Theologies - An Overview

by John C. Darrow (c. March 1988)

Various theological views often color our responses to the world and to Scripture, sometimes without our conscious realization. This paper is an attempt to summarize some of the more important views affecting evangelicals.

Covenant theology, usually associated with the Presbyterian and Reformed branches of the church, takes as its key a view of history as made up of often overlapping covenants between God and man, existing under a primary Covenant of Grace or Covenant of Redemption that extends throughout history. This view normally includes an amillenial view of last things. Most scholarly evangelical work has come from this branch of the church.

Dispensational theology is another view, usually associated with Baptists and independent Bible churches. It originated in the Plymouth Brethren movement in the nineteenth century. Its name comes from its view of history as made up of separate dispensations, or periods of time in which God dealt with man in different ways for sometimes different purposes. Its overriding feature, however, is not this view of history, but the strong distinction drawn between Israel and the church. Israel is seen as the earthly people of God, with a solely earthly destiny. The church is seen as the spiritual people of God, with a heavenly destiny. In contrast, Covenant theology sees the church being the continuation of Israel - both are part of the one people of God. Dispensationalism is exclusively premillenial, although there are also premillenialists who are not dispensationalists.

While modern Baptists have been heavily dispensational, another Baptist theological emphasis should also be mentioned. This is the concept of the "priesthood of all believers." Each Christian is regarded as competent to approach God, and to live according to the dictates of a conscience enlightened by the Holy Spirit. In practice, this results in a highly individualistic culture.

Dominion theology or Christian Reconstructionism is a recent development. Its primary emphasis is on the applicability of Old Testament law to today's society. This includes slavery as an alternative to prisons and capital punishment for a variety of offenses (murder, homosexuality, etc.). This view wants to reconstruct society as a theocracy and is heavily postmillenial.

Charismatic or Pentecostal theology emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. The spiritual gifts described in Scripture are to be sought and then used to strengthen and build the church.

Liberation theology looks to events such as the Exodus to emphasize that God is concerned about justice for the poor and oppressed. The book of Amos largely concerns itself with this theme. In practice, it can lead to support of revolution against entrenched evil societies ("structural injustice.")

Anabaptist or Mennonite theology centers on the theme of serious discipleship. The church is made up of those who trust in Jesus Christ, and is called to take seriously his commands. The Sermon on the Mount is seen as normative for believers, rather than relegated to some future age. Believers are called to follow the "way of the cross", of suffering for the sake of obedience to Christ. Christian service is quite important, thus such agencies as Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service have been formed to serve wherever there are needs. Because Jesus said to "love your enemies", Anabaptists are pacifists. There is a heavy emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the church, thus historically a strong reliance on consensus in decision-making.

Holiness theology, represented by such groups as Nazarenes and historic Methodism, emphasizes a life empowered by the Holy Spirit and thereby lived in a way that is pleasing to God. Often this involved seeking a "second blessing" whereby one was enabled to live such a life of holiness. Historically this theology too has led to a great deal of social service.