By Johnston, Mark
February 15, 2017
It has been on my mind for quite a while to post an article on ‘sinner theologians’, but I hesitated because of its potential for being misconstrued. However, having just received the latest issue of the Westminster Theological Journal and having read a review article by Professor Donald Macleod, I was persuaded to go ahead and do so.
The catalyst that put this thought in my mind was the fact that theologians whose task it is to expound, connect and configure the thread(s) of saving truth in Scripture are always in need of that saving truth themselves. In much the same way as members of the legal and law-enforcement agencies fulfil their vocation as those who are themselves lawbreakers, so those entrusted with the guardianship of God’s truth fulfil their calling as those whose lives always need to be straightened out by that truth as well.
Professor Macleod highlights this in a statement about Rousos Rushdoony’s theonomy and with a quote from Cornelius Van Til in his review of Michael J. McVicar’s book, Christian Reconstruction: R.J. Rushdoony and American Conservatism. Macleod says,
One of the weaknesses of the theonomist school, not pointed out in the book, was that it lacked a well-rounded systematic theology. Rushdoony never took seriously (nor does the author mention) the noetic effect of sin, a pillar of Van Til’s presuppositionalism. The reality that he was a sinner kept Van Til balanced and thus avoiding much of the either/or approach that seemed to characterise some of his acolytes and later disciples. “Gentlemen, I could be wrong” was a humanising comment he made to his students. [Italics added]
Such self-awareness was one of the hallmarks of the foremost theologian of the New Testament Church, the apostle Paul. He was not reaching for hyperbole when he declared himself to be ‘the chief of sinners’ (1Ti 1.15). Nor was it mere rhetorical theatrics when he lamented, ‘What a wretched man I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?’ (Ro 7.24). He was publicly acknowledging what was true about himself in a way that in no way detracted from his theologising; but, if anything, displayed its authenticity.
In a very real sense it is the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ in the realm of theology. Every theologian knows it is true as does every student of theology; but its significance sits lightly upon us all. It has important implications on a number of planes.
In the first place it must impact the way we do theology. We handle the infallible truth of the divine revelation, but do so as those who ourselves are flawed in our ability to grasp that truth in its fullness and interconnectedness. Our minds are not only finite, they are fallen and our best efforts to grasp what Scripture teaches falls far short of what will be known when we no longer ‘see through a glass darkly’ (1Co 13.12). So our approach to the task will always be with the humility of knowing our sinful limitations. We will recognise that although we aim for a full and clear understanding of revealed truth in all its dimensions, exhaustive and comprehensive knowledge will always be beyond our grasp in a fallen world. Indeed, recognising our creatureliness, even in the perfection of the coming world we will never know in the measure that God knows because he is wholly other.
In the second place and as a consequence of what we have just noted, cognizance of the fact that we are still sinners will mean no matter how dogmatically we uphold our dogma, we will never do so arrogantly. We know what we know, not because we discovered it for ourselves, or are capable of defending it merely through our fallen reason; but, rather, because it has pleased the Father to make it known and to enable us to know. So we will uphold truth in a way that downplays our own self-importance.
Thirdly, an awareness of our own sinfulness as theologians will colour the way in which we debate and disagree with those who hold a different view on particular points of doctrine than we hold ourselves. We will always keep in mind the fact that we are not the epicentre of the theological loci, God is; and the goal of truth in its entirety as much as in each of its individual strands is to bring glory to him.
There are many other implications that flow from this reality, but the last worth mentioning is the fact that God’s truth is never an abstraction. The truth embodied in and emanating from his being is what underpins and permeates the entire created order. Our entire existence is bound up with that truth and any thought that it can be dislocated from it spells anarchy and disintegration.
Of course such denial of truth and departure from its course is of the very essence of sin. It is the exchange of ‘the truth of God for a lie’ (Ro 1.25) that has led to the descent into ever-increasing chaos in creation since the Fall.
So, for those engaged in the task of theology – whether as those who teach and preach it, or as those who receive it – its truth is always truth for living. If we truly love the truth, we will love the God of truth and our deepest desire will be to live in its light in order that we might reflect his glory. His truth sets us free through his Son, sanctifies us by his Spirit and draws us into informed communion with him as Trinity in the joy of his salvation.
 Westminster Theological Journal Fall 2016 Vol 78, No 2 pp. 361-364
Mark Johnston is Pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. He will be preaching the closing sermon at this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01).