In This Edition:
A Voice at the Center
A Conversation with Dr. Ed Gallagher & Dr. Keith Stanglin
What’s New on the Avenue?
Bibliography: Theology Primers for Church Members, Groups, & Leaders
A Voice at the Center
“Theology” is simply learning to embrace good and right ideas about God. C. S. Lewis compared the study of theology to holding a map of the world—a much needed help if you are interested in serious exploration.
But not all ideas about God—or even teachings from God—are of equal weight and measure. Some things are primary, others are secondary. Some things are central, others are peripheral. Even Scripture itself teaches that a failure to appreciate the “weightier matters” of “first importance” can lead to disastrous consequences. Somehow, we need to learn how to put first things first.
The problem is that good and honest hearts often disagree about how to interpret the teachings of Scripture. Common-sense only gets us so far. What we wish, of course, is that the Bible came with a preface giving us both a lens through which to read Scripture and a list of topics that are of first importance.
But what might that preface look like? Whatever group you come from—within the larger vision known as “Christianity”—you have likely adopted teachings shared by everyone else who claims to be a follower of Christ. There is a very good reason for this. Church history is an extended conversation among people searching for the same goal; when seen from this light, we can begin to appreciate the concept of shared values and healthy tradition.
Since the earliest days of Christianity, believers have sought for an appropriate shorthand that expresses the central claims of the Christian faith—the main theological themes in the light of which all other issues and teachings are clarified and understood. Some early Christians spoke of a “rule of faith” which could effectively describe the core of Christian doctrine; this rule of faith was eventually clarified and codified. These early “I believe” statements (which, in Latin, are called “creeds”) have stood the test of time across numerous divides in Christendom. The word “orthodoxy”—coined in the light of these early claims—has long served as a marker to signify core, central teachings of the Christian faith.
Big Rocks First
Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First, popularized an effective illustration meant to show the importance of priorities. Imagine a jar sitting on a table, accompanied by three piles: big rocks, small pebbles, and fine grain sand. Given the instruction to place all three piles in the jar, you quickly notice the need for priority. If you begin with the sand and pebbles, there will not be enough room for the big rocks. However, if you place the large rocks in first, the pebbles will then naturally fall around the big rocks, and the sand will fill the remaining crevices. The moral of the story? Big rocks first.
C.S. Lewis understood the importance of emphasizing the big rocks when it comes to theology. In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis explained the rationale for choosing topics on which to write.
“Ever since I became a Christian, I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”
Of course there are finer points of detail worth holding and defending—as Lewis himself, admits. But some things are central starting points. His illustration is not rocks vs pebbles, but rather a long central hallway that properly belongs in the house of faith. There are various doors leading to various rooms–important fields of exploration in their own right. But this shared central hallway of faith, what Baxter called “mere Christianity,” is what appeared to Lewis most in need of defending.
“I was not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.”
Those occupying various rooms, groups, or schools of teaching within orthodox Christian thought, differ from one another, to be sure; and “one of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements,” writes Lewis. But let’s not miss the forest through the trees.
“At the centre of each [room] there is something, or Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”
What is the voice at the center? We have outlines in Scripture, such as 1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:4-6. If we consult the earliest Christian statements of belief (such as the Old Roman symbol, or the Apostles Creed, or the Nicene Creed), the outworking of a “rule of faith” meant to clarify the central teaching of Christianity, we may begin to hear that voice emerge.
There is one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who was born, suffered, and died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
There is one Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.
There is one faith—faith in Jesus Christ, rooted in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (who died and rose for us), that leads to our participation in one baptism, membership in one body, and share in one hope.
There is one baptism, wherein sinners in need of grace are united in the promise of forgiveness of sins.
There is one body, the community of believers called the church. We share in one communion that is holy and universal.
