Faith of the Christian Church: An Introduction to Theology


Tyron Inbody has taught the basics of Christian theology for more than twenty-five years. Having seen over the years what issues and questions his students bring to class, he now offers this engaging, accessible introduction to all the major beliefs of the Christian faith. Meant especially but not exclusively for readers new to theology, Inbody's Faith of the Christian Church covers twelve traditional areas of Christian teaching: theology, revelation, faith, God, creation, suffering and evil, humankind, Jesus ...

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Tyron Inbody has taught the basics of Christian theology for more than twenty-five years. Having seen over the years what issues and questions his students bring to class, he now offers this engaging, accessible introduction to all the major beliefs of the Christian faith. Meant especially but not exclusively for readers new to theology, Inbody's Faith of the Christian Church covers twelve traditional areas of Christian teaching: theology, revelation, faith, God, creation, suffering and evil, humankind, Jesus Christ, salvation, church, sacraments, and the end times. Inbody also dives into provocative topics not usually treated in introductory texts — creationism, the devil, miracles, the virgin birth, and more. The book's broad-ranging perspective, which intentionally defies labels, commends it to individuals and small groups from many church traditions. Quote boxes and illustrations drawn from popular culture make the text visually interesting and enjoyable to read. Inbody does not hide his own stance on issues but presents a full range of interpretations and openly points readers to other possibilities they can pursue. The Faith of the Christian Church offers just enough questions to provoke reflection and just enough answers to encourage readers to form their own grasp on the Christian faith.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802841513
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 4/28/2005
  • Pages: 374
  • Sales rank: 825,963
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt


An Introduction to Theology
By Tyron Inbody

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4151-1

Chapter One

Thinking about Faith

I. The Faith of the Christian Church

The Christian faith is rooted in a community of believers. Although that faith must be personally appropriated to be authentic, it is not derived from the private experience of Christians. Paul reminds the church at Corinth, "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received" (1 Cor. 15:3). His mystical encounter with the living Christ on the road to Damascus made him an apostle, but it did not generate the content of his faith. He embraced the preaching of the primitive church, which proclaimed that God has used Israel and Israel's son, Jesus, to renew the creation (Acts 2:14-39; 3:13-26; 5:30-32; 13:17-41). That apostolic witness has been formed and reformed in the doctrines (teachings) of the church for twenty centuries. Every Christian's faith begins as an engagement with the church's witness to Christ. Regardless of how preoccupied we are with our own experience, we do not begin with our own experience but with "the faith of the Christian church."

Your use of - or discomfort in using - the definite article ("the") will tell you something about your understanding of faith. If you speak only of "Christian faith," you might think of faith as a private experience to which you apply "Christian" as an adjective. If you speak of "the Christian faith," you are more likely to think of faith as the shared language of the community, a tradition of practices and beliefs with which you identify. One of my purposes throughout this book is to show how the Christian faith is both objective and subjective. Christian faith is not merely generic faith (our common human spirituality), but is a way of life that entails a dialectic between, on the one hand, specific stories, symbols, practices, and beliefs that you learn (the Christian faith) and, on the other, your experience of the living Christ within your life as a believer (Christian faith).

This is an offensive claim to some modern Christians. Many North Americans believe Christian faith is the unique way I, as a private consumer, assemble my own spiritual meanings from the shopping mall of religious choices. Faith consists of my experiences and beliefs. "Christian" is simply the adjective I apply to my own inner voice. "Christian" does not necessarily designate specific practices or beliefs. To set such boundaries would deny me the uniqueness of my own religious experience. It would suppress the authenticity and authority of my religious feelings. Such reaction to boundaries is instinctive in our culture. No one has the authority - or the audacity - to define boundaries to anyone's faith, including her or his Christian faith. With the collapse of the authority of traditions, each person is left with only the authority of her or his own religious experience. Many Christians are (mis)led by our culture to believe that when they speak of real faith they refer to their private inner experiences.

If we are Christians, however, our faith is derived from and measured by the faith of the Christian church. There is a dialectic between our living faith as believers and the faith we inherit from past generations and share with a living community today. I intend this as both a descriptive and a normative claim. We are deluded when we deny that what we practice, feel, and believe is not transferred to us from a living community. A collection of stories, a network of rituals, a system of beliefs, and socially shaped feelings are transmitted to us from a community of people who practice the Christian faith. Every modern Christian lives within a dialectic of a Christian form of inner experience and a set of symbols, practices, and beliefs long before she or he begins to think theologically. Theologians have long recognized this dialectic between objective and subjective components of faith. The word "faith" in its confessional form, credo (I believe), points both to something we inherit and to our own personal appropriation of the reality to which it calls attention. This polarity is formulated in the ancient Latin distinction between fides quae creditur, "the faith which is believed," and fides qua creditur, "the faith through which [it] is believed." This book, then, is about what constitutes the Christian faith and how it creates Christian faith in the life of each believer. It is itself an example of one way we transmit the Christian faith of previous generations to the present one by interpreting that faith in our contemporary context.

