Books, Theology

Getting Started: An Introduction to Systematic Theology for Students and Laymen by R.J. Gore, DMin, PhD

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Getting Started: An Introduction to Systematic Theology for Students and Laymen by R.J. Gore, DMin, PhD

"In doing theology...we must affirm that our starting point lies in the affirmation ‘God has spoken.’" -Dr. Gore

Distinguished Christian educator, Dr. R.J. Gore, brings more than thirty years of Reformed theological teaching experience to this encouraging introductory guide to biblical, Christian theology.

Getting Started is meant to help students and those new to or intimidated by theology “get started” in the right direction as they first learn about the God of the Bible.

Throughout Dr. Gore explains key terms, historical movements, influential theologians, and different approaches to theological inquiry, all in a warm, approachable, and easy to understand tone. He also teaches methods that anyone, regardless of experience, can use to do theology in a biblical and balanced fashion.

For students, newcomers to Christianity, or anyone with an interest in Christian theology, Getting Started is an indispensable introduction and the perfect starting off point for the journey of a lifetime!

About the Author

R.J. Gore (DMin, Erskine Theological Seminary; PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary. He served for twenty-nine years as an Army Chaplain (Colonel) including a combat tour in Iraq (in 2004), has pastored a small church, and has held numerous leadership roles in his presbytery and denomination. He is the author of Covenantal Worship: Reconsidering the Puritan Regulative Principle and is the editor of Celebration, a book of sermons for the 180th Anniversary of Erskine Theological Seminary.

1. Theological Encyclopedia
2. Values and Limitations of Systematic Theology
3. The Task of Systematic Theology
4. What Is Systematic Theology?
5. A Covenantal Model
Appendix A: Theological Loci
Appendix B: Other Methods of Arranging Systems of Theology
Name Index


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Paperback 5.5 x 8.5 | 120 pages
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ISBN (paperback) 978-1-953855-45-9
ISBN (PDF) 978-1-953855-46-6
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Cover Image The Return (1837) by Thomas Cole, American, 1801-1848. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran) 2014.79.12.
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From Chapter 3 – The Task of Systematic Theology

Doing Theology and Culture

As we explore the relationship between theology and culture, there is at least one fact that is beyond dispute. Without a doubt, there is a chronological development of theology, which is the lesson of historical theology. Having granted the obvious, it is but a small step to acknowledge that there are cultural influences on the development of theology.This, too, is demonstrated throughout the history of the church. Cultural influences include, for example, Hebraic (Old Testament), Greek (New Testament, early church), Roman (New Testament, early church, the Roman Catholic tradition), North African (early church), and Western European (medieval church, Reformation Protestantism, modern church).

There is, however, an evangelical presupposition that since the Scriptures, ultimately, are God’s revelation to all humankind, the message of Scripture is conveyed despite diverse cultural emphases and contextualized language. This is a truth that every evangelical should embrace, although it is not without the potential for misuse. Some evangelicals “have tended to view theology as transcultural or culturally neutral. Always fearful of the historicist notion of theology, these evangelicals have typically championed biblical authority by claiming that there is only one horizon in theology—the biblical text itself.”(1)

As John Stott has so eloquently reminded us, there are two horizons that must be addressed if one is to do theology properly. (2) First, it is necessary to embrace and to understand the “Ancient World,” of the Bible, the biblical text and its cultural milieu. Second, it is necessary to embrace and understand the “Modern World” of the interpreter and the culture in which the interpretation occurs and is applied. Indeed, “ . . . there is still the need to link those understandings [the ‘specific cultural and historical meaning of Scripture’] up with the target culture into which we wish to announce these words, not to mention our need to be aware of our own cultural baggage as interpreters.”(3)

Evangelicals are not the only ones who have erred in their understanding of the relationship between theology and culture. Some interpreters (usually of more critical convictions) have erred on the other extreme. They suggest “that the meaning of the biblical message is actually determined by the constraints of the contemporary culture, that the Scriptures have no other meaning than that which is permitted by the conceptuality of the present-day situation.” (4) As an example of one who employs these presuppositions in his methodology, Lints gives the famed New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann. A perusal of Bultmann’s classic work, New Testament and Mythology, gives abundant evidence of this error. (5)

One of the keys to understanding the relationship between theology and culture is the unavoidable fact that “we hear the divine conversation only after it has passed through several filters.” (6) Borrowing from Lints’ discussion, we note that there are a number of interpretive filters (or “matrices”) which every interpreter employs. Personal and family characteristics affect the way we view Scripture. For example, someone whose background has a strong element of self-reliance may very well view biblical teachings on personal financial responsibility quite differently from someone who has benefited personally from local, state, or federal social programs. One’s individual religious tradition may very well influence the way one interprets certain texts. For example, someone who was reared in a church that practices immersion only might be unaware of the wide range of meanings in the Scriptures for the words baptism and baptize.