There is one hope, the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
Is this all that needs to be said in matters of doctrine? Of course not. Christians are called to live strong ethical lives as ones made in the very image of God, to seek after the wisdom and teaching of God found throughout the canon of Scripture, to live after the example of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, and to adhere to the Apostles’ teaching as developed in the epistles (which, in turn, are rooted in the larger revelation of God). There is certainly more to be said, and even the topics listed above are often fleshed out in varying (and sometimes, controversial) ways from person to person and group to group. But we are searching for some shared understanding that can offer a starting point for healthy theology, and a healthy reading of Scripture.
If our reading of Scripture causes us to deny these central teachings, we are not reading Scripture right. If we find our identity in peculiar teachings that are not central to the Christian faith, that may be a sign that we have failed to appreciate the universal faith of the Christian community. But if, in turn, we recognize the big rocks for what they are, we may just find that our house of faith is being built on solid rock rather than shifting sand.
Adapted from my article “Believing Well,” part 5 in a series entitled What is Healthy Theology?, at healthytheology.com. Also adapted from a sermon preached as a Harding University chapel presentation entitled “Mere Christianity.”
A Conversation with Dr. Gallagher & Dr. Stanglin
Dr. Ed Gallagher is associate minister at Sherrod Avenue and associate professor of Christian Scripture at Heritage Christian University. He received his PhD from Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, is an expert in Old Testament studies as well as early Christian literature, and is the author of The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (published by Oxford University Press). Keith Stanglin has served as a professor of Scripture and historical theology for nearly two decades, first at Harding University then at Austin Graduate School of Theology. For years, Keith edited the journal Christian Studies, and is the author of Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation. I sat down with Ed & Keith for episode 8 of the Avenue for Faith podcast, where I got to ask them about how early Christians understood the essentials of the Christian faith, how they communicated that to others, and why theology is helpful for the church. Here are some highlights:
Q: Keith, we argue in the podcast that Christians ought to be not just “biblically rooted,” but “theologically grounded.” What does this mean for the church today?
Theologically grounded. That’s one where I think some will put up some resistance to that word ‘theology’ and being theologically grounded. ‘Being biblically rooted is probably enough; I don’t know about this theologically grounded stuff.’ But it’s an important principle as well. And the whole point here in saying ‘theologically grounded’ is to say that our faith seeks understanding, which, in turn, once we have better understanding of faith, that then helps us rightly handle and apply the word of truth. So, deeper knowledge of Divine matters comes through a lot of ways—yes, reading Scripture, but also knowing the history and tradition of Christianity through the centuries. It comes through reflection on the intellectual challenges of our day. It’s very broad.
Q: Ed, we often think the answer to knowing Christian teaching is to “read your Bible” (presumably from cover to cover), and that reading Scripture is basically the essential thing. Why should we think there is more to that?
That is a very modern way of approaching a Christian duty, because for most of Christian history that sort of advice would not have been commonly given from the pulpit because it would have made no sense to people. They did not own a Bible. We have copies of 4th century Bibles in Greek that have basically the entire Bible in there—Genesis to Revelation, plus a little extra. Those Bibles, at the time, would have cost more than anyone could have possibly afforded. They would have cost as much as royalty could have afforded. Very, very expensive books; a regular Christian could not possibly have owned it. In the Latin West, in the year 800, there were a couple of major Bible production centers in France in the cities of Tours and Orleans. And they—especially the one in Tours—produced 2 Bibles a year, and that was a break-neck speed. People did not own Bibles for a long time. Certainly until the late Middle Ages, and maybe even until the invention of printing. And so, I think about all that, and think [about] this idea that you ought to go home and read your Bible. I think that is important. On the other hand, it’s very modern, and I don’t want to cut out the first 1500 years of Christians and say ‘well, they didn’t do it right.’ They couldn’t read their Bibles.
Q: Ed, how did people access Scripture for most of Christian history, and what were they supposed to do with the Christian teaching they received?
I do think they thought the Bible was important. But the way they accessed the Bible was they went to church, and they heard the preacher preach on the Bible. And, of course, the preacher had access to Scripture, and studied it. If you read the writings of Augustine or Jerome or Origen or Irenaeus—they are chock-full of references to Scripture; not always exact quotations, but a lot of times pretty exact quotations. They were obviously invested in Scripture. These early Christians who were sort of the elite were invested in daily study of Scripture and meditation and encouraged that in people to the extent that they were able. But the extent that they were able was come to church and hear me read it to you; that’s how you are able to do it. And memorize it. When I read it to you, you memorize it. And you go home and you meditate on Scripture—you ought to meditate on Scripture; that does not mean you have a copy of it yourself. It’s you’ve come to church and you’ve heard it, and you are at home thinking about those principles you have learned.
Q: Keith, is it ok to summarize the essential truths of the Christian faith? How long has the church engaged in this practice?
We recognize the importance of kind of summarizing it. If somebody asks what we believe in an elevator, or sitting next to us on a plane, we don’t just plop a Bible down in front of them and say ‘there it is,’ and start somewhere in the middle. It does take a summary. And, of course, Scripture tells us that there are some things that are more central to the faith. There are those central doctrines. It doesn’t mean those ones that aren’t central are unimportant; it just means they flow out of those doctrines. Scripture is the first place to go to help us discern what are those matters of first importance—what are those central doctrines of our faith. But we know that through engaging with Christians of the last 2000 years that we aren’t the first ones to ask this question either. There was already in the late first and early second century what theologians called ‘the rule of faith’ that summarized the gospel of creation and salvation. So we can look and see how they summed up the faith. A lot of those were summed up later on and written down in creeds. I think a lot of the church websites I’ve seen that have statements of faith—they don’t call them creeds but that’s what they are—do a pretty good job with that. But, again, we are not the first to do this; there is no need to reinvent the wheel. We know what the central doctrines of the faith are. Paul told us what they were, Jesus told us what they are; and Christians ever since have been talking about them.
Q: Keith, how can churches encourage members to become theologically grounded?
Everybody—by virtue of being a disciple—should be interested in seeking greater understanding. I think one of the best ways to do that is through reading. If a book has been passed down for centuries, and you are reading one of the church fathers, or medieval or reformation theologians—you won’t agree with everything they say, but the fact that it has the reputation it does, it is probably a pretty good book. So, do some reading, but church members should find out from their ministers and church leaders what are those good books to be reading. Another thing we could do is maybe have a book of the year. A lot of congregations will emphasize a certain theme in a year or something. Well, have a book that goes along with it, and have a discussion on that book once or twice during the year. People who agree to read the book, the church purchases the book for them. Everybody has it and the church goes through it. They are learning theology at the same time. I think those are some of the things that can help a church become theologically grounded.
Excerpts from Episode 8 of the Avenue for Faith podcast, titled “Theologically Grounded.” Available on all podcast platforms.
What’s New on the Avenue?
Do you ever feel invisible in this insecure world? Join us as we study the book of Hosea and are reminded that we are never invisible to God, just like Gomer. This online class for women will meet on Mondays, beginning March 8, from 6-7 PM, for 7 weeks. During class, the first 15 minutes we will have a time to share and pray together. This will be followed by a reading of a portion of Hosea. Then we will break into small groups to discuss 4 key questions. Join us as we grow closer to one another and as we grow into a deeper relationship with God. Watch the promo video here. If you wish to sign up, go to avenueforfaith.org/join.
Format: Zoom class | Mondays 6-7 PM | 7 weeks | Teacher: Janie Walton
He is Risen! Do you wish you spend more time in the Scriptures, reflecting on Jesus? Would you like to read with other women as you grow in your relationship with God?Here is an invitation to join like-minded disciples to spend 30 minutes each Saturday morning with readings about the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ leading up to Easter Sunday. Join Janie Walton for this time of reading, writing, and reflection. Watch the promo video here. If you wish to sign up, go to avenueforfaith.org/join.
