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Theological Personalism

By P. Andrew Sandlin
December 01, 1999

God's Personalism
The theology of the Bible is highly personal. The Bible is not a textbook on systematic theology, though there is nothing wrong with theology, as long as it is personalistic. This means recognizing that the Bible is the expression of God as the divine Being, existent in three actual Persons, Who relate to individuals as persons.

Philosophers often use the terms "ontology" and "epistemology." Ontology is the study of being. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. If we are to use these terms at all, the best way to describe modern theology (and most of Western theology) is that it is epistemological, not ontological. It is concerned almost exclusively with how and what men may know, not who man is and how he should be.

The revelation of the Bible is not a set of mathematical axioms; it is the verbal, infallible revelation of the personal, Triune God.1 The Bible calls sinful man to repent of his law-breaking; cast himself on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and resume fellowship with his Creator from Whom his sin has alienated him (2 Cor. 5:19-21). Man is a person, designed for fellowship with a Person. The Biblical terminology for this is "communion" (1 Cor. 10:16). In its broadest sense, theology is the study of God, but in order to gain a knowledge of God, men must understand the revelation of His Word; and in order to understand the revelation of His Word, they must be regenerated (1 Cor. 2:13-14). The knowledge of God is mediated in the Person of Jesus Christ and in His personal revelation, the Bible (Heb. 1:1-2). It is revelation from Person to person, not simply mind to mind.

Theology and Creaturehood
Man's theological enterprise is circumscribed by his creaturehood. The Creator-creature distinction is the foundation of all theology. Because man is a person, he cannot escape his nature in his theological understanding or in anything else. This means, among other things, that he cannot duplicate God's mind. There are no theological "systems" identical to God's knowledge. At its best, theology is an analogy of God's knowledge. Theologians like Edward Carnell, Gordon Clark and Carl F. H. Henry object to this description.2 They believe that it leads to skepticism. They interpret the logos of John 1:1 to refer to knowledge; some even hold that "logic" is a good translation of logos" in the beginning was the Logic" [!]. But John 1 makes very clear that the logos is a Person, Jesus Christ. This Person, to be sure, is a speaking person, and His Word is infallibly authoritative. But it is infallibly authoritative because of Who He is, not because it exists in an abstraction. He and the Father and the Spirit commune with His human creatures (Jn. 17:21-23). The Triune God gives them a revelation suited to their creaturehood. His children are called to love and obey their Creator, submit to His revelation, and work out its implication in every area of life. They do this well when, abandoning all autonomy, they humbly submit themselves to God, a Person.

We must never allow the evangelicals' subjectivism, reflected in their frequent refrain, "Christ is my personal Savior," to lead us to react as if our relation to God is something less than personal. If God is a Person, and created man in His image as a Person, their relation can scarcely be anything other than personal. Neo-Protestant theology has often opposed the personal to the propositional aspects of revelation: the latter comes to man in a relationship, not in propositions, they hold.3 This is a false dichotomy. When my wife writes me a letter, my relationship with her is conveyed and enhanced by propositions. Yet the relationship itself is not propositional, but personal. We are not saved by affirming propositions (this is abstractionism with a vengeance), but by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is revealed to us in infallible propositions. The Bible is an expression of God's Person, not an abstraction from His Person.

God is a Being Who can be angered (Dt. 1:37), quenched (1 Thes. 5:19), appeased (2 Chr. 12:12), delighted (1 Sam. 15:22). The impassability of God does not contradict the truth of His personality. He is a changeless God, but He is not less than a personal God; if He is not a personal God, He is not God at all. God as a Person and as each Person of the Trinity relates to a man only as a person, and if man is to relate to God he must relate to Him personally.

Man's Personalism
Not only is God personal; man is personal. His theology is a reflection of his being. Confused, cowardly, or unbelieving men produce confused, cowardly, or unbelieving theology. Similarly, submitted, courageous, and believing men produce submitted, courageous, and believing theology. This is why the theology of liberals and modernists is bad theology. The point is not that under no condition could they make any accurate theological statement. Because of God's common grace, they can undermine their own premises and make true utterances. But their theology is likely to be wrong because their whole orientation to life is wrong.

Godly men produce godly theology. Therefore, the first requisite of the theologian is a regenerated life in total submission to God and His Word. Even truly Christian theologians often do not recognize the implications of the union between theology and personalism. I know some Reformed theologians who are confident that men will be persuaded of the Reformed Faith fundamentally by means of theological argument. One theologian writes extensive theological texts filled with personal insults, fulsome boasts, and offensive acrimony. He then loudly complains that his theology is not as successful as he would like it to be. He has made the serious miscalculation of assuming that men are persuaded fundamentally by argumentation. This is dead wrong. Theological argumentation is merely one strand in an entire web of God's ultimate and man's derivative enterprise whereby men are changed. The old salesman's adage, "You must sell the customer on yourself before you sell him on your product" is an oversimplification of a Biblical truth (Jn. 13:35). When we communicate theology, we are not communicating simply a set of abstract truths; we are communicating ourselves.

Recently several friends and I were discussing the topic of sermon preparation. After listening to the discussion for a couple of minutes, I responded with something like, "Sermons must grow out of the preacher's innermost being, his life's experiences, his relationship to and his knowledge of God and His Word. It is not simply the communication of propositions, but the communication of his very being." This is the fact that the existentialists and postmodernists have assimilated and perverted. They are aware that man's knowledge is constrained by his nature and his being. What they do not understand or rather refuse to understand is that a man's nature is either covenant-keeping or covenant-breaking. The curricula of almost all of our seminaries, conservative included, are structured abstractly rather than covenantally; they have tragically failed us. Liberalism captured most of the Protestant seminaries in this century because it was more consistent than conservatism in recognizing the implications of abstractionism.

Abstractionism leads directly to human autonomy, because it holds that truth and reality exist as "objective" facts apart from God and man (this is similar to the Enlightenment speculation that "natural law" would exist even if God did not.4 The only difference in most conservative seminaries is that they have recognized the infallible authority of the Bible, but have tried to reconcile God's revelation with their abstract presuppositions. Men are not trained to apply the truth of God immediately to their own lives, families, churches, to businesses, the arts, and the state. Rather, the Bible is a source of theoretical speculation. It is like the "traditional" math of many Christian schools that requires extensive long-division but comes up short in implementing numbers in everyday life. Seminarians then know what the Bible says, but they do not know the God Whom the Bible reveals, nor do they know how to apply His revelation to the parishioners in the pews. They know about God, but they do not know God. When theology is exclusively about knowledge and not about being, or when it is not about knowledge as one crucial aspect of being, it becomes nothing more than an exercise of intellectual gymnastics.

Conclusion
God's Word was not given fundamentally to alter our thought processes but, in altering our entire nature, to alter every aspect of our being in the ethical sphere. This includes our minds, wills, emotions, desires, conscience, intuition, and all else. This is the transformation of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:5-17.

Theology should reshape the entire person, and one's work in theology should be a reflection of that total transformation. To young theologians, therefore, who ask, "How do I write better theology?" I respond, "Become a better man."

Notes

1. On the relation between the narrative revelation of the Bible and the doctrinal formulations which we deduce from it, see Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Grand Rapids, 1990), 58-59, 185-187.

2. See, e. g., Henry's criticism of Van Til, in God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX, 1976), 2:53-54.

3. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (no loc., 1955), 2:237-238.

4. Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law (Indianapolis, 1998), 67-68.


Topics: Biblical Law, Church, The, Theology

P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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