An Exciting and Awkward Time
This is an exciting time to be teaching theology, but it can be a bit awkward when teaching doctrine. Let me explain.
I’ve been teaching theology for about 17 years at a Pentecostal denominational Bible College (Master’s College and Seminary [MCS]). I’m noticing a significant difference in the theological ideas and debates that our current students are exposed to compared with what I faced during my time as a Bible College student in the late 80s and early 90s.
Back then we didn’t spend a lot of time exploring theological perspectives that differed much from denominational doctrine. Alternative views were not immediately relevant to the average churchgoer, and so there was less need to train students in how to understand, assess, and even possibly utilize elements from differing theological perspectives. And if we really wanted to explore divergent views, we would need to access an actual library with actual hardcopy theological books and journals.
Skip ahead twenty-five years. The situation has changed radically.
Change in Information Access
During the past two+ decades theological debates within evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have risen sharply.
Alternative perspectives in areas that were once considered closed matters, were suddenly being discussed as viable options (think atonement theories [penal substitution was the winner] or biological evolution [not the winner] or biblical hermeneutics [author intent is THE only correct way to interpret the Bible]). And to make matters more interesting, these ideas were now being disseminated not in dusty libraries but over the internet, from a cacophony of voices, and through a variety of media. Want to be updated on the latest theological idea? No need for a hardcopy book, or even to know how to read.
One radical difference between students now and students twenty-five years ago (in basically any educational institution) is that contemporary students no longer rely on teachers to be conduits (or censors) of information. Information is everywhere, in multiple formats, and incredibly easy to access. Just ask Google.
Tim Elmore, educational expert on Millennials and Gen Z, states,
“May I remind you—today’s young people are the first generation that don’t need adults to get information. It’s coming at them twenty-four hours a day. What they need from us is interpretation. Their knowledge has no context. Adults must help them make sense of all that they know; to help them interpret experiences, relationships, work and faith via a wise, balanced lens…. Teach them how to think.” (Marching Off the Map 53).
Needing Guides for the Theological Maze
The issue, then, is not access to information. The issue is what to do with information, including theological information. Students, and churchgoers today need teachers and pastors who are able to understand and practically evaluate (pros and cons) all sorts of theological matters.
This is indeed a fun time to be teaching theology. Options abound for discussion and debate, and teachers get to help students navigate the alternatives, and hopefully chart a course toward what is truest, wisest, and most biblical. Helping students traverse this perplexing theological landscape is not optional. Remember, they are already exposed to
ideas and positions that might support, challenge, or even contradict what is being taught by their pastor or denomination. Social media makes this a daily reality. So, we do not have the luxury of avoiding current theological and societal discussions if we want to pass on our beliefs to subsequent generations. The good news is that the theology teachers I know (at MCS and elsewhere) love to help students navigate these complex issues. Teaching theology these days is exciting.
But as mentioned at the outset, teaching doctrine can be a little more awkward at times.
Doctrine vs. Theology
By “doctrine” here I am referring narrowly to denominational statements of faith (as opposed to more universally held creeds). I take “theology” to be the ongoing exploration of understanding God and what he desires of human beings. Doctrine, however, is a set of articulated beliefs intended to serve and define a particular Christian community. Theology continues to develop and grow in the knowledge of God; doctrine attempts to identify the confession of a group of believers in a given time and place.
At MCS our mandate is to train students for leadership within a denomination (in this case the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada [PAOC]). This means ensuring that students understand the particular and distinctive beliefs that the denomination holds, and as much as possible help them see why these beliefs are supportable biblically and theologically. But with the multiplicity of theological options that are publicly available today, it should come as no surprise that from time to time denominational doctrine will be challenged by new theological thinking. And this is when, for teachers, and pastors, things sometimes get a little awkward.
What happens when…
What happens when a fixed doctrinal articulation simply becomes difficult to understand in the present culture? Even if a denomination determines that it fully endorses its long-held faith statement, words and expressions change their meaning over time. This means that not changing the wording in doctrinal statement can actually result in the loss of its comprehensibility and value for subsequent generations.
Further, what happens when certain doctrines appear to have less support biblically or theologically than was previously thought? After all, it is not as if human knowledge—including theological knowledge—has not increased over the past decades. Of course, new information does not immediately mean that old doctrines are wrong. But it might (yikes!). And if the latter, how is a denomination supposed to integrate possible updates on truth into old doctrinal systems in a way that does not appear to be unfaithful to God and disloyal to previous generations?
My Motivation – PAOC SOFET Refresh
What motivated this blog is that currently my denomination, the PAOC, is in the midst of a refresh of its doctrines, its Statement of Fundamental and Essential Truths (SOFET). I believe this is a healthy and necessary step. But this process makes it a strange time for denominational theology teachers (and pastors). My students also know that the PAOC is rewriting its doctrines. And they ask questions about what they are supposed to subscribe to—what the PAOC affirms today, or what it will affirm in a few years from now? (I always say “today” :-)).
Pastors have also approached me with similar questions. What are we supposed to teach about “doctrine X” at this time, when we know we are in doctrinal transition? It’s one thing to help students and congregants navigate the various theological beliefs that are out there. It’s an added challenge to help them understand how and why a denomination might find itself in a place where it needs to refresh its faith statement.
So, this initial blog was simply intended to set the context for my next one. Information, theological and otherwise, is everywhere. Students, teachers, pastors, and congregation members need to know how to interpret this information—what to hold tightly, what to let go, what to consider more deeply—and we all need help to do it. And in my case, this needs to be done during a time when my denomination, with wise trepidation, is slowly and carefully walking through a doctrinal refresh.
Are there ways of thinking that will help us navigate this process? I believe so. In part 2 of this topic I want to provide some tips for navigating the landscape of doctrinal change.
In the meantime, some questions for refection or response.
How have you been affected by the explosion of theological options in the past number of years (through social media and traditional books)? Overwhelmed? Excited? Confused? Other?
What are some ways of thinking that help you navigate through the many options? Has any particular person been a help to you? How?