A Brief Look At The Systematic Theology Project

Among Church of God members, the Systematic Theology Project, which can be found in its entirety online, all 400+ pages of it [1] has a legendary and cursed existence.  It is often said that this effort was intended to liberalize doctrine and water it down.  Those who were involved in the project were subject to a late 1970’s backlash by a group of so-called “conservatives” who wished to get the Worldwide Church of God “back on track” that led to the early 1980’s “rule of the Ayatollahs” that some people (myself included) find a deeply traumatic past that is too painful to want to see come alive ever again, but was a nostalgic period for others.

In short, the Systematic Theology Project and its aftermath within the culture of the Church of God come with a lot of baggage (but that is true of all of us individually as well, is it not?).  It is not the attempt of this modest blog entry to give a summary of the massive and yet fragmentary work that the surviving Systematic Theology Project entails.  What is my intent is to let the mostly dead men who worked on this project speak for themselves a little bit when it comes to their intentions and goals for the project and provide some of their doctrinal statements on such areas of interest for me such as our example to the community and our views on race and ethnicity as well as the Sabbath.  After all, the men who served on this project have been slandered for decades as liberals who sought to water down the true doctrines, and as I cannot bear to let people be slandered who can no longer defend themselves, I thought it useful to let their words speak for themselves, so that we may at least give them the credit they are due for being faithful and intellectually consistent men without heretical goals.  For too long their work (and those who wrote it, or those who like me long for similar such efforts to be made) have been unjustly insulted and maligned for desiring to bring doctrine and tradition into harmony with the Bible (or to discard it, if it is unbiblical tradition) and to judge everything by the absolutely and external standard of the scriptures [2].

In Its Own Words:  The Purpose of the Systematic Theology Project

Given that enough mistaken words have been said about the Systematic Theology Project and the people responsible for it, let us allow the document to speak for itself, while providing a commentary on what it has said afterward, so that readers may be equipped to judge the document by its own merits instead of by its unfairly obtained reputation thanks to the slander of others.  Let us allow the document to speak in its own defense against the slanders made against it for more than three decades.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the document its beginning, expressing its sincerity of purpose and its plan to be completed within two years, given that this incomplete state is all we have left:

“NOTE ABOUT THIS STILL INCOMPLETE FIRST DRAFT

At this time, only five of the over thirty main topics included in the Systematic Theology Project are complete doctrinal expositions (although still preliminary)–Law of God, Sabbath, Annual Holy Days, Tithing and Giving, and Healing. The remainder of the topics are covered by brief overviews in some cases or by “extended” overviews in other cases. All overviews will be upgraded to full expositions of the approximate length and thoroughness of the other five within the next 24 months or so. It should be emphasized that all of the statements–whether overview, extended overview or-full exposition–are first drafts and, as such, will be subjected to continual analysis and revision [3].”

Let us remember that it is now more than 30 years since this project was abandoned, and the Church of God still has no systematic review of its doctrinal position as a whole.  This effort remains almost the sole effort of its kind to provide a rigorous and complete examination of doctrine and tradition by the standard of scripture.

The first part of the purpose is stated as follows:

“ORGANIZATION AND PURPOSE

This systematic theology is being produced by the Worldwide Church of God to reflect its doctrines, beliefs, practices and traditions. The development of the project is the response to a need sensed by the leadership of the Church. The need was for an up-to-date and accurate statement of our official doctrinal positions and understandings, which would provide a formal record and serve as a communications vehicle both within and without the Church.

Within the Church, the systematic theology will establish a coherent and consistent reference for the ministry and for the lay membership. As such, it will promote
unity among the ministry and further understanding among the members. As a formal record of the Church’s beliefs and teachings, the systematic theology will provide an official source of public information about the doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God.

The Bible alone is God’s written revelation to man. This systematic theology is simply an attempt to explain our comprehension of God’s Word as believed, taught, expounded and applied by the Church. It is written by men for men-and is consequently not to be put on a par with God’s Holy Word. The systematic theology is not to replace the Bible nor to supersede or overshadow it. The point of view is that of looking up toward, and not down upon, God’s Word. Although we are building a superstructure, the Bible will always remain the foundation. The readership of this theology is cautioned not to lose this perspective [4].”

