Unnatural Enemies: Why Theology & Evangelism Belong Together
David Gibson and Chris Sinkinson
NB: This article attempts to apply the relationship between theology and evangelism to the particular issues that undergraduate students of theology & RS face. However, the article's argument is relevant to much wider situations than just RTSF groups - it just means you have to do the hard work of making the connections yourself!
In the Book of Heroic Failures, Stephen Pile recounts an embarrassing incident at a County Durham museum. A coin was on display labelled as Roman and dating from 138 AD. However, a nine year old girl pointed out that the coin was a fake, the dating nearly 2000 years out. It was in fact a plastic token being given away free by a soft drinks company. As evidence the child pointed out that the firm's trademark was printed on the reverse. A museum spokesman said that they had mistaken the letter R on the reverse as standing for Rome when it had actually stood for Robinson's!
If only all fakes were as easy to spot as that one. Many copies are so accurate that they may never be discovered. In our lives as Christian students we must pause to question how genuine our own faith is. What will be the test of our faith? It will not simply be our love of studying the Bible, or Church history or languages. Nor will it even be the accuracy of our doctrinal commitments. What will count is integrity. Does our faith get put into action? Are we concerned for the lost and hurting in our world? Are we passionate about God and saddened by our own unholiness? The theme of this brief piece is the need for integrity in our studies. We must be doers of the word of God - and that means being involved in evangelism. Hypocrisy is an ever-present danger.
Is it possible for someone to know all the finer points of the early Church fathers and yet despise the people they live among? Is it possible for someone to have a detailed grasp of Biblical theology and yet have no interest in personal witness? From our own experience we must admit that this can happen. It is certainly possible for someone to study theology as an abstract discipline that has no bearing on their personal life. Like maths or engineering, theology can be studied in complete isolation from one's lifestyle and relationships.
What is theology?
However, we could refuse to accept that proper theology could ever be an abstract discipline. Surely, if theology doesn't impact our character then what is being studied is not true theology. At least, it isn't Christian theology. Evangelism and theology are like worship or holiness and theology. They belong together. In the last analysis, we have not studied theology if it has not led us to worship, a hunger for holiness and a compassion for lost people. If we think about what theology is for a moment it becomes clear why it is unnatural for theology and evangelism to be enemies.
We are sometimes reminded that "theology" means talk about God. In studying theology we are supposed to be learning about God. Whether we are students of theology or religious studies, as evangelicals we know that we deal in more than mere ideas. God is not an abstract entity but a personal being who makes real demands upon our lives. If those demands go unheard then it is right to ask whether the "god" of our theology is something other than the God of the Bible. This leads me to suggest that a great deal of what passes as theology is, in fact, idolatry. It is idolatry to put anything in the place of the personal, sovereign God who makes demands upon our lives. If theology has no bearing on our lifestyle then our studies are not really God-centred. They might be book-centred or qualification-centred or self-centred but really they are just another expression of human pride. At the end of the day if our primary desire as students is to know more or get higher marks then we must take warning from James - he points out that the devil is a better theologian than any of us will ever be (James 2:19). What the devil lacks is not knowledge but worship. The devil's theology does not bring him to his knees before a holy God. Charles Hodge was described as the "kneeling theologian". That description should surely be true of anyone who really wants to study theology. C. S. Lewis warned of the danger of a good education making a clever devil. True theology should create Christians who have the integrity to put into practice what they believe.
The need for Christian integrity raises all kinds of probing questions. The whole of our life is to be lived before our God. The things we write in an essay or say in a seminar should be entirely consistent with what we sing in our songs or say in our prayers. We are not to court credibility or respectability among lecturers or friends if the price to be paid is the integrity of our faith. It will never be a price worth paying.
So in what sense do theology and evangelism belong together? Every Christian should be involved in personal witness but is there some more specific contribution that students in theology or religious studies can offer?
What is evangelism?
Evangelism implies announcing or proclaiming good news. In the Greek Old Testament the word is used to describe the announcement of a military victory (1 Samuel 31:9). This is an important point. Evangelism doesn't actually "do" anything; rather it announces that something has already been done. Social action matters to Christians. We want to see the sick healed and the hungry fed but doing those things is not evangelism. After all, many non-Christians perform very valuable aid work. That does not make them evangelists. Paul describes the work of a witness as that of an ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). An ambassador is not like a soldier or engineer. They do not do the work itself, they represent the country that sends them. Of course a Christian is more than an ambassador. We are to show love and care in various ways, just as non-Christians do. However, our evangelistic task is not to be confused with the broader cultural programmes we are engaged in. Our evangelistic task is to announce a work that has already been done by our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We have not been involved in evangelism unless we have spoken the good news. It is true that evangelism should be accompanied by love and good deeds but they cannot replace evangelism.
