Volume 48 - Issue 1

Going Deeper

By Daniel Strange

Late last year at the annual gathering of the fellowship of churches to which I belong,1 I was asked to give a five-minute address to the following question: ‘What will be the main theological issues facing us in the next few years?’ Quite a challenge! I wonder how you would respond? Here’s a slightly expanded version of what I said in full recognition that I’d canvassed and collated responses from some friends and colleagues as to how they’d answer the question in such a limited span. I hope that nothing I say will be a surprise for Themelios readers, as I believe these reflections are in sympathy with our journal’s aims and objectives. So, if nothing else, take these as an encouragement and confirmation to keep calm and carry on.

It’s been said that the main issue in the first millennium was, ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ In the second millennium the question became, ‘How are we saved?’ And now as we are into the third millennium, the question is and will continue be, ‘What is a human being?’ The seismic implications of this individually, culturally and politically—even while still recognising a Christian ‘afterglow’—cannot be underestimated. We are all feeling these implications in various ways, given the presenting issues surrounding sexuality, gender, transhumanism, embodiment, and the underlying worldviews and of the focus on the self; expressive individualism; social construction; or just what we call human identity.2 The main theological issue facing us will be a danger that our responses will be superficial and all we’ll hear are the words of Star Wars’ Red Leader as he shoots at the Death Star: ‘Negative, negative. It didn’t go in. It just impacted on the surface.’ And so we will need to go deep.

First, our challenge will be to go deep theologically. As we dig down into the presenting issues we see all around us, we discover competing interpretations of reality what are called ‘theories’—the lenses through which we view the world which highlight the things we believe to be viable, visible and valuable.3 Our challenge in our preaching, praying, discipling and evangelising, will be to analyse, critique and construct, looking through the Bible to demonstrate how the biblical story and Christ crucified is the true interpretation of reality, or if I might be allowed to say, the subversive fulfilment of all other idolatrous interpretations.4 This will include (and I think Covid helpfully highlighted this for us), how thin our political/public theologies have been. So simply prioritising time and resources for theological (in the broadest sense) thinking and teaching at every level from basic catechesis to advanced research is vital. In that sense, the biggest theological challenge is ignorance and lack of concern. The need to bang the drum for theological education has never been greater.

Second, our challenge will be to go deep affectively. The increasing grip of secularism is going to make the social cost of Christianity higher and higher. We will not pay that cost unless we perceive the incomparable nature of God not just quantitatively but qualitatively. Our challenge will be to live in reverent fear, not fearing others, or what other people fear (increasingly apocalyptically).5 This is a theological issue. How are we going to engender this affection and its fruit which should lead to sense our own solid and stable identity in Christ and a love for Him in which there is a boldness, freedom and joy? We must prayer for the ongoing production of ‘true’ theologians, men and women who not only know and believe, but have ‘also sensible experience of, the forgiveness of sins and the privilege of adoption and intimate communion with God and the grace of the indwelling Spirit and the hidden manna and the sweet love of Christ—the earnest and pledge, in short, of perfect happiness.’6

Third, our challenge will be to go deep historically. By this I don’t mean a sentimentalised romanticism or retreat. In my context of the UK, we are going to have to come to terms with being a minority (often a despised minority) in our churches with certain professions closed to Christians—professions like teaching and medicine from which, in the fellowship of churches of which I am part, we have disproportionately drawn from. I think as non-conformist churches we have a particular contribution to make here if we can remember our history. It was only two hundred years ago that we couldn’t stand for parliament and one hundred and fifty years ago that we couldn’t go to university and therefore into the professions.7 Recently, my Crosslands colleague Tim Chester has been inspired by the life and ministry of his ‘local’ Puritan William Bagshawe (1628–1702), the so-called ‘Apostle of the Peak’.8 As one of the two thousand ministers who comprised the Great Ejection after Charles II’s Act of Uniformity (1662), Bagshawe’s itinerant preaching and teaching in homes, barns and under trees, produced much fruit despite constant crackdowns from authorities. Although times and locations of meetings had to be constantly changed and conducted in secret, Bagshawe was heard where he had not been heard before. Mini revivals broke out in places where there had previously been no church, and places that had resisted Bagshawe’s evangelistic efforts before 1662 now were responsive. Moreover, in the midst of this persecution Bagshawe was planning for the future. He knew his congregations needed pastors, and so every summer he held a three-week residential study in the Peak District where students came together to hear lectures and discuss theology. Let’s draw on this heritage, learning what it means both to minister and to train in a hostile environment. It’s been done before and it can be done again. Yes, it’s going to be messy and ‘sub-optimal’, but it’s where God has placed us at this time.

Fourth and finally our challenge will be to go deep ‘fellowshiply’. We need each other, not simply the challenge of making time for relationships between leaders (important though this is), but the challenge of maintaining firm theological convictions whilst recognising the need to collaborate with other gospel-centred Christians within our national contexts, and internationally as we learn from the global church. One of the great challenges is how to minister the never-changing gospel of Christ in contexts where both the cultural diversity and pace of change leaves us dizzy and breathless as we try to keep up. To meet the challenge of complexity we need the wisdom of the church. And it starts by recognising that we need one another to serve the cultural contexts in which God has placed us. No one individual nor any one tribe or denomination has all that is needed to love and serve our neighbours. If complex problem solving requires a complex strategy, we need the collected wisdom of the church. Your perspective along with mine will give us all better answers. However much this puts us out of our cultural comfort zones we will have to collaborate and be working on a theology of collaboration.

All these are great challenges but we have a God who is with us in them and Lord over all of them.

[1] The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).

[2] For example, see Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020); and Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022).

[3] See Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 29.

[4] See my book, Their Rock Is Not Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), chs. 7–8.

[5] Cf. 1 Peter 1:17; 3:14.

[6] Herman Witsius, On the Character of a True Theologian, ed. J. Ligon Duncan (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 1994), 36.

[7] As I write this, there is continued opprobrium in much of the UK media towards Kate Forbes, a member of the Scottish Parliament and a member of the Free Church of Scotland, in her bid to become leader of the Scottish National Party.

[8] John Brentnall, William Bagshawe: The Apostle of the Peak (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1970)

Daniel Strange

Daniel Strange is director of Crosslands Forum, a centre for cultural engagement and missional innovation, and contributing editor of Themelios. He is a fellow of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.

Other Articles in this Issue

Studies on Genesis 3:15 often debate whether the seed of the woman refers to an individual or a collective group...

This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge...

Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24...

This essay considers the concept of the eternality of human memory and what the Christian may expect to remember after death...

Christian compatibilists believe that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with theological determinism, i...