts, we may participate because of our imaginative and creative capacities. In the public square, we may act and interact because God made us not only rational but relational beings. As theologians, this robust anthropology unlocks the complexities of man’s unique capacities and his relationship to the rest of the created order.

Or take the doctrine of God in relation to pantheism (Note: Certain ancient philosophers, most Buddhists, many Hindus are pantheists. Pantheism comes in many varieties, and this blogpost inevitably will refer only to certain streams of pantheism). One of the problems for pantheists is that they are unable to account for aspects of human life such as evil or logic precisely because they do not believe in the God of the Bible. As Christian theists, we believe that God is eternal and good. He created the world from nothing, is separate from it, but relates personally to it. Pantheists, on the other hand, believe that God is the world and the world is God. All is one. This monism, however, puts the pantheist in a major bind. If all is one, then there can be no distinctions. But few things are more apparently false than this belief.

If all is one, there can be no such thing as logic. Logic just is the making of distinctions. Logic is premised upon the belief that A cannot be non-A at the same time, in the same place, and in the same way. Our use of human language is in turn premised upon logic. When we state something, we intend for it to be taken in the way that we meant it (“A”) rather than in the opposite manner (“non-A”). But for Buddhists, logic is the enemy and if we are to become one with the world we must rid ourselves of it. This is why one can find Buddhists meditating on the sound of one hand clapping. It is an illogical exercise aimed at setting the practitioner free from captivity to logic. The Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, for example, argues that we must abandon/transcend logic because it is not applicable to reality.[5] But in order to deny that logic applies to reality, one must make a “logical” statement about reality to the effect that one cannot make logical statements. If a person states that there is no logic (because all is one and there are no distinctions), his statement is itself a distinction.

Further, if all is one, I find it difficult to imagine how one can explain evil in relation to goodness. If all is one, the concepts of “good” and “evil” are not really opposed to one another after all-they are really the same thing. For this reason, some pantheists argue that there is neither good nor evil and others argue that evil is an illusion. Prabhavananda and Usherwood, for example, say, “All good and all evil is relative to the individual point of growth….But, in the highest sense, there can be neither good nor evil.”[6] Such an argument, however, is not only counter-intuitive but goes against an abundance of empirical evidence. Good and evil exist and evil is not an illusion.

In summary, just as Augustine used basic Christian doctrines to show how the competing pagan worldview lacked explanatory power, we are able to use those same doctrines to expose the weaknesses, fallacies, and falsities of pantheism, atheism, and other worldviews.

[1] Peter Singer, “The Sanctity of Life,” in Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2005) 40.

[2] Ibid., “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” Pediatrics (July 1983) 129. Also, in Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University, 1979), he argues that membership in the human species is irrelevant to moral status.

[3] Singer’s most famous treatment of bestiality, or as he calls it zoophilia, is “Heavy Petting,” published at, on March 12, 2001. Lest one think that Singer is an obscure radical with no real influence, it should be noted that he is often called one of the most influential philosophers alive. In fact, his Practical Ethics is the most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Bruce Riley Ashford, “Worldview, Anthropology, and Gender: A Call to Broaden the Parameters of the Discussion.” The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood XII, Issue 1 (Spring 2007) 7-9.

[5] D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, 58.

[6] Prabhavananda and Usherwood, Bhagavad-Gita, 140.