So what, then, is the connection between studying theology and evangelism? We have established that evangelism is word based. It means delivering a message about the work of God. We have already described theology as talk about God. This brings us to the quite simple connection between evangelism and theology. Evangelism is theology. Evangelism requires us to deliver words about God. So the question that needs to be brought to bear in any evangelistic work is whether it is good theology. Is our evangelism accurate? Is our evangelism Christ-centred? Is our evangelism focused on the finished work of Christ? Questions like these are theological questions. Students of theology must help the Church address them.
Evangelism is the most basic form of theology. Without the announcement of God's victory over sin and the revelation of His own character Christian theology would not have had anywhere to start. Over the centuries, most significant theological reflection has been related to this evangelistic task. Think of the way in which the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated, or the deity of Christ or the doctrine of justification. In each case, issues of salvation were at stake. That is why Martin Luther once wrote; "All our theology is the cross." Without the cross Christian theology could not get started. Unless our theological ideas and speculations somehow relate to the cross then they may be another example of idolatry.
There are at least four ways that we can get down to the nitty-gritty and show by our lives and in our studies that theology and evangelism belong together.
1. Personal Commitment. It is worth pausing and asking some searching questions of ourselves, whatever stage we are at in our studies. What sort of integrity do we possess? At some level, of course, we are all flawed and there is discrepancy between the public and the private that we may never conquer this side of heaven. But we should rightly be asking: are we claiming to adhere to a certain set of orthodox Christian beliefs about God and the gospel, while never telling others about them? Are we personally deeply committed to evangelism? In what practical ways does this show itself? More searching still, can we really lay claim to orthodox belief if our mouths never express what's in our minds?
2. Personal Relationships. One of the most common - and most tragic - scenarios in lecture-rooms across the land is finding the evangelical students encamped in one particular corner of the room, a sort of holy enclave against the unbelieving masses. This is a tragic way of undermining both what we believe about the gospel and, importantly, a vital way of communicating the gospel: friendship. There is always a need for fellowship with like-minded evangelicals but our fellow theologs are a mission-field on our doorstep that we are unlikely to ever reach unless we are good friends with them. How many of the non-Christians in your department do you know really well? And is your RTSF group a place where your friends could come and feel welcome, their questions listened to and respected?
3. Equipping the RTSF group. RTSF groups are almost by nature focused on providing support and encouragement for evangelical theology students. However, it is worth trying to build into the life of the group a commitment to doing theology evangelistically by trying to provide speakers and theological topics that are related to key facets of the gospel. You could spend a meeting discussing this article together, or look at topics such as the Person of Christ or the Cross of Christ. The aim here is to grow an awareness in your RTSF group that Christian doctrines invariably present themselves to us in the Bible not as abstract truths to be abstractly considered and debated but as the concrete realities of what God has done in Christ for his lost world. When we see this, then evangelical theology students develop into evangelistic theology students.
4. Evangelism and the RTSF group.If you have an RTSF group in your college or university then you have a ready-made opportunity for evangelism. Most groups are understandably nervous about doing theology amongst their fellow theologs given the particular questions which theologians may have, but this can be overcome by getting good speakers to address some of those thorny questions. You could tackle issues such as authority and revelation in a talk like The Bible - Just Another Book? or look at Who is Jesus? or Good God, Bad World? A Christian approach to the problem of evil. Some groups in the past have tried organising debates between a member of the department and an outside speaker, and these can be done in an informal way with a lunch or supper to aid the discussion. These are just a few suggestions and if you have any more we'd love to hear them!
We have claimed that theology and evangelism are not enemies but should be integrated. The challenge for us as Christians is also to have this integrity in our belief and behaviour. Our faith, witness, study and relationships should all be consistent with our commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Students of theology and religious studies should be at least as active in evangelism on campus as any other student. Such integrity will be the hallmark of genuine Christianity. If such integrity is missing then no matter how able we are with theological words there may be those around us who, like the girl at the museum, dismiss us as frauds.
This article first appeared in the RTSF Newsletter From Athens to Jerusalem, Vol 3, Issue 2, Winter 2001, and is used with permission.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature