6 Crucial Steps to Forming an Integrative Theology
Twenty-seven years ago, Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest suggested that Evangelicals should embrace a new paradigm for doing theology in our post-Enlightenment world. They agreed with Bernard Ramm, that Evangelicals “have not developed a theological method that enables them to be consistently evangelical in their theology and to be people of modern learning.” (Ramm, After Fundamentalism, 27)
So what’s an Evangelical to do?
“Coherent thinking and authentic living in the modern world require that a person view life holistically rather than in fragments,” Lewis and Demarest insisted. The paradigm they offered to foster such holistic thinking was so-called “integrative theology.”
They outlined the contours of their holistic theological method in their similarly titled Integrative Theology (3-volumes), which Zondervan Academic has newly revived for a new generation of Christian thinkers.
Their paradigm involves six successive stages, weaving together five important theological disciplines: historical, biblical, systematic, apologetical, and ethical theologies. Think of it as a prism, refracting a single beam of light (a theological problem) in five different directions. Every question Lewis and Demarest confront is refracted in these different ways:
Integrative theology utilizes a distinctive verification method of decision making as it defines a major topic, surveys influential alternative answers in the church, amasses relevant biblical data in their chronological development, formulates a comprehensive conclusion, defends it against competing alternatives, and exhibits its relevance for life and ministry. (25)
In our new Common Places column last week, editors Michael Allen and Scott Swain suggest we are in desperate need of theological renewal; “theology has seen more glorious days.” Though their approach is a quarter of a century old, following Lewis’s and Demarest’s 6-step method will help you form an integrative theology, which is precisely what my generation of Christian thinkers desperately need.
1) State the Problem
The first step involves identifying the problem under consideration.
Let’s take chapter 4 as an example for this column, where Lewis and Demarest pose this problem in the form of a question: “In what way is the Bible inspired and authoritative?” From here, the authors refract our question through the prism of integrative theology in five distinct ways.
2) Consult History (Historical Theology)
After outlining the problem for consideration, “one identifies various solutions to the problem that have been suggested in the history of Christian thought.” (7)
As a historical theologian I appreciate Lewis’s and Demarest’s desire to consult history. I agree that “Devout and gifted minds may have acquired insights that later Christians have not considered.” (7)
As with every theological inquiry, they consult the full range of history regarding biblical inspiration, from Roman Catholic scholasticism to Protestant liberalism, Neo-orthodox theology to Vatican II Catholicism, and the early Fathers to the Reformers.
3) Turn to Biblical Teaching (Biblical Theology)
Here, “one goes behind the secondary testimony of history to the prime source of theological knowledge—inspired and inerrant Scripture…” (8)
So to resolve our original problem, “In what way is the Bible inspired and authoritative?” we proceed like this: “To determine which historical perspective on Scripture is closest to the Bible’s view of itself, we need to survey the relevant biblical materials in the context of progressive revelation.” (138)
For each problem the authors present, they then survey the breadth of Scripture, from the Pentateuch to the Prophets and the Synoptic Gospels to John’s Revelation.
4) Formulate a Systemic Doctrine (Systematic Theology)
“Fourth, the investigator orders the relevant data of general and special revelation into a coherent doctrine and relates the same to the other doctrines similarly derived. The person commits himself to the thesis that satisfies the test for truth with the fewest number of difficulties.” (8)
Lewis and Demarest outline a threefold test for truth, a test they apply to our problem of the Bible’s authority:
- Logical consistency;
- Agreement with the data of revelation;
- Existential viability
5) Interact Apologetically (Apologetical Theology)
Here, the Christian interacts with contrary positions in theology, philosophy, and new religions to defend the theological position.
“At this stage,” Lewis and Demarest argue, “the offensive component of an integrative theology becomes evident as the truth encounters and challenges alien ideologies.” (8)
With regards to the issue of the Bible as given by inspiration, the authors test three hypotheses: the Bible is totally errant; some of the Bible’s affirmations are errant and some are inerrant; and finally a plenary inerrancy. They then compare and evaluate the three hypothesis to help solve the original problem.
6) Apply to Relevant Life & Ministry Situations (Ethical Theology)
“This final stage assumes (1) that truth does not terminate in abstract contemplation and (2) that faithful living flows from truth as water flows from a fountain. It is imperative that Christians live by their convictions authentically before God, in relationship with others and in service to the world.” (8)
Here the ethical dimension of theology is explored. With our question the authors ask, “How then shall Christians interpret the varied experiences of life? What goals are worth striving for? How do you know?” They conclude, “the teachings of Scripture provides the primary source of reliable information for guidance in life.” (165)
In the end, the method Lewis and Demarest outline in their Integrative Theology is “biblically grounded, historically related, culturally sensitive, person-centered, and profoundly related to life.” (9)
The hope Lewis and Demarest had for their work in the late ’80’s is the same hope I have for their work today:
That this approach may enable theology to over come the impasse in which it finds itself in the contemporary situation and that it might enable theology once again to speak convincingly to a church in need of instruction and to a world in need of God’s liberating truth and light. (9)