So, let us briefly examine the claims of the authors of the Systematic Theology Project concerning their purpose.  For one, they wanted to establish an orderly, biblically consistent, and coherent explanation of the doctrines of the Church of God for both internal audiences (ministers and members) as well as the outside world.  This would be intended to show both the biblical warrant for the doctrines of the Church of God as well as to provide the church with a consistent and thorough doctrinal standard that was complete enough to keep ministers from going “off the reservation” in preaching and expounding their own doctrinal positions without others (including the lay members) from being aware of what the full doctrinal position of the Church of God actually was.

Another goal of this project was to promote unity through the establishment of a common standard of doctrine.  No longer would people hear one doctrinal position in one congregation and visit friends or family in a different congregation and hear a different doctrinal stance being stated.  Indeed, orthodoxy (correct doctrine) is vital to establish unity.  How often have there been conflicts and misunderstandings in the Church of God because certain elements of church culture are different in different parts of the world, without an accessible and widely understood common standard of behavior and practice for all believers to know and understand?  I have, with my own eyes, witnessed considerable differences of “doctrine” (including the role of the ministry) within the same organizations because of cultural barriers and a lack of “unity” of belief and practice.  The goal of this document to create a transparent and uniform standard is therefore highly commendable, for God is not the author of confusion.

A third point of the project is to ensure that all readers understand that the Bible is the standard, not the man-made theology project or any other human creed or creation.  This fact has often been neglected, as too often in the minds of some it is the human interpretation of the divine standard that is unchanging rather than the scripture itself.  Particularly for those addicted to Greek thought with only one application of given verses, speculations and ideas can take on a life of their own that needs to be brought into harmony with a more robust and balanced (and complete) biblical understanding [5].

Likewise, the Systematic Theology Project is honest about its intended audience and its uniqueness compared to other projects of its kind in other churches:

“A specific approach is followed in order to make this systematic theology applicable and relevant to ourselves and to others. A document intended to fulfill the goals of being accurate, readable, unifying and informative must, of course, be written in a manner that can accomplish these goals. This Systematic Theology project is therefore somewhat different from other systematic theologies whose goals are different from ours.  While other projects may be aimed at scholars or theologians exclusively, this work is to be used as a practical working tool for the field ministry of the Worldwide Church of God. As such, there will be material–for example, on Christian living and Church organization–that is not ordinarily found in academic systematic theologies. Some of these subjects could be classified as administrative practices or Church traditions rather than doctrines and beliefs. The point is that everything included is given as guidelines for the ministry. Therefore, we are under no illusion that this systematic theology is like any others. It is unique and intentionally so [6].”

This paragraph reveals that the Systematic Theology Project within the Worldwide Church of God was different from other, more academic efforts in other churches, because it was designed as a guideline for the ministry and not for an audience of theologians.  This more direct approach, and its more pastoral use, meant that administrative matters had to be included in addition to doctrinal matters.  Was it the administrative matters, the regulation of the activity of ministers, that proved to be so offensive to so many who did not want their practices and conduct to be regulated?  Perhaps.  The threat of regulation and authority being enforced was probably a more serious threat to the ministers opposed to this effort than that of doctrinal heresy, given the openness of the project and its intention for a wider audience.  Those who wished to practice abusive administrative practices in the ministry would have been clearly threatened by the public printing of the acceptable standard of conduct for ministers to follow for both lay members as well as outside audiences to read and know.

The Systematic Theology project is also very aware of who had credit for starting the project:

“While the Worldwide Church of God traces its roots to the New Testament Church, our recent history dates from the calling of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong in the late 1920’s and to his commission by God in the early 1930’s to preach the gospel to the world as a witness. As the Pastor General of the Church, he has set the example of approaching doctrine as a search for truth so that one might know and obey God. He also has long recognized that it is ultimately through God’s Spirit that we can fully comprehend the Bible. For the years since Mr. Armstrong’s calling until now, the written record of our beliefs has taken the form of booklets or articles on individual topics written as we grew inknowledge,
understanding and insight. But as the Church developed into a substantial institution, Mr. Garner Ted Armstrong, Executive Vice-President of the Church, recognized the need for a more organized, thorough systematic presentation of the Church’s doctrines and beliefs, and thus commissioned the present Project [7].”

