Volume 10 - Issue 1

Curriculum for credo: the content and aim of the church’s teaching task

By Roy Kearsley


Even the title of these talks is not neutral, for by proposing a teaching programme for the church, one is making a theological statement of profound significance. Such a role for the church, in recent years, has more often been renounced in favour of social and political activity. The church’s religion, left to fend for itself, has become a thin and irrelevant shadow of that to be found in the New Testament. It has consisted in just that which can not be communicated, whether it be the Buberian I-Thou encounter or the ‘event-disclosure’ or ‘the experience of the numinous’.

By taking up a ‘curriculum for faith’ we transcend this ruinous divorce and affirm that the church’s role, whilst inextricable from social and political responsibilities, is much more than activism; it is the sharing of a divine message. What is more, we understand this message in the following terms:

  1. It is an intelligible, propositional message which, by eliciting intelligible assent and response reconciles human life to God and his will.
  2. It is not only propositional but is a rich complex of propositions so vast and exhaustless that its exposition can easily occupy the life’s labour of one man.
  3. It is such that these propositions facilitate and articulate a full Christian experience enhancing all human life, and by ‘experience’ we mean nothing less than full Christian existence in relation to God, oneself and one’s neighbour.
  4. The Christian experience which this message generates may be objectified, individualised and shared.
  5. The propositions of this message, moreover, cross both times and cultures, and were divinely designed to do so by being set in universal and therefore translatable, human situations.
  6. Such transmission of this message is appropriately assisted by dogmatic definitions and symbols which distinguish the anchor points, or to put it another way, the pillars of belief. These definitions are useful models but they are not the propositions themselves, nor are they merely the enshrining of ‘timeless’ truths somehow buried in the propositions. They are simply the servants of the message itself, giving it resonance and recognition. However, the more these definitions stand the test of time, the more useful they are and the greater is the burden of proof required to overthrow them.

Given these features, we are led to some practical conclusions:

a. The content of the church’s teaching task is the message itself, namely God-breathed Scripture. It is the pulsating living Word, breathed out by God and made permanent in writing. It is the whole thing with all its richness of human experience and expression. It is not bare proposition, but the throbbing biography of tragedy and salvation imperatively written by God himself.

b. This content is served and enhanced, however, by its presentation within the discipline of a particular dogmatic shape or model, especially a proven one. The advantages of such a framework are to highlight unity and therefore coherence, to aid mastery of the material, to impose sanctions against speculative and unwarranted inferences from, or apart from, the biblical material and to exclude more explicitly ideas which undermine or oppose Scripture.

c. This propositional approach means that no amount of ‘piety’ or ‘spirituality’ can be a substitute for understanding the message and cherishing it by repentance. This has its consequences for preaching. Preaching cannot be elevated into a sacrament where the means of grace centres upon the event itself instead of upon the message it conveys. We can do this in subtle ways where the ‘liberty’ or ‘excitement’ or even ‘glory’ of preaching is exaggerated.

d. On the other hand, since the content itself has the character of ‘good news proclaimed’ we cannot make preaching a mere intimation. There is no biblical ground for belief in the ex opere operato of the sermon. New Testament accounts make it quite clear that the content was delivered with commitment and conviction with all patience. This must be true in all media commandeered for the good news but especially in preaching where the chief channel of communication is individual personality publicly scrutinized for sincerity.

e. We claim that these propositions (and models of them) issue in the common but individualized possession of a scripturally defined experience. The authenticity of the content is therefore in some measure made evident by practical result, by the emergence of a shared, biblically informed life-style and of common governing values, an identifiable Christian existence, not just a repeated devotional experience, important as that is.

This leads us irresistibly to the conclusion that no teaching is faithful to Scripture which does not have a practical aim, issuing in changed attitudes and actions in respect of self, others and God.

When we turn to the curriculum itself we find, of course, all the great historic doctrines of the faith. For the most part it will be enough to remind ourselves of the essential importance of each.

The doctrine of God must emerge because the people of God must know whom they serve. Reconciliation with him is the distinctive Christian offer. Moreover, when reconciled, we need to know how to love, appreciate and worship him. Essentially, however, we must know the doctrine of God because he has many unworthy aspiring rivals, and the church itself with its activities, organization, loyalties and powers can become as a rival to him.

