Doing theology

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DOING THEOLOGY and THE BASIS OF UNION

Jenny Brecknell

Who is involved in doing theology in the Uniting Church? The short answer to that question is Everyone! If theology is "words about God", as its roots in the Greek, theos (God) and logos (word), indicate, then everyone, from the newest convert to Christianity, theologically untrained and still biblically illiterate, to the most learned doctor of the church, who attempts to describe their experience of God or to explain their understanding of the faith, is involved in doing theology. Ordinary church members, exploring faith issues in small groups, Ministers of the Word, preparing sermons and proclaiming Christ from the pulpit, Deacons, reaching out with the Gospel to a world in need, elders and leaders, engaged in making responsible but difficult decisions, theological college lecturers, weighing up developments in contemporary thought about God and His church, all are involved in doing theology. The difference, of course, is in the way they do it. For some, it is a stumbling and only semi-articulate process, where faith is certain but knowledge limited; for others, it is the sophisticated discipline of a highly trained mind, backed by considerable learning and a passion for truth. There are many different levels at which "doing theology" is possible in the church.

Some of the key sources for theologising mentioned in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church are Scripture, Tradition, and Experience. Before we look more closely at these three key sources, however, we need to consider the question, What role does the Basis of Union itself play in establishing parameters for doing theology in the Uniting Church? The Basis of Union is the foundational document of our church, not a complete statement of its doctrinal position in all matters, but a summary of those things understood by the three uniting churches, the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia, and the Presbyterian Church of Australia, to be necessary and sufficient to enable them to enter into union. It is an agreement on essentials; it safeguards those things which the uniting churches were not prepared to give up on entering into union. But it is not only the foundational document of our church, it is also normative for its ongoing life. The Assembly paper, The status, authority and role of the Basis of Union, makes it clear that those on the Joint Commission on Church Union who framed the Basis of Union intended that it should be "the statement of Faith and Order which would guide the ongoing life of the Uniting Church"1, and have "an undergirding authority of a permanent character in the Uniting Church"2.

The implications of this are that the teaching of the Uniting Church, its doctrine and theology, and the government of the Church, its Constitution and regulations, must all be consistent with the Basis, with the christology it enshrines, the statements it makes about church, Scriptures and sacraments, the importance it gives to the creeds, the tenets of the Reformation witnesses and the sermons of John Wesley, and its inherent support of ecumenical endeavour, the ordination of women, the baptism of infants, and conciliar government in the church. Ordinary people in the pew may quietly espouse what theology they will; but office bearers and leaders in the Church, those who make decisions and speak on her behalf, who are required to "adhere to the Basis", while they may hold "difference of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith"3, may not proffer doctrine and theology which is at odds with the Basis. The Basis establishes certain parameters within which "doing theology", at an "official" level within the Uniting Church, is acceptable.

The most important of the key sources for theologising mentioned in the Basis of Union is Scripture, which has "a privileged position in theological reflection"4 and "for Christians ... is the primary authority"5. The Basis of Union sees Scripture as "unique prophetic and apostolic testimony"6 - unique "in the exact sense of that much abused word", to use Davis McCaughey's phrase from his Commentary on the Basis of Union. Scripture is the unique vehicle through which "the Word of God on whom salvation depends (ie, Christ himself) is ...heard and known"7. That is to say that the Written Word and the Living Word are inextricably linked: "Outside of the Scriptures, we cannot know (Christ) as He is, we cannot know what God has done through Him for our salvation, and we cannot know how we are to respond to that which God has done"8. That is why, in the view of the Basis, "when the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is (and should be) controlled by the Biblical witnesses"9 - and why all theologising - not only theologising about the nature and work of Christ, but also theologising that seeks God's word on contemporary issues - must be grounded in Scripture.

However, "interpreting Scripture for doing theology is no simple matter"10. Texts cannot be taken out of context, but the whole of the witness of Scripture must be brought to bear upon their interpretation; for this purpose, the work of Biblical scholars is invaluable, clarifying textual problems, improving the accuracy of translations, providing information about the Sitz-im-Leben, or original sociological setting, of the text, all of which enables the theologian to gain a clearer understanding of the intention of the writer. This, in turn, assists the theologian to deal with those contemporary issues with which he is faced upon which Scripture makes no direct comment - in our age, certain feminist and ecological issues, issues of medical and scientific ethics, such as in vitro fertilisation, surrogate motherhood, human cloning, and so on. In the Basis, the Uniting Church "acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon ... God's living Word"11; but in the setting up of the Task Group on Understanding and Using the Bible by its most recent Assembly (97.31.14), it has recognised that the pursuits of Biblical interpretation and theology are not always easy.

Another key source for theologising mentioned in the Basis of Union is Tradition. "Tradition" does not refer, as some think, to mindless repetition of familiar liturgies, nor to a belief that things should continue to be done as they have always been done. It refers to those things which are "handed down" - such things as creeds and confessions, those succinct statements of the faith of God's people, which have been crystallised in the crises of the church at various times in history, which enable us to learn from the mistakes, the struggles and the victories of our Christian forebears, and which clarify for us the essential tenets of our faith - such things as the New Testament Scriptures themselves, which were recognised as inspired, preserved, and set apart in the canon by decisions of the councils of the church, to continue to be a guide to the church down through the ages, and a protection against false teaching - such things as these are part of what we call the "tradition" of the church.