Faith, then, as I use the term, has two distinct meanings. The intrinsic relationship between them - that is also part of the meaning of dialectic - shows how both the objectivity of an inherited tradition and the subjectivity of individual appropriation are essential to authentic faith. This polarity describes the creative tensions in most Protestant theology since the Enlightenment. Faith has a deeply personal quality to it, as when we say earnestly to a friend, "I have faith in you." Faith goes to the center of the self and defines the inner core of our being. It deals with what we most depend on, what we most deeply trust in, what we are most deeply concerned about. Faith also has a linguistic and social dimension to it, as when we say instinctively, "I believe the faith of the church." Faith cannot be Christian faith without a community of people who practice a way of acting, feeling, and thinking. Before we have "faith" we learn about "the faith." There is no authentic Christian existence without both ingredients. To affirm Christian faith is to say I believe what the church believes. Simultaneously, it is to say these beliefs are mine, they go to the center of who I am, and refer to what I take to be most trustworthy about life.

The Christian, then, is called to witness to her faith both as content and experience. She is, also, summoned to "give an account" of it (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) - to describe, explain, and interpret her faith as clearly as possible to herself, to the church, and to the world. Christian faith involves "thinking about faith." This is what Christians call "theology." We are challenged to explain what we mean or why we believe what we say. We are asked to interpret what the church practices, believes, and teaches, how this shapes what the community and each individual does, and what this requires for our life in and for the world God loves. Theology moves beyond witness to the task of thinking with the church in our context about God and the meanings of the Christian faith.

This is a troublesome task for some Christians. They do not see that thinking about faith is intrinsic to the life of faith. They consider faith as having to do with doing rather than believing, with feeling rather than thinking. Therefore, the case has to be made for some beginning students that thinking about faith is important in a living faith. A few have to be convinced that, as Donald Luck put it, "even though theology is 'believing thinking' as much as it is 'thinking about believing,' it still remains thinking. It is an academic subject even when pursued by the church for the sake of the church."

II. Why Complicate Things? Some Preliminary Questions about Theology

When I began teaching theology I discovered, to my amazement, that many of the students in my "Introduction to Theology" class were seniors. The curriculum at my school, like that of most mainline Protestant seminaries in those days, was "progressive": since students are adult learners, they should take courses only when they are convinced they need them. I quickly discovered that some students delayed taking a course in theology because they were not convinced that theology was important. Some students would say, "I don't do theology; I practice my faith. Christians are not called to explain their beliefs but to change the world." Why, how, and to what they were called to change the world was seldom discussed beyond vague notions of "justice" or "doing good" or "helping people." I also discovered, however, that every student had a wide range of beliefs already in place (even though they didn't call them theology). When they said, "I am not a theologian and I don't want to waste my time doing theology," some actually meant, "I do not want anyone 'messing around' with the beliefs with which I am very comfortable."

Facing Intimidation

Some students of theology feel intimidated in their first course. There are several reasons for this.

First, some are in a theology course because they have to fulfill a requirement in the curriculum. While many students take courses in theology because they have hard questions they want to answer, others are more oriented toward people than ideas, or are more interested in spiritual formation than in intellectual problems. Some students today have a meager background in the liberal arts. While almost all come to seminary well trained in some field of learning, these fields often are not the liberal arts. Frequently, students have had few courses in history, philosophy, literature, the arts, and the sciences, and as a result, they have not been trained in the liberal arts way of thinking. But they soon discover that theological thinking is akin to the way of thinking in the liberal arts. Indeed, the liberal arts arose in the Middle Ages as preparation for theological studies. Their fundamental purpose was to train for analytical and critical thinking. Theological thinking has been shaped by the kind of critical analysis and reflection developed through the study of history, philosophy, literature, psychology, and sociology. Unfortunately, some have not learned to be comfortable with and enjoy this way of thinking. Deprived of this experience in their undergraduate programs, some are ill equipped, disoriented, and intimidated by this approach to thinking about faith.

