Introduction: Our Journey of Theological Renewal

By Dr. Joseph Tkach

As a denomination, our renewal began in the early 1990s with the transformation of our doctrines.  That doctrinal renewal began with a new understanding of the nature of the covenant of grace that God, in Christ, has with all humanity, and how that covenant relates to the provisional Law of Moses and to what Scripture refers to as an “old covenant” and a “new covenant.”  Recognizing that Jesus fulfilled the covenant on our behalf (as grace and truth personified), gave us a clearer focus both doctrinally and theologically, with the result being the transformation of our Christology (doctrine of Jesus Christ).  By God’s grace we came to understand that Jesus is the center and heartbeat of God’s plan for humankindIn our minds and hearts, we became Christ-centered.

This renewal of our Christology led to asking and answering the vital question: Who is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ?  The answer led us to embrace a theological vision that we now refer to as incarnational Trinitarian theology.

That theology (with “theology” meaning “knowledge of God”) is incarnational in that it is Christ-centered, and Trinitarian in that the God who Jesus reveals to us is Trinity (one God in three Persons): Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We came to understand that in the fullness of time, God the Father sent his eternal Son into time and space to become human, thus assuming our human nature as the man Jesus Christ.  And when Jesus ascended, he raised human nature with him in glory and, with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to be with us in a new and deeper way.  The self-revealing, sending God thus sent us both his Living Word and his Breath.

Our incarnational Trinitarian theology is rooted in Scripture (the New Testament writings in particular) and has been worked out in the writings of teachers in the early (patristic) church including the Didache (a first-century church manual with instructions about baptizing into the one name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and the great Creeds of the church: the Apostles Creed (2nd century), the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (4th century), the Chalcedon Definition/Creed (5th century) and the Athanasian Creed (5th century).  Our theology is thus biblical and historically orthodox.

Our understanding of this theology has been greatly aided by the writings of several early church leaders, including Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians.  We have also found helpful the writings of several 20th-century theologians who, in the providence of God, contributed to a resurgence of interest in this ancient Trinitarian theological vision in many parts of the body of Christ over the past six or seven decades.  These theologians include Karl Barth, Thomas F. (TF) Torrance, James B. (JB) Torrance and Ray S. Anderson — men whose faith and understanding traces back to the Bible and to the early creeds of the church.  Their understanding also aligns with the central concerns of the Protestant Reformation framed largely by Martin Luther and John Calvin, especially on the matter of grace.  We have been (and continue to be) greatly aided in our journey of theological reformation by Dr. Gary Deddo, who stands in this ancient and orthodox stream of theological renewal.  We are blessed to have this theologian on our Grace Communion Seminary faculty and, as you probably know, Gary serves as President of GCS and as a special assistant to the GCI president.

Over the last decade or so, as we’ve worked out the many details of our incarnational Trinitarian theology, we’ve used terms in varying ways to communicate its core concepts and precepts.  At times, our use of a few of these terms was imprecise, leading to minor points of confusion, particularly in matters related to the nature of the church and the Christian life.  For that confusion, we apologize, and now we seek to refine our terms and concepts so that there will be consistency and clarity in our communication.  These refinements do not change our core theological convictions, nor the practices that flow from them.  We are simply continuing to build on the solid biblical foundation that has been laid, with Christ being its living cornerstone.

To help in the important task of clarifying and refining our theological vision, I asked Dr. Deddo to assemble an Educational Strategy Task Force.  ESTF members were Gary Deddo (chair), Russell Duke, Charles Fleming, Ted Johnston, John McLean, Mike Morrison and Greg Williams.  All have advanced degrees in theology or ministry, taught at Grace Communion Seminary (GCS) and/or Ambassador College of Christian Ministry (ACCM) and had administrative leadership roles in GCI.

As part of its work, the ESTF identified problems with the way we articulated certain aspects of our theology, and so I asked Dr. Deddo to author an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision to help clarify our theological terms, and thus refine certain key concepts in our theological vision.  The goal is greater consistency and clarity in our publications and in what we teach in our courses.  I also pray that the essay will help sharpen what we teach in sermons and studies in our congregations.

I’m grateful for the journey God has us on and for where we now are.  Have we arrived?  No, our journey continues, with its ultimate destination being a new heaven and new earth in which there will be a new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-4, 22-23).  Thanks for being part of the journey, for your loyalty, patience and willingness to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Thanks also for being a faithful teacher of the glorious gospel of Jesus.

And now the essay from Dr. Deddo.

Part 1: Clarifying Two Key Terms: “All Are Included” and “Union With Christ”

As noted by Dr. Tkach in the Introduction, the goal of this essay is to clarify some of the key terms we use in communicating the wonderful truths of our incarnational Trinitarian faith.  As he also notes, though we’re not making significant changes, we are providing some clarifications to help us in our ongoing journey of theological renewal.

All are included

A key understanding of our theology has to do with what God has accomplished for all humanity in and through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.  For many years, we’ve summarized that understanding with the phrase, all are included (and the related declaration, You’re included).  By all we mean believers and non-believers, and by included we mean being counted among those who God, in and through Jesus, has reconciled to himselfWe thus mean to say that God has reconciled all people to himself.

This theological declaration is based on the biblical revelation that Christ died for all and that God has loved and reconciled the world to himself (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:14; John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19, Heb. 2:9).  Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), and he is the “ransom” for all (1 Tim 2:4, 6; 4:10; Matt. 20:28).  Because this reconciliation is accomplished, and thus a present reality, God’s desire, which is fulfilled by the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, is for all people everywhere to come to repentance and faith so they may personally experience (receive and live into) this reconciliation and so not perish (2 Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 18:23, 32).  Thus when we declare that all are included we are affirming several important truths:

  • Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humanity
  • He died to redeem all
  • He has atoned for the sin of all
  • Through what he did, God reconciled all people to himself
  • Jesus is the mediator between God and all humanity
  • He has made all (people) his own by virtue of his redeeming work
  • He is for all and against none
  • He is judge of all, so that none might experience condemnation
  • His saving work is done on behalf of all, and that work includes his holy and righteous responses to the Father, in the Spirit — responses characterized by repentance, faith, hope, love, praise, prayer, worship and obedience
  • Jesus, in himself, is everyone’s justification and sanctification
  • He is everyone’s substitute and representative
  • He is everyone’s hope
  • He is everyone’s life, including life eternal
  • He is everyone’s Prophet, Priest and King

In all these ways, all people in all places and times have been included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus and by his Spirit.  In that we rejoice, and on that basis we make our gospel declarations.  But in doing so we have to be aware of some potential for confusion.  We must neither say too little or too much about inclusion (reconciliation).  Perhaps, at times, we’ve said too much, making inferences concerning the reconciliation of all humanity that the Bible does not support — ones that are neither logically or theologically necessarily true.

It’s about relationship, which means participation

To avoid making unfounded inferences, it is important to note that when the Bible speaks about reconciliation (inclusion), what it is referring to is relationship that God, by grace, has established in the God-man Jesus Christ between himself and all people.  That relationship is personal in that it is established by the person of the eternal Son of God, and it involves human persons who have agency, minds, wills and bodies.  This reconciliation involves all that human beings are — their whole persons.  Thus this personal relationship calls for, invites, and even demands from those who have been included the response of participationPersonal relationship is ultimately about interaction between two persons (subjects, agents), in this case between God and his creatures.

By definition, personal relationships are interactive — they involve response, communication, giving and receiving.  In and through Jesus, God has included all people everywhere in a particular relationship with himself for just these purposes so that what has been fulfilled for us objectively in Jesus by the Spirit, will then be fulfilled in us personally (subjectively) by the Spirit via our deliberate, purposeful participation (response) as subjects who are moral, spiritual agentsWhat Christ did for us, he did so that the Holy Spirit could work a response out in us.