The doctrine of man is indispensable because it affirms the individual’s value, and therefore answerability, and thereby explains a person’s real dilemma to him. Moreover by defining the social nature of humankind it furnishes the basis for real practical response to our tragic world.

As for the great doctrine of Christ’s person and work, we all know that he is the living Lord, the only Saviour, our religion and unique mediator, to be worshipped without reservation. The doctrine, however, assumes a new significance in a freshly pluralizing society where the implied exclusiveness of Christ is once again a scandal.

Of the many reasons for underlining the doctrine of the Holy Spirit we mention only two of pressing importance. Firstly this doctrine, after that of the incarnation, emphasizes within Trinitarian bounds the dynamic immanence of God. The Spirit of God is still working in the world, testifying that it is his world and even more emphatically that it is his church in his world. Secondly, only the fact of the Holy Spirit delivers to the world the authentic Christian existence of which we were earlier speaking.

Lastly, and appropriately, we champion the place of eschatology, in the full, not the emasculated modern, sense of the word. It condemns and curbs human rebellion and cruelty. It both denies the weary cyclic perception of human history and affirms the inevitability of consummation. It not only speaks of hope and perfection, but upholds the lasting value of creation, precluding that creeping suspicion that we are an interim body with an interim message struggling with an interim ethic. To concentrate on an eschatology which majors wholly on the chasm between Now and Then is therefore to undermine this doctrine completely.

In addition to these general doctrinal needs, however, we wish to suggest two pressure points of particular importance.

1. The law-penalty framework of the human condition

We do not have in mind here the sometimes too stylized evangelism associated with the great Puritan preachers and their distinguished successors in which law preaching leads to perceptible stress followed by application of the gospel. Of much more basic importance is the law framework within which these preachers worked, and indeed within which Scripture itself places us all. According to Scripture the origins of the human dilemma are explained as follows:

a. Man’s destiny was made his own selection according to response to moral law. To this end he was especially addressed by God and made answerable to him. Whatever views one may hold on the idea of biological evolution, this arrangement was the starting point for the present human situation.

b. The moral law then given by God was objective in its specific requirements, though written directly ‘upon the heart’.

c. The emergence of cursedness and alienation in the world was therefore the consequence of a moral event, namely the ‘fall’.

d. The human dilemma is thus a moral one. It has to do with law and curse in that order, and it requires a moral solution with an ensuing moral expression in conversion experience.

e. Redemption is most naturally understood in this light as effected through a law-curse discharge of penalty. It is a moral or legal form of redemption.

The main reason for abandoning this biblical framework today is the rise of the evolutionary model in Christian theology. Such reverses the law-curse order. It makes the ‘curse’ somehow a natural feature of human life through the ‘reptilian’ nature or recalcitrant material of the cosmos and the human dilemma is no longer a moral one but a material one.

It is, however, impossible to do justice to the great Christian doctrines without the law framework, for it is exclusively to the moral framework, as opposed to the material, that the credit goes for upholding the scandalof evil. On this view alone, evil is not merely ‘primitive’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘bad’. It is, rather, blameworthy, punishable and wrong. This framework alone makes practicable an instrument by which the real human tragedy can be divined and corrected. A moral, even legal, explanation of our universal distress may not be welcome, but it is coherent, and with great conviction it rings true because, tragically, it is true.

Bound up with a sound framework, then, should be a clear doctrine of judgment. The doctrine is obligatory material for several reasons:

i. It was a major feature of New Testament preaching for decision. Paul introduced it on the one occasion where we find him actually labouring for a point of contact with the pagan ethos, namely at the Areopagus in Acts 17. Jesus himself often spoke of coming judgment, and it is of course at the heart of Paul’s message as depicted by him in Romans.

ii. It is inseparable from Christology. Judgment is a power which Jesus reserves for himself. It is impossible to exalt Christ without upholding also this aspect of his dignity.

iii. The New Testament treats final judgment as an issue before believers. In Romans 14:10ff. and 2 Corinthians 5:9–11 the fact of judgment casts a tone of gravity across all of life and compels a sense of urgency for obedience and witness.

iv. The doctrine of judgment in the New Testament provides the ultimate anchor point of the story of man and evil. Modern theology emphasizes the open-ended dynamic of world processes. Even Moltmann sees the ‘history of the future’ as an opening up and releasing of the present ‘experimental’ open history. The New Testament, however, envisages a closing down, a gelling, a day for shutting up all systems and discharging all debts. Things will not go on and on simply because they are. There will be, according to apostolic doctrine, a ‘burning up’, in a word, a judgment. People, in fact, need such an anchorage point if the biblical call for moral obedience is to be their life’s quest and not simply an appendage to Christian joyousness.

