Volume 11 - Issue 3

Theological Frameworks

By James J. Stamoolis

Those of us steeped in the tradition of the western churches1 share a common theological framework. This idea may seem strange, since most of the readers of Themelios no doubt regard the Reformation as the great theological divide that separates a theological system based on traditionalism from the biblically based theology of the Reformers. Certainly this writer agrees wholeheartedly that the Reformation was a tremendous return to the Scriptures. But when we discuss a framework of theology, we are looking at the basic structure of questions that theologians are trying to answer. Whatever the source material for the answers—tradition, reason, or the Bible—it is the same general questions which are put to us by the framework. Our framework in the west is one based on the structure of the Roman legal system applied to the Christian faith.

The basic concern was how sinful mankind could be made right with God. Drawing on Paul’s explanation of justification, Tertullian developed a legal interpretation of the work of redemption that fitted in very well with the Roman mentality. It has been argued that the development of the Roman Catholic Church continued the same themes, extending the concept of Christianity as a legal system into all areas of the church’s life. This is certainly true in the development of the sacrament of penance which had latent in it the concept of the indulgence.

Therefore the key theological question in the west, in so far as it concerned the individual believer, was: ‘How can I be made right with God?’ Answering this question has formed the major part of the theological enterprise. Justification became the key theme.

The answers provided to this basic human dilemma have been varied. We are familiar with the response of Augustine (picked up by Luther and Calvin) that justification is solely a result of God’s grace. Reference has already been made to the medieval system of indulgences. Some of us may be aware of some theologians who pronounce us free of the need of justification, conveniently ignoring the universally felt need for forgiveness. But all these responses have one thing in common, they all deal with the subject of justification. Even those who deny its priority belie their argument by focusing on the issue. For western theology, justification remains the key theme.

A strong argument can be made for viewing the new approaches to the Bible in the same way. These theologies are also attempting an answer to the question of justification, even if their answers do not use familiar terms. For example, some theologies which focus on the poor and the oppressed give the impression that concern and, more importantly, action in this area is what makes a person right with God. If there is no visible response then the conclusion is that the person is unrighteous and unjustified before God.

However, despite the prominence that the issue of justification has had in western theology, it is not the only framework that has been used. The church in the eastern half of the Roman empire was developing its own framework. While 1054 is the accepted date of the division between the eastern church and the western church, in reality the drift apart is noticeable as early as the fifth century. The two halves of Christendom were developing along their own particular lines of thought. Augustine and John Chrysostom were contemporaries. Both were interpreters of Paul. Augustine drew out of Paul the theology of justification by grace. Chrysostom found in Paul directions for practical Christian living.

Chrysostom’s emphasis is the one followed by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Their theological framework is one determined by the concept of the believer’s union with Christ. This is the purpose of the incarnation. It is to restore the image of God in man and to mend the broken fellowship between God and man. While these purposes are not excluded by the western church’s emphasis on justification, the point is that they are secondary in the west’s theological framework. In the eastern church, the emphasis on union with Christ explains the centrality of worship, the hallmark of the church. Indeed, the name by which the eastern church prefers to be known is the Orthodox Church. They understand this name in a way that reflects their central emphasis, ‘right (ortho) praise (doxology)’.2

The main point here is that while both the key points of the respective frameworks are biblical, indeed even Pauline, and certainly complementary, taken by themselves they lead to different dogmatic systems. John Chrysostom is honoured as one of the three chief theologians of the Orthodox Church. Augustine does not feature at all in the Eastern Orthodox theological honours list. The different theological framework has given rise to the criticism that the Orthodox Church is not biblical since it appears deficient in its doctrine of justification. For example, ‘the most famous exposition of Orthodox dogma, that of John of Damascus (c. 700–50), does not even mention the idea of justification’.3 However, the Orthodox claim that their church is the biblical church par excellence, pointing to the extensive use of direct quotations of Scripture in their liturgies and to the even more numerous use of biblical allusions.4

The purpose of this discussion is not to settle whether the east or the west is right. It is rather to demonstrate two alternative theological frameworks which, in asking different questions of the Bible, come to different theological emphases. It is important to note that both sets of questions are biblically legitimate. The analysis of the different frameworks shows what happens when a particular line of approach is allowed to dominate the theological framework. God’s revealed truth is wider than either point of departure.

What does this mean for theological students? In the first place, we must learn to be aware of our theological framework. It should not be regarded as a given in the same way that God’s revealed Word is a given. Each framework takes a part of the message and makes it the interpreting key for the whole message. Depending on what key is chosen, parts of the message are distorted or even ignored. And those of us who would like to ‘accurately handle the word of truth’ (2 Tim. 2:15) need to realize that there is more scope to that Word of truth than our theological framework may allow.

The answer is not to abandon all frameworks, for that is impossible. All of us operate in a conceptual framework derived from an understanding of our culture (here used to include the material and immaterial parts of culture). If we say we have no framework, we delude ourselves, for we will have substituted one inherited theological framework for another one, which, though undefined, is very real. Rather the answer is to acknowledge our framework and to try to understand its limitations. The different theological perspectives of the east and west help us to understand more of the Bible. That should be our goal.

We need to strive to be biblical theologians. Let us not be put into a straitjacket by our theological framework, but be free to see biblical insights that our framework overlooks. One way to do this is to let the Scriptures show us their own points of emphasis, rather than to read all Scripture through the sieve of a predetermined central point.

1 The term ‘western churches’ is merely a convenient way to refer to the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. For the purpose of this editorial, they share an important common element.

2 Western theologians normally understand the term to mean ‘right opinion’; this difference in understanding reflects and illustrates the differing theological frameworks of east and west.

3 Ernst Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Church, Its Thought and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1963), pp. 50–51.

4 See Demetrios J. Constantelos, ‘The Holy Scriptures in Greek Orthodox Worship: A Comparative and Statistical Study’, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 12 (1966), pp. 7–83.

James J. Stamoolis