Second, beginning students have to deal with an onslaught of new terms they have never heard before. Starting with the frightening word "theology," they soon encounter such pretentious sounding terms as hermeneutics, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology - and all those "ology" words sound so esoteric. They even confront some Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words and phrases like chesed or esse or sola Scriptura. All of this seems so elitist (and tedious). In A Month of Sundays, John Updike describes the boring seminary education of the Reverend Thomas Marshfield, who was sent from his Midwestern parish in disgrace to a desert retreat in the West for some enforced rest and relaxation. During one of the mornings when the errant cleric is writing his confessions, he describes one of his seminary professors, the Reverend Wesley Augustus Chillingsworth:

His course epitomized everything I hated about academic religion: its safe and complacent faithlessness, its empty difficulty, its transformation of the tombstones of the passionate dead into a set of hurdles for the living to leap on their way to an underpaid antique profession. The old scholar's muttering manner seemed to acknowledge this, as without mercy he dragged us, his pack of pimply postulates, from Hottentot tabus and Eskimo hospitality ... on to the tedious Greeks and the neo-Platonists ... and further on to the rollicking saints, knitting their all-weather spacesuits of invisible wool, Augustine and his concupiscentia, Bonaventura and his gratia, Anselm and his liberum arbitrium, Aquinas and his synderesis, Duns Scotus and his pondus naturae, Occam and his razor, and Heaven knows who else.

Some theologians, indeed, are tempted to exhibit their learning by using arcane terms in order to impress their audience. This is unfortunate, even scandalous. Every field of knowledge or practice has its technical terms, however, from the chimney sweep who recently cleaned out our dryer exhaust pipe to the astrophysicist. The seamstress employs a technical language (a ham, boning, point pins, bobbins, stitch witchery, cording, pinking shears, transfer pencil, interfacing, stabilizer, ring thread, slash, and rotary cutter), as does the soccer coach (touchlines, wall pass, upper ninety, overlapping run, sweeper, stopper, marking back, target player, and striker). The electronic engineer, the architect, the business administrator, the psychotherapist, the computer programmer, the conflict resolutionist, the sociologist, and the carpenter all have a vocabulary distinctive to their particular field. Their words are tools that enable those in very abstract or very concrete fields to communicate with each other in shorthand ways that are clear and precise. Every one of these languages is esoteric to me until I master it enough to use the language to communicate or to accomplish a task. Theology is the precise language people of faith use to talk about how they practice and understand their faith.

A third hurdle is that a few students think of theologians as absentminded, self-absorbed, contentious academics. Unfortunately, some theologians do think of themselves as individual competitors who use words to win battles of the mind. Theological discussion is concluded when you determine a winner, which means, the one who is right. Indeed, this polemical style is an old model for theology. The great theologians of the schools in the Middle Ages conceived of theology as a "dispute." Antagonists put forward proposals for a debate, and the sides contended with each other until a winner was declared, because one's capacity to reason destroyed the other's arguments.

But there is another way to do theology, and that is the spirit that underlies this book. This alternative format is more conversational than confrontational. Although rational argument is in the foreground, the "argument" is more a long-standing conversation between people of faith than a dispute among contestants. It is more a dialogue than a showdown. The purpose is to enrich the depth and breadth of faith rather than to win points. It is more irenic in manner than polemical. This style assumes that many people have many truths to bring to a living faith, that more win when the understanding of faith is deepened than when someone is proven wrong. Irenic theology desires and welcomes a plurality of voices. As an advocate of this kind of theology, I will describe different perspectives, modes, and traditions of theology throughout the book even while I promote my own. I hope you will detect that an irenic spirit may discover the truth more effectively than a capacity to defeat an adversary in an argument.

Two Objections

There remain, however, two substantive challenges to the importance of theology for the life of faith. They are similar in that each implies that faith is not about thinking but about feeling, believing, and acting. Faith is feeling the presence of Jesus in your heart and trusting in God to guide your life; faith is believing the truth of the Bible and the creeds of the church; faith is acting through the power of the Spirit to live the Christian life, and bringing justice and well-being to society. Introducing critical thinking into your faith is like introducing cholesterol into your arteries: it will cut off the blood supply to the heart of true religion. Theology promotes skepticism about faith, not its enrichment. Some college, university, and seminary students are discouraged when they walk out of the classroom they entered expecting their faith to be confirmed and strengthened, and leave finding instead that their beliefs are more unsettled than they expected them to be. They see theology as an attack upon their faith, an effort to force them to revise, denude, or abandon their faith for secular ways of thinking. Such objections, however, misunderstand the purpose and nature of theology.

The first objection, based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of theology, is that theology is unnecessary for the life of faith. The Bible is the proper ground for faith and practice. The Christian life is built on the bedrock of Scripture. The presence, nature, and will of God are communicated to us through the Bible. We do not need anything more than the Bible to know God and to know about God. "Holy Scripture," the Book of Common Prayer tells us, "containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." Regardless of whether we honor the "inerrancy of Scripture," or the "primacy of Scripture," or Scripture as the "unnormed norm," or Scripture as the "primal document" of our faith, most Protestants consider Scripture to be the authority for faith and practice. Therefore, since all we need is the Bible, theology is redundant.


Excerpted from THE FAITH OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH by Tyron Inbody Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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