2. The bodily resurrection of Christ

Our neglect of preaching about the resurrection of Christ, outside of Easter day, has now to be remedied for several reasons. In the first place, the lordship of Jesus was known only through the resurrection (Rom. 1:3, 4); that is to say, all the features of his life and ministry which pointed to his exalted status were summed up with immense power by the resurrection. Secondly, in consequence, our faith actually hangs upon a single thread, that of Christ’s resurrection as Paul clearly shows in 1 Corinthians 15. The resurrection of Jesus is not just one more area of doubt to be dispelled by Christian apologetic—it is, to change the metaphor, the very cornerstone of our faith. Thirdly, it so happens that although the resurrection of Christ provokes more doubt than possibly any other doctrine apart from the incarnation itself, it also furnishes an unshakable and rational offensive for the faith. The attempts to account for the historical evidence in a way contrary to traditional resurrection belief have proven to be specious, speculative, mutually contradictory and on occasion even eccentric. If, as alleged, the conventional received account of Christ’s resurrection is so obviously invalid, it is remarkable that no alternative explanation has universally commended itself, particularly amidst such passion to abolish the old path.

We cannot turn from this keystone of Christian faith without briefly reminding ourselves of its doctrinal significance in the curriculum of faith. It upholds the apostolic conviction of Christ’s deity and confirms the success of his redemptive mission. It provides a base for Christ’s present lordship and for the church’s obedience. It affirms the unity of the human constitution and is thus a pattern of human resurrection-destiny, whilst pointing also to new life present now as a basis for holiness and social concern. It endues the church’s message with a supernatural yet historical character without which all its teaching is impotent.

In closing, we recognize that our discussion of the content of the teaching task has, in apparent perverseness, focused on the very tenets of the faith the most rejected. But it is the rejection of them which emphasizes both their importance and the urgent requirement to communicate them. The question, ultimately, is not whether we dare assert so persistently things so difficult to receive, but whether we can afford not to so assert them.


The apostle Paul in particular defines the aim of his teaching work in terms of the three major ideas of worship, holiness and mission. His ‘curriculum’ has for its object the strengthening of faith (Rom. 1:11), the inward formation of Christ in the believer (Gal. 4:19), the unity of the faith and the church’s maturity (Eph. 4:13), an appreciation of holiness and ‘the kingdom of God with power’ (1 Cor. 4:17–20), a striving together for the gospel (Phil. 2:27) and the presentation of every man mature (Col. 1:28). Such persistently practical conceptions of the teaching goal explain why we find in 1 Timothy 1:9, 10 that the enemy and betrayer of sound doctrine is not just unsound doctrine but also wrong behaviour and wrong relationships both amongst one’s fellows and towards one’s God.

The aims of the teaching task are therefore very wide ranging, embracing the divinely ordained latreia on at least three fronts (cf. Heb. 9:1; Rom. 12:1 with Rom. 1:9; Heb. 13:10 and 13:6). On the other hand it is a very narrow aim, namely the authentication in both communicator and hearers of the message proclaimed.

Just how costly a teaching programme like this is, may be discerned in Paul’s account of his own ministry in Acts 20. Here ‘teaching’ is total communication of message and messenger, entailing a life lived (v. 18), a humility (v. 19), a sensitivity (v. 19), trials endured (v. 19), courage (v. 20), thoroughness in content (v. 27) and application (v. 20), commitment (v. 24), purity of motive (v. 32) and example in caring (v. 35).

When evangelical theologians of non-western churches met in Korea, considerations such as these constrained them to criticize the western theological enterprise as,

rationalistic, moulded by Western philosophies, preoccupied with intellectual concerns, … theology as a purely academic discipline is something we must neither pursue nor import.… Biblical theology has to be actualised in the servanthood of a worshipping and witnessing community called to make the Word of God live in our contemporary situations.1

One can, of course, sense over-reaction and, some would say, even over-simplification in this protest. We must recognize that whether we like it or not the human society is largely shaped, directly or indirectly, by ideas. Yet we are, by the Declaration, rightly alerted to an almost imperceptible but remorseless ascendancy of philosophy over biblically informed theology which has now almost annexed the whole field in our universities. This cold, conceptual and generally incommunicable syllabus should no longer be accepted without interrogation and protest. Of course, theology in the universities (indeed in the market place of general debate), must accept strict academic regulation and be prepared for interface with other disciplines, but without becoming purely academic. The practical aims of the church’s teaching task, underlined by the last phrase in the Declaration, are compatible only with a theology of intelligible, propositional and applicable concepts. It so happens that these values are prominent in the evangelical tradition, however much, regretfully, the initiative has been lost to other schools of thought by default.

The advantages of evangelical thought are nevertheless plain enough. In the first place, the propositional conception of the church’s task is indispensable for intelligible statements about the individual’s responsibility in community. It is one of the striking features of much dialectical theology that it cannot easily jump from, say, an I-Thou encounter, or ‘event-disclosure’ to a generalised social and applicable principle. The Christ of faith is imprisoned in the vertical. Secondly, the absolute nature of the Christian message provides the only grounds for truly binding judgments. True, it is this allegedly distasteful feature which repels critics, convinced as they often are of the dissolution of binding moral law. And yet no-one fully dispenses with this apparatus of obligation. Sooner or later a furtive ‘ought’ creeps into all theological talk. The evangelical has a formidable and coherent rationale in which to root such inevitable language. In the third place, once these two principles are conceded we find ourselves in the realm of objective statements about God and man and therefore transmittable statements. Without these no coherent pronouncement on corporate standards of behaviour can be made, let alone a common philosophy of responsibility in worship and obedience towards God himself. Lastly, the wholehearted commitment of the evangelical to the full authority of Scripture imparts a comprehensive (though not, as sometimes alleged, an exhaustive) deliverance upon the conduct of our lives in sensitive concern for what is compassionate, true and meaningful. This rich wholeness of Scripture, moreover, is far more thoroughly tested and vindicated than the experiments that now nervously confront us.

There is more to the evangelical case than even this, for we might add that it has a distinctive pervasive moral spirit which has proven to be a remarkable spring of action. It is easy to dispense such epithets as ‘legalistic’, but a good deal more difficult to find anything quite so powerful as a generator of commitment to commonly held virtues such as selflessness, integrity and social concern in people initially devoid of them. Alternative frameworks, evolutionary, existentialist, or even experiential must prove themselves over a very long period of time and show that they can uphold the scandal of human misdeeds before aspiring to displace the traditional approach.

In addition to this fundamental feature of the ‘conventional’ perception of things, there is the disquieting fact that categories such as sin, fall, penalty and forgiveness have tended to free rather than legalistically to enslave, illustrating once again a remarkable renovating power.

We observed earlier that a consideration of the ‘teaching task of the church’ presupposes that there is a message to be communicated. Conversely, it presupposes that there is an identifiable, even definable, entity called ‘the Church’ to which this task is committed. In doctrinal studies as a whole no single ‘figure’ or image of the church has achieved dominance, but it may be said that heirs to the Protestant evangelical tradition have in the main seen no reason for discarding, in favour of some other model, the New Testament description of the Church as the ‘people of God’. This is not just one more example of traditionalism. There are reasons for the choice.

In the first place, this representation focuses upon the relationship of the Christian community to God. It lays down as a ground rule that nothing may be said about the church which violates that first consideration. The emphasis is not on ‘people’ but upon ‘God’. The Greek of 1 Pet. 2:9 suggests ‘a people for (God’s) possession’ (laos eis peripoiesin). The church is first of all a people for God. This does not relieve in any way the church’s obligation to humanity in general but rather intensifies it, since the world belongs to the God whom the church serves, and God has undertaken to load responsibility for service to his world upon the shoulders of those who claim allegiance to his Messiah.

Secondly, in the Petrine passage which concerns us the communal dimension of the people of God is underscored by such phrases as ‘a chosen race’ and ‘a holy nation’, with all their abiding Old Testament overtones of solidarity.

Thirdly the notion of service to fellow humans is, in this same passage, established as a primary function of the people of God. They are nothing other than a ‘royal priesthood’. What is more, the demands of this priesthood are stringently conditioned by allegiance to Christ as their example.