In acknowledging tradition, the Basis of Union gives special mention to (a) two early creeds of the church12 (the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed), (b) four confessional statements13 (the Scots Confession of Faith, the first confession of the Scottish Reformed Church, which, in the controversial matter of the eucharist, still held to the "real" rather than the "spiritual" presence of Christ; the Heidelberg Catechism, which sought, generally unsuccessfully, to reconcile various Protestant positions by adopting a middle-of-the-road stance on the eucharist and stating the doctrine of predestination in comparatively mild terms; the Westminster Confession, which represented a consensus of Calvinist thought, emphasised the authority of Scripture, affirmed the creeds of the early church, and came out fairly strongly on the side of "double predestination"; and the Savoy Declaration, which essentially affirmed the Westminster Confession) - and (c) the Forty-Four Sermons of John Wesley14, (who rejected the doctrine of predestination altogether and developed a theology which was evangelical and Arminian in emphasis.)

What implications for theologising, then, arise out of the role of Tradition in our church? Firstly, just as down through the ages creeds and confessions played an important part in the life of the church but were always subject to the critique of Scripture, so any creeds and confessions which we produce as a result of our theologising must be able to be aligned with the truth of Scripture. Secondly, just as our Christian forebears sought to express their understanding of the faith in terms that were relevant to their culture, so must we in our theologising try to communicate in ways which speak to the peculiar concerns of our own times - the Basis recognises this when it urges that we be "ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words ..."15 . Thirdly, while the creeds and confessions mentioned in the Basis indicate a tradition which is clearly Protestant, they suggest that there is scope within our belief systems for a range of theologies within the Calvinist Reformed/ Evangelical Arminian spectrum - and this surely reflects something of what the whole process of "uniting" implies.

A third key source for theologising mentioned in the Basis of Union, though perhaps not so explicitly, is Experience. Experience encompasses both our religious life and our daily life in the world, the life of home and family, of workplace and leisure time, of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual activity.

What is the nature of Experience in the life of the church? A phrase from Paragraph 5 of the Basis of Union, provides a useful way of summing it up: it is the experience of a "worshipping and witnessing life". "Worshipping" is both personal and corporate. Personal worship arises out of our "experience of grace, conversion and renewal, ... temptation and deliverance, ..."16 and is expressed in private prayer and praise and the very way we live our lives. Corporate worship reminds us that our faith calls us into the community of God's people, where it can be nurtured and grow, as we listen to the preaching of the Word, pray and praise God together, share in the sacraments of grace, and exercise our gifts in the charismatic17 fellowship of the church. The "witnessing" life of the church consists in its preaching, which not only strengthens the faithful but also reaches out to the wider world with the Gospel of the saving love of God in Jesus Christ; in the exercise of gifts in practical service to a world in need of all kinds, in the Name of Christ (praxis); and in the example it sets of a community which orders and governs its life according to principles of love and grace and concern for the other18, and so provides a foretaste of the eschatalogical Kingdom to come. The Basis of Union recognises the importance of all these elements of the life of the church, referring to them variously in Paragraphs 2, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, and 15.

So then, what are the implications for theology of the importance of Experience? The crucial thing is that the theologising which comes out of experience must be an authentic integration of all the elements of both our religious life and our daily life in the world, and an authentic development from Scripture and the tradition of the church. It should be a kind of dialectic process, where what we are taught about the faith from Scripture and tradition formulates and informs our world view and is at the same time tested by the reality of our experience, where the teaching of our faith guides our thoughts, words, and deeds, and the outcomes of our actions affirm or deny their appropriateness to the life of faith - as we "work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling,"19 that is, "real-ise" in our lives, through the power of "God who is at work in (us)",20 the salvation already won for us in Christ.

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1    Rev Professor Norman Young, in The status, authority and role of The Basis of Union, p5.

2    Rev Dr Davis McGaughey, in

3    Basis of Union, Par. 14.

4    Dicker, p.10.

5    Ibid.

6    Basis of Union, Par. 5.

7    Basis of Union, Par. 5.

8    Rev Denis Conomos, in Letter to Journey magazine, March 1998, p.11.

9    Basis of Union, Par. 5.

10    Dicker, p.10.

11    Basis of Union, Par. 11.

12    Basis of Union, Par. 9.

13    Ibid, Par. 10.

14    Ibid, Par. 10.

15    Ibid, Par. 11.

16    Dicker, p.12.

17    The word is used here simply with the sense of "gifted", recognising, as the Basis does, in Par.13, that "the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ's Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ".

18    Part of the witness of the Uniting Church to the world of the "perfect unity and mutual relationships of persons" inherent in the eschatological community is its choice of a conciliar form of government.  The Basis "identifies the Church with an ancient tradition which sees the Christian Church as essentially a council because its life is grounded in the primary council of the Trinity.  This tradition excludes both simple authoritarianism and democratic notions of individual rights", and was affirmed by the Reformers who established the "presbyterian" system adopted by the Uniting Church.  (Quotations from the Report to the Sixth Assembly of July 1991, entitled "Bishops in the Uniting Church - The Church's Response".)

19    Philippians 2:12.

20    Philippians 2:13.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

DICKER, Gordon S. Faith With Understanding, Revised Edition, JBCE, Melbourne Australia, 1996.

MILLER, Douglas. Ordained to the Ministry of the Word. JBCE, Melbourne. 1987.

OWEN, Michael. Back to Basics: Studies on the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia, JBCE, Melbourne Australia, 1996.

Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia. JBCE, Melbourne. 1992 edition.

The status, authority and role of The Basis of Union within the Uniting Church in Australia, a discussion paper issued by the Assembly prior to the Eighth Assembly of 1997. Published by National Assembly, Produced by Assembly Communications Unit.

Bishops in the Uniting Church - The Church's Response, a Report to the Sixth Assembly of July 1991.