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Some helpful quotes from David Wells’s 1985 essay, “The Nature and Function of Theology.”

On biblical revelation as both in and above culture

Biblical revelation was given in a particular cultural context but it is also intended to be heard in our own context. This revelatory trajectory, then, has a point of origination and a point of arrival.

It is the fact of inspiration and the contemporary work of the Spirit which secure a consistency between its terminus a quo [end from which; starting point] and its terminus a quem [end to which; ending point]. The work of the Holy Spirit was such that the responsible human agents who were used in the writing of Scripture were able to employ cultural materials and, indeed, to shape the revelation in terms of their own understanding, but what God the Spirit willed should be revealed was exactly what was written, and the content and intent of this revelation were alike transcultural.

The biblical revelation, because of its inspired nature, can therefore be captive neither to the culture in which it arose nor to the culture in which it arrives. It was not distorted as it was given, nor need it be distorted as we seek to understand it many centuries later in contexts far removed from those in which it was originally given. . . .

On de-contextualizing and re-contextualizing Scripture

It is the task of theology, then, to discover what God has said in and through Scripture and to clothe that in a conceptuality which is native to our own age. Scripture, at its terminus a quo, needs to be de-contextualized in order to grasp its transcultural content, and it needs to be re-contextualized in order that its content may be meshed with the cognitive assumptions and social patterns of our own time.

On the task of theology in making doctrine incarnate

Theology is that effort by which what has been crystallized into doctrine becomes anchored in a subsequent age and culture. It is the work of making doctrine incarnate. God's Word is "enfleshed" in a society as its significance is stated in terms of that cultural situation. . . .

On how theology differs from doctrine

Theology differs from doctrine as what is unrevealed does from what is revealed, fallible from what is infallible, derived from what is original, relative from what is certain, culturally determined from what is divinely given.

Doctrine cannot change from generation to generation, otherwise Christianity itself would be changing.

Theology must change in each succeeding generation, otherwise it will fail to become a part of the thinking processes and life-style of that generation.

The attempt to change doctrine imperils Christian faith; the unwillingness to incarnate doctrine in each age by theology imperils the Christian's credibility.

In the one case Christianity can no longer be believed; in the other, it is no longer believable. . . .

Contextualization is the servant role of theology

Contextualization, then, is but another name for describing the servant role of theology.

The Son of God assumed the form of a servant to seek and save the lost and theology must do likewise, incarnating itself in the cultural forms of its time without ever losing its identity as Christian theology. God, after all, did not assume the guise of a remote Rabbi who simply declared the principles of eternal truth, but in the Son he compassionately entered into the life of ordinary people and declared to them what God's Word meant to them. But in so doing, the Son never lost his identity as divine.

Christian thought is called to do likewise, to retain its identity (doctrine) within its role as servant (theology) within a particular culture.

Reformation as both past event and contemporary experience

. . .[R]eformation should not be seen merely as a past event but should always be a contemporary experience. In every generation the Word of God must be heard afresh and obeyed afresh if the God of that Word is to be accorded our obedience at the places where it really counts.

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6 thoughts on “David Wells on Unchanging Doctrine and Contextualized Theology”

  1. Keith Williams says:

    “God’s Word is “enfleshed” in a society as its significance is stated in terms of that cultural situation. . . .”

    I’m certain Dr. Wells meant something other, but one wonders how Emergents would read this.I imagine a collective nodding of heads in agreement with the above.

  2. Jay says:

    The distinction between unchanging “doctrine” and changing “theology” does not really make sense.

    1. Gong says:

      The words “Unchanging doctrine” and “changing theology” mainly describe that the doctrine should be applied freshly to lives today,

  3. Dan Grubbs says:

    Like Jay, I paused at the notion of the distinction Wells makes between theology and doctrine. Personally, I believe we have to be very careful with using language to describe an infinite God and His outreach to mankind. It’s precisely why when God was asked who He was, He replied “I am that I am.”

    Regarding doctrine and theology, notwithstanding the Latin bases of these words, I see them as the same idea. In fact, I see theology and doctrine simply as man’s attempt at expressing those facts of God and His infinite plan. These facts existed before creation because they are of and about God. Therefore, they are unchanging. They are that they are.

    Just because mankind may misinterpret or debate the facts of God and His plan, doesn’t negate the fact that there are these actual facts … and the debate about them will end in the age to come. For example, what does it matter if we label as theology or doctrine the concepts of a pre-tribulational or mid-tribulational catching up of the redeemed in Christ? These labels will be irrelevant because the facts will be known at the Second Advent. Take note that one of these was the fact before creation.

    Thus, I don’t make a distinction between theology and doctrine in the way the Wells does. I don’t presume to speak for Jay, but I also stumbled at the same point.

    1. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one bothered by the distinction, although I do think I understand what he means. I’m okay with the explanation, but I’d have to change or refine my definitions to follow his usage of the words. I would add that even the explanation is limited in scope. The ultimate goal is not even good doctrine although developing good doctrine is necessary to get there. The goal is manifestly realizing the glory of God in His redemption of this fallen world.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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