A gospel coalition in northern Europe—the Nordic countries—is a unique effort in the landscape of Christendom in our region. The pragmatic efforts of intra-denominational groups (ie; the evangelical alliance in Denmark, or free church network) as well as the liberalizing ecumenical efforts of mainline churches contrast greatly with a Nordic recreation of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) in the US. This unified effort is distinct in our commitment to reformational gospel truths and by our theological vision for how the gospel can shape and reform our region of the world. This is the second of a series of five short articles devoted to naming and explicating this distinctiveness. See the first article here.
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions. (1 Tim. 1:3–7)
From my perspective, it seems that systematic theology is making a comeback. Great news! While at Moody Bible Institute from 2004–2009 in Chicago, city of the great inerrancy battles and statements, there was a primary focus on biblical theology. Systematics was viewed as philosophical construction, and we needed to let the themes of the Bible sing their own tune. The voices of DA Carson, Graham Goldsworthy, and others were important and indeed we learned so much from them. However, it seems there is a renewal in appreciation for piecing together the Bible’s theological system and seeking to put it to use. With the field of theological hermeneutics growing and many churches seeing the value of confessional expressions of the faith, there seems to be a balance being restored: an openness to being theologically driven once again.
Navigating between two errors
The tendency described above—seeking to avoid philosophical categorization of the teachings of the Bible in the name of letting the biblical authors speak for themselves—is the error of biblicism. The truth is that all of us, with our various cultural and inherited lenses, bring an epistemology and a metaphysical interpretation to the Scriptures. It can be dishonest or at best naïve, to suggest that we simply let the Bible speak. The gospel and the dogmas of the ancient church provide valuable guardrails for our biblical applications. Therefore, we must avoid the error of biblicism.
On the other hand, there is a real danger that biblical theology reacts to—the danger of speculative theology which, like a drunk man supporting himself with a streetlamp, merely leans upon Gods revelation, without allowing it to illumine his path on its own terms. There are many versions of this, but the most obvious examples are the rabbit hole chatrooms of self-declared philosophers in one corner or another of the internet. The evangelical version of this often deals in what Bible passages could possibly mean to fit them into agendas and viewpoints, rather than what the text most likely means, given our amount of study and background. Biblical theology, then, remains an important corrective to the eccentricities of systematics. Therefore, it is also vital that we avoid the speculative error.
Paul’s opening warning to Timothy: Be theologically driven
It is popular (and important!) to focus in on the pastoral letters of Paul to Timothy in Ephesus as an important call to preach the word, to raise up elders, to let the church be built upon healthy foundations, etc. However, in the opening words of the first letter God inspired Paul to write to Timothy, he also warns him of the twin errors of speculative theology and biblicism. In 1 Tim. 1:4, Paul mentions speculations as a serious threat to the gospel (“The stewardship from God that is by faith”) specifically handed down to Timothy. And in 1 Tim. 1:5 (“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith”) he reminds Timothy that the aim of the mandates he has handed over to him is that there would come two things: 1) love and 2) sincere faith.
The aim of theologically driven ministry is love
Being theologically driven, as opposed to being biblicist, allows pastoral love to remain the goal of our teaching. As we make disciples, we desire to build our people’s confidence in the life view their Bibles give them and the ways it meets the needs of their neighbors and family. Rather than merely providing out-of-context Bible verses or “proof-texting,” being theologically driven allows for organic connections to arise from various gospel themes to connect to a whole view of truth and a whole view of life. This is a loving, sensitive way to preach and to write. The aim of such communication is love.
The aim of theologically driven ministry is sincere faith
Being theologically driven, as opposed to being speculative, also allows sincere faith to remain the goal of our teaching. This theme of sincerity comes up a number of times in the pastorals, and it is so central. If we are going to have soft consciences, able to hear God’s Word convict and conform us, we must have sincere faith. When we go about the intellectual gamesmanship of speculating about what the Bible could mean for whatever political, philosophical, or private passion suits us, it will inevitably water down our own sense of true belief and conviction. According to Paul, this is the very worst thing that can happen to a preacher of the gospel.
There are other networks in the Nordics that are great at being “Bible only” in their approach to ministry, and there is a great history of confessionally driven theological universities and institutions stemming from the Reformation. However, we believe our heart for theologically driven ministry can add distinct value to ministry in this part of the world.