Lastly, the whole pattern is animated by a sense of gratitude: ‘once … but … now God’s people … nowreceived mercy.

We may say then, that far from obscuring the ‘horizontal’, this notion of the church provides the only compelling basis for serving one’s fellows. Once it is established that the community of the faith are a people for God, they not only must, but they will share his vision and outrage at human suffering and perplexity.

Does this mean that other representations of the church have nothing to teach us? Amongst some of the more popular current options are the following:

The sacramental. It is virtually impossible for churches faithful to the Protestant tradition to embrace the idea of the church as ‘primal sacrament’ without surrendering its non-negotiable perceptions of both church and sacraments. Nevertheless the approach does remind us that the church is the most tangible embodiment of Scripture’s message accessible to the unbelieving world. How do we measure up to that expectation?

The mystical communion. Here the emphasis falls upon the invisible and the intangible, the mystical unity shared by believers with each other and with Christ their head. It might with justice be said that evangelicalism is quite mystical enough, but it will do no harm to remind ourselves that our church unity will be no greater than the sum total of our personal, loving loyalty-devotion to the head of the church. No assembly, synod, presbytery or conference can achieve the former without the latter.

The servant. The failure of this prototype, as we have hinted, is that it starts with the horizontal instead of the vertical. Moltmann might be cited as an exception, but we are not yet convinced that even he has us serving God; he seems rather to see us ‘helping’ God. Yet we are humbled before this image of the church also, for it witnesses powerfully against our triumphalism. ‘Privilege’, biblically understood, is debt-laden. We are chained by our privilege to the service of the world rather than the conquest of it.

Before we leave this matter of the teaching task of the church it is worth pointing out that whilst Scripture pinpoints a specific teaching office we find this teaching mission to be also the task of the whole church. In Romans 12 the proclamation of truth does not strike out alone. It is accompanied and confirmed by authenticating forms of selfless service issuing in a lifestyle which takes the world by surprise. No preacher of the message, or theological educator, stands alone. His success will be deemed no greater than the practical evidence which confirms his message as real and authentic. The burden falls, therefore, upon the whole church whose life and value will either strengthen the message or betray it. By this route we are brought to another consideration, namely the world-context of our teaching task.

It was never expected that the church’s theology would remain private. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 fully expected even the regular in-teaching of the congregation to attract and overwhelm the outsider. In the first two centuries of the church’s life (and arguably beyond that) Christian theology was developed almost exclusively in interaction with hostile elements. Granted, this ‘apologetic theology’ was not always of the highest quality but this is no condemnation of the enterprise in itself.

The content of the church’s teaching programme should once again respect this high aim. Christians should be fitted to articulate in a compelling and winsome way the faith once and for all handed on. In the process of achieving this we will not be able to avoid the exclusiveness of Christ. We are often happy to teach this idea only indirectly, but we can thereby leave many witnessing Christians unfitted for certain conflict. We may as well face the possibility now that Christians in a pluralistic society will face intense hostility for simply saying ‘Christ and Christ alone’.

This same content should, moreover, breed a deep sensitivity to suffering and oppression. Although this field has gone by default to political theology it is in fact only evangelical theology which offers a theological basis for an authentic struggle against wrongs. Only in the great doctrines of man, sin and redemption, derived directly as authoritative communicable judgments of God, can we find a starting point for Christian activism.

With this consideration we are brought to the reminder that the teaching task should foster a global concern. This concern will not simply grow of itself and apart from teaching stimulus, any more than other forms of true holiness will grow without the input of Scripture. A true teacher will take an axe to the roots of parochialism and a true theological teacher moreover will welcome the enlargement of theological endeavour across national barriers. This is already happening. What started with the Servant-theology of Moltmann, Metz and Bonhoeffer has flourished ultimately as the liberation theology of Latin America. It is vital, then, that the great evangelical tradition takes seriously the growing impact of secular and social theologies on its mission target countries and be prepared to set aside resources for the theological service of overseas churches.

In the light of these immense challenges those of us specifically engaged in Christian education will have to learn to live more and more each day with the sober words, ‘we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness’ (Jas. 3:1).

1 The Seoul Declaration, August 1982, in Missiology, vol. X, no. 4 (Oct. 1982), p. 491.

Roy Kearsley

Glasgow Bible College