Format: Zoom class | Saturdays 9:30-10:00 AM | 4 weeks | Teacher: Janie Walton
Start Here: Beginning A Relationship with Jesus (In-Person Class)
Where do I start in my journey with God, or in my new relationship with Christ? What are the essential truths of the Christian faith? If you are new to faith or just want to be reminded of the basics, this is the class for you! Join Justin and Luke in room 101 next door to the welcome center. Inspired by the book by David Dwight and Nicole Unice. @ Sherrod Avenue Church of Christ (Florence, AL).
Format: Lecture and discussion | Sundays 10:15-11:00 AM | 4 weeks | Room 101
Teachers: Justin Pannell & Luke Snodgrass
Actually Living the Sermon on the Mount (In-Person Class)
John Wesley called the greatest sermon ever given "the complete art of happiness." But did Jesus mean it? Can we really live it? What would it look like to put into practice Matthew 5-7? The young professionals class is taking up the challenge of discipleship. With readings from great books by Randy Harris, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Ed Gallagher. We will read a section, then put it into practice, then discuss what we learned by doing. @ Sherrod Avenue Church of Christ (Florence, AL).
Format: Discussion | Sundays 10:15-11:00 AM | 13 weeks | Room 204
Teacher: Nathan Guy
Bibliography: Theology Primers for Churches
Looking to build your church library, or your own collection of resources? Here are some helpful books worth having on hand to help teachers and other members to grow in their understanding of theology, their appreciation for Christian doctrine, and their ability to discern central and peripheral issues.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (lots of editions)
N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperOne, 2010)
Michael R. Weed & Jeffrey Peterson (eds.), Things That Matter: A Guide to Christian Faith, 3rd ed (Christian Studies Press, 2000)
Wendy Horger Alsup, Practical Theology for Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in our Daily Lives (Crossway, 2008).
John Hughes & Andrew Davison (eds.), The God We Proclaim: Sermons on the Apostles’ Creed (Cascade Books, 2017)
Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed (Zondervan Academic, 2016)
Mark E. Powell, Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality (ACU Press, 2014)
Daniel B. Oden & J. David Stark (eds.), Scripture First: Biblical Interpretation that Fosters Christian Unity (ACU Press, 2020)
Mark E. Powell, John Mark Hicks, & Greg McKinzie, Discipleship in Community: A Theological Vision for the Future (Leafwood, 2020)
Alister E. McGrath, Theology: The Basics, 4th ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017)
Alister E. McGrath, Theology: The Basic Readings, 3rd ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2018)
Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically (Baker Academic, 2014)
Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Eerdmans, 2000)
Series: The Good and Beautiful
James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009)
James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life (IVP, 2009)
James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Community (IVP, 2010)
Series: Lexham Press Christian Essentials:
Benjamin Myers, The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism (Lexham, 2018)
Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father (Lexham, 2019)
Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty (Lexham, 2020)
Peter J. Leithart, Baptism: A Guide to Life from Death (Lexham, 2021)
Jeffrey Peterson, “Confessions of Faith in the New Testament,” Christian Studies 28 (2016): 37-46
Keith D. Stanglin, “Restorationism & Church History: Strange Bedfellows?” Christian Studies 26 (2013-2014): 21-32
Keith D. Stanglin, “The Restoration Movement, the Habit of Schism, and a Proposal for Unity,” Christian Studies 28 (2016): 7-20
Keith D. Stanglin, “The Rule of Faith as Hermeneutic,” Christian Studies 31 (2019): 7-16
Scott Adair, “Reading Scripture Baptismally,” Christian Studies 31 (2019): 17-28
Harold Hazelip, “Theology for the Pew” (a series of 8 lessons on the Apostle’s Creed, delivered at the Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in 2014)
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Avenue For Faith is a publication of the Adult Education Ministry of Sherrod Avenue Church of Christ in Florence, Alabama. My name is Nathan Guy, and I am the Minister of Adult Education. I am happily married to Katie and also serve as President of Mars Hill Bible School. You can find more resources on our website over at avenueforfaith.org. Follow us @avenueforfaith (fb/tw/ig).