National and regional culture influences the way one interprets Scripture. Many Americans assume that God is obligated to provide equal treatment to all. The democratic principles that inform American political life are uncritically transferred to the Kingdom of God and God becomes the ultimate equal opportunity employer. A tragic example of the influence of regional culture is the lingering legacy of segregation in the south. In the past, many southern white Christians unreflectively assumed that racial segregation was a concept rooted in Scriptures. Failure to recognize this filter led to prolonged racial tensions that remain even unto the present.

As implied above, racial heritage can have a tremendous effect on one’s ability to interpret Scripture. African-Americans who endured centuries of slavery and prejudice might have unusual insight into biblical passages that discuss slavery or bondage. Likewise, Asian-Americans, who come from a culture that honors, even reveres the elderly, might have unique insight into the injunctions to “honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12) or to “obey those who rule over you” (Heb.13:17).

Social relationships, often determined by one’s station in life, may very well affect the way one views such matters as economic justice, right-to-work legislation, and the relationship between Church and State. Whether one is considered, economically, to be middle class or lower class might very well affect one’s understanding of the biblical injunctions to care for the “widows and orphans.” Similarly, there is an educational matrix that colors so much of the church’s life, and, frequently the education matrix is intertwined with the matrix of social relationships. In some denominations, the majority of their membership lacks post-secondary education. In that setting, there will be a bias against college-educated ministers and, often enough, an outright fear of seminary education. All too frequently, the lack of education is accompanied by unhealthy, but firmly-held beliefs, such as a bias for certain translations of the Bible, a disdain for worship that is overly formal or “rigidly structured,” or a distrust of tools for the study of the Bible, such as commentaries, theology books, or language helps.

Some Christians have vivid memories of dramatic, personal conversions. One’s personal faith experience may very well color expectations for how God deals with others. For example, the Apostle Paul had a very dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. To make such an experience normative and to read the biblical calls for repentance and conversion in that light would be to establish a standard unattainable for average believers, most of whom have never experienced anything so profoundly jarring.

Another matrix that influences the way we view Scripture is our vocational and leisure-time matrix. One’s calling in life often determines the hours worked and the character of that work. Those whose vocation keeps them close to the land might well find their understanding of the many agricultural images in Scripture to be enriched. Similarly, those engaged in business or commerce might better understand many of the biblical teachings on money and stewardship. Even something as simple as the length of the workweek may have an effect. For example, one who puts in extensive hours of overtime simply may not have the leisure time to engage in detailed study of the Bible.

Finally, the extent of one’s cross-cultural experiences certainly will affect the interpretation of the Word of God. Some evangelicals interpret the Bible through the single lens of their own culture and experience. For Americans who previously have never ventured out of the country, their first experience in a foreign culture is often quite shocking. To realize that “the way we do it” is not necessarily the way the rest of the world does it can be a tremendous experience for the interpreter of Scripture. Those who have become accustomed to the “Golden Arches” at every major intersection, cheap gasoline, and endless options in the supermarket are often at a loss when traveling in lands that have not been blessed with our abundant natural resources and entrepreneurial spirit. This can produce “culture shock.” Perhaps there is little else that is as helpful in banishing the tendency to read an ancient Near Eastern text as though it were written to a twenty-first century, affluent, suburban, white congregation in upstate South Carolina. Of course, the broader one’s cross-cultural experiences, the greater the opportunity to develop such sensitivities and employ them in interpreting and applying the Scriptures.

Excerpt References
[1]  Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 102.
[2]  John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982). See also Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) for helpful insights into the practical application of this principle.
[3] Walter Kaiser and Moses Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 175.
[4] Lints, The Fabric of Theology, 102.  Roughly speaking, those who view the relationship between theology and culture in this manner would be inclined to embrace a “Christ of Culture” approach, from H. Richard Niebuhr’s typologies in Christ and Culture (New York: Harper, 1951).
[5] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, ed. and trans. Schubert Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
[6] Lints, The Fabric of Theology, 61.