In short, the Systematic Theology Project clearly shows that the effort was the brainchild of the late Garner Ted Armstrong and presumably his supporters in order to provide a rigorous and systematic explanation of what may have become, even in the 1970’s, an unwieldy and ad hoc collection of traditions and speculations that had developed over the course of 40 years or so as an organization.  There are some people who have interests in making things consistent and systematized, and that is a noble and valuable gift to possess.  Whatever may be said about the personal problems of Garner Ted Armstrong, it appears that his project was a noble and a worthy one that was unfairly maligned perhaps in order to attack him and those ministers and members of a like “Progressive” mindset.  The slander remains current for that very reason.

The authors of the Systematic Theology Project had a proper understanding of the definition of doctrine and its vital place in the believer:

“The Church recognizes “doctrine” as simply being the basic tenets or teachings of the Bible and the Church. The importance of understanding true doctrine is as vital as understanding God’s master plan itse1f–since doctrine in reality is only this same master plan broken down into its component parts. The challenge of any systematic theology is to take these various parts and organize them in a clear and logical fashion [8].”

What can be said for sure is that in the 1970’s, these maligned “liberals” of the Systematic Theology Project understood that doctrine is teaching and position and not the fuzzy matters of “integrity” that some less wise and definition-savvy leaders of the contemporary Church of God community.  Doctrine is black and white “thus saith the Lord” statements that can be clearly shown in the scriptures, not the suppositions and speculations of man dogmatically enshrined as beliefs without scriptural warrant.  We must always examine our own beliefs and practices by the standard of scripture.

Let us close our examination of the purpose of the Systematic Theology Project in its own words by examining the humility about the authors of the project on the completeness of the work and their desire for input from others:

“The systematic theology project is the product of numerous ministers and scholars of the Worldwide Church of God. It is only through this substantial resource of knowledge
and experience that we can hope to attain a reflection of God’s Understanding and wisdom. Yet the systematic theology must not be cemented in stone. It will need continual revision as God guides the Church in further understanding of His Word.

What is herein presented is therefore still in preliminary form. It must continue to grow in both scope and quality. But it cannot grow without constant constructive input from the ministry. Ministers should consider it their responsibility to help refine the Systematic Theology project, contributing to it in the same spirit with which it was prepared. Hence, we accept, appreciate and welcome–indeed solicit–all information which serves to enhance and improve this effort [9].”

As a scholar within the Church of God community, I would have liked to have had the chance to participate in this project, even knowing the undeserved slander that the project and its participants has suffered over the past 30+ years.  The chance to have provided input to a systematic and rigorously biblical defense of doctrine would have been too appealing of an opportunity for me to resist even given the mistrust of intellectuals within the Church of God and the desire of some ministers to avoid being regulated by fair and consistent and public standards.  If I had been old enough to send in my own two cents worth of modest proposals, I no doubt would have done so.  I have written more than a few modest proposals in my short time thus far on this earth [10], [11], among others written but still unpublished.

The Systematic Theology Project on the Sabbath

Given the importance of the Sabbath as a debating point between different groups in the Church of God and in the history of the culture of the Church of God as a “test” commandment in terms of rhetoric about how it is kept, let us examine some of the notable ways in which the Systematic Theology Project views the practice of Sabbath obedience.

Let us first examine what the Systematic Theology Project says about the Fourth Commandment in its section on the Ten Commandments:

“Fourth Commandment: Sabbaths for Rest and Worship. The Sabbath command is very much a pivotal one, serving both as a means of honoring and worshipping God and of aiding man. First of all, the Sabbath is a memorial of Creation pointing to God as the Creator. Secondly, the human body requires rest for efficient bodily function and a proper mental
outlook. Therefore, God commanded man to rest a full day once a week plus setting aside certain other days for annual times of rest and rejoicing. Man by nature needs periodic holidays. Had God not given some to Israel, they would have invented their own.  Moreover, God not only gave weekly and annual days of rest, but He required that slaves–and even beasts of burden–be allowed to enjoy rest on these days. This was a demonstration of love for one’s fellow man as well as kindness to animals.

Thirdly, while periodical physical rest is sufficient to meet physical needs, the Sabbath and annual holy days serve a spiritual function as well. Indeed, this is their primary purpose. They provide the opportunity for study and for meeting to receive instruction in the ways of God. They provide the opportunity for worship and intellectual and spiritual pursuits which may not be possible during the day-to-day task of making a living. Again, any day of the week would suffice for this as well as for physical rest. The spiritual aspect lies in the fact that (l)it is a time God has chosen, a fact significant in itself since one shows respect to God by worshipping when and as He says rather than as the individual chooses; and that (2) the choice of the seventh day also points back to Creation and, as a consequence, to the Creator. Further, both the weekly and annual Sabbaths serve to point out God’s overall plan to man. This is all part of the process of acquiring God’s mind, which is perfect love. (An expression of the fourth commandment to include the annual festivals is indicated by some of the scriptures which utilize the plural form of the Hebrew word shabbat.)[12]“

It is difficult to see what about this particular statement on the Sabbath could be seen as liberal–it states the godly standard, places the Sabbath in the context of looking back to the Creation as well as forward in the plan of God to the Kingdom of God (Hebrews 4:9).  Likewise, the command even to allow the Sabbath rest for slaves and beasts of burden has clear implications for the Sabbath practice of believers today, though they are not spelled out in exact details in the statement above.  Nonetheless, there is nothing in that statement which recognizes the Sabbath and Holy Days as anything less than mandatory (and, if it referenced Colossians 2:16-17, it would appear as if New Moons were considered on the same level as the Sabbath and Holy Days, even though it must be conceded that the Bible is very vague on how to celebrate the New Moon in scripture, even though Isaiah considers it an important enough matter to mention it in Isaiah 1:14 and 66:23).

Likewise, there is nothing “liberal” at all in the doctrinal statement about the Sabbath made in the Systematic Theology Project:

“The seventh-day Sabbath is taught and kept holy in accordance with biblical instruction. Instituted at creation, reaffirmed to Israel as a part of the covenant at Sinai and taught by Jesus Christ who is the Messenger of the New Covenant, the observance of the Sabbath is considered basic to a Christian’s relationship with God [13].”

Likewise, the Systematic Theology Project clearly debunks any view that the Sabbath was only for the physical Israelites or Jews or was a matter of little importance:

“The additional significance of the account of Exodus 16 lies in the fact that it shows the supreme importance of the Sabbath to God. The fact that God revealed and maintained the identity of His Sabbath to Israel by the daily and the weekly miracles of the manna–along with the clear example of the types of punishment meted out upon those who broke the Sabbath as recorded in these verses–reemphasizes that God’s original Sabbath command was a law of extreme importance.  The fact that the events described in Exodus 16 actually occurred in Israel before the institution of the covenant at Sinai corroborates the truth that the Sabbath was not, as some contend, only part of God’s specific pact with that nation and hence of significance to no other people [14].”

Furthermore, of particular interest to the applicability of the Hebrew scriptures to the Sabbath issue for the Church of God, the Systematic Theology project makes a special effort to quote the continued applicability of Nehemiah to the offensive and unbiblical nature of the Sabbath as an ordinary business day:

“The captives in time were freed and some returned to Palestine. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe their return and their attempts to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. Nehemiah 10 records a special covenant made by some of the people, including Nehemiah, in which they “entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord” (v.29). Among the provisions of this covenant was that “if the peoples of the land bring in wares or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the sabbath or on a holy day” (v.3l). These verses make it obvious that Nehemiah and the people deeply recognized the seriousness of Sabbath-breaking and its part in bringing about their captivity.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for the emergence of a certain laxity in this regard. Nehemiah soon found himself confronting a situation in which the Sabbath was treated as an ordinary business day. He met the problem head on and apparently solved it for the time being (Neh. 13:15-22) [15].”

Given the laxity of many people in the Church of God concerning the Sabbath, it is instructive to realize that the “liberal” scholars of the Systematic Theology Project felt it proper to deliberately point out Nehemiah’s rightness in stopping the laxity of Sabbath observance through treating the Sabbath as just another day to go to the market and conduct one’s business.  Though the doctrinal analysis does not go into specifics, the citation of Nehemiah 13:15-22 as normative for Christian practice in the Church of God ought to be seen as anything but a “liberal” interpretation of godly observance of the Sabbath, even without going into specifics.

Let us see how in looking at the way in which the Systematic Theology Project tackles the issue of buying and selling on the Sabbath:

“The main concern of most scriptures pertaining to the Sabbath is that one should not pursue his usual business or work activities on that day. One should have more
of God and less of himself in his thoughts on the Sabbath. It is a day to honor God, to remember His creation, and to rest. Obviously then, it should not be a day of violent physical activity of any kind–work or play. It is a day of restfulness. It is a time to unwind and to draw close to God. One’s own thoughts of business, money-making, buying and selling, or one’s job, should be minimized if not forgotten. The cares of the week are left behind. It is a day to “take it easy” and to worship God. This is the spirit of the day.”

Or what about the statements made about athletic activities on the Sabbath.  The comments below would not permit in any way the sort of laxity of Sabbath that allowed basketball games and practices to take place on the Sabbath within a sabbath observant church:

“It is obviously out of step with the spirit of the Sabbath day to participate in violent physical sports activities. Can one “keep the Sabbath holy” while charging down a football field or a basketball court? In competitive sports, one must go all out to the point of exhaustion to win. The Sabbath is a day of rest. [17]“

Furthermore, the Systematic Theology Project goes out of its way to analyze the account of Acts for the strongest possible arguments that Paul’s own Sabbath keeping habits were scrupulous according to the standards of the Jews of his time, who were no slouches when it came to strict Sabbath observance:

“There is more concrete evidence in Acts that Paul and all the apostles kept the Sabbath. Perhaps the strongest proof is that they were never accused by the Jews of breaking it. Notice in this regard John 5:9-18 and 9:13-16. Here these men thought Jesus had broken the Sabbath by healing on that day. They wanted to kill Him for this and claimed the legal right to do so. This was serious. It was a major issue to them. Then,in the latter passage, some of them conclude that Jesus could not be of God, because He did not keep the Sabbath. What we find in Acts are similar vicious attacks on Paul but a stark contrast regarding accusations about not keeping the Sabbath.

The Jews from Palestine were really after Paul. They wanted to find something against him. He was constantly under attack. But he was never even accused of breaking the Sabbath as was Jesus. This proves that he never even appeared to break it, much less did he actually teach against it. Paul, in reality, kept more of the laws of the Sinaitic Covenant than he had to (Acts 21:17-27), so obviously he kept the Sabbath which was considered so much more important. Paul was not lying or giving witness to something that was not true. James was not fooled. Acts 21:24 is true: that is what Paul did–he kept the law even to the extent of “the customs.” So it is plain he also kept the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments or moral living are not even in question. James was not implying in verses 21-24 that Paul was Sabbathbreaking, or lying, or killing or otherwise breaking the law. There would have been no question on those big matters. The question was how many of the ceremonies and rituals should a converted Jew continue to keep?[18]“

Indeed, there is nothing at all about the Sabbath doctrine found in the Systematic Theology Project that would be seen as liberal at all.  The doctrine clearly refutes the major heresies of 1995, and its dissemination and acceptance would have made a consistent view of the Sabbath doctrine widely and clearly understood within the Worldwide Church of God.  Rather than attacking the authors of the Systematic Theology Project as doctrinal liberals, those who desire a consistent practice of obedience to the full biblical standard concerning the Sabbath ought to praise the scholars behind the Systematic Theology Project for their bold and open defense of the full biblical standard of Sabbath observance–including Nehemiah 10:31 and 13:15-22.

The Systematic Theology Project On Race And Personal Example

I would like to close this “brief” examination of the not-so-brief Systematic Theology Project by looking at its views on race and personal example.  It must be admitted that there is vastly more about this fascinating document that could be talked about, but these ought to demonstrate some of the areas of “Progressive” thought that might have been offensive to pietistic racists who sought to accuse the scholars of the project for doctrinal liberalism when what they really were upset about was a consistent biblical standard of the responsibilities of believers to practice what they preach and show no partiality.

The position of the Systematic Theology Project is uncompromising on both racism and any other form of social bias that would lead to a caste system among the Church of God, an issue of serious concern even today within the Church of God at large:

“Loving one’s neighbor means that a Christian must not harbor racial prejudice within his heart. The official doctrine of the Church is that discrimination toward persons because of race or ethnic origin is wrong and totally contrary to the teachings of the Bible. Almighty God is the Creator of the different races of man. He puts no spiritual distinction between these races (Acts 15:9: Gal. 3:28; etc.). In the Kingdom of God, there will be no racial stigma of any kind. The Church of God strives to reflect the corning Kingdom of God in its attitudes toward race at the present time.

God is no respecter of persons; He shows no partiality (Acts 10:34-35: Jas. 2:2). He deals justly with all men. There is no double standard with the Almighty: ,”There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (Ex. 12:49; cf. Nurn. 15:15,16) [19].”

Likewise, concerning the fellowship and ordination, the Systematic Theology Project gives no place to racism with regards to how we should treat our brethren:

“In matters of Church fellowship and office, there should be no discrimination because of ethnic background. The criteria for baptism are repentance and belief. Ordination to the ministry–at whatever level–is based on those spiritual criteria indicated in the Bible, such as conversion and calling. Ethnic origin is no factor. This is the present belief and practice of the Church, and it holds this to be in accord with the Bible and the mind of God [20].”

Likewise, as can be expected from the above comments, the Systematic Theology Project is very open about the biblical mandate for “integration” among the brethren as a whole.  There is no place for “kinism” among the Church of God:

God has integrated His Church to teach us His way of harmony between peoples. It is this Christian unity, the Christian culture and the mind of Christ, rather than the rigid ideas and entrenched biases of men, which unites rather than separates us and which will determine how “integrated” or fitly framed together we (the Church of God) really are (see 1 Cor. 12:12-27) [21].”

Like its views on race, the Systematic Theology Project clearly is full of challenges on the part of believers to certain cultural traits of the Church of God community:

“A Christian life is thus in no way passive. It is full of challenges, both physical and spiritual. It requires great resolve to obey God, to shun both the overt and the subtle evils and influences of human society [22].”

Likewise, the Systematic Theology Project proclaims a balanced view of our life that focus both on personal fulfillment and personal responsibility:

“We are required to lead a life of personal responsibility and character before God and our fellow man–a life that is pleasing and obedient to our Creator and one that enables the individual to find and reach his greatest personal potential and fulfillment [23].”

Additionally, the Systematic Theology Project places a very high value on service to the local community as well as the civic obligations of Christians:

“The local Church congregation, as the microcosm of the worldwide Church in the local community, should extend itself in whatever way will best serve its neighbors such as through programs to help the elderly, the sick and the blind. Such activities may range from two church members simply volunteering their time to major church sponsored events. During time of disaster, emergency, or other special need, the membership should be willing to help with whatever physical and spiritual needs are made manifest. Each Church congregation should strive to establish itself as a respected, giving part of the community, whose every motive and action is that of helping, serving and encouraging–in every way setting a positive example of the true Christian way of life. The Church strives to carry out the apostle Paul’s admonition: As we therefore have opportunity, let us do good to all men.

A Christian is also aware of his civic responsibilities and privileges. Paul wrote that Christians should be subject to the constituted human authorities. This included paying taxes and rendering due respect to the symbols of those authorities (Rom. 13:1£f). Jesus Himself paid a tax which He legitimately could have avoided (Mt. 17:24-27). Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because of the edict of the Roman emperor. The New Testament is filled with such examples of complying with government legislation and national custom where they did not conflict with God’s laws. Worldwide Church of God members have always shown patriotism by saluting the flag and singing the national anthem of their own country [24].”

Intriguingly enough, in what is surely a very relevant passage of the project as a whole, holding public office is not prohibited by the Systematic Theology Project, but rather the unseemly and unethical behavior usually associated with politics is itself criticized, conduct we have seen within the Church of God community concerning its own politics:

“Another area of civic concern is that of holding public office and serving on juries. The Church in no way prohibits its members from such activities, and indeed the community would be well served by having true Christians fulfilling these functions. There are cautions here; Christians may find making certain judgments and rendering specific decisions difficult, because the laws of God can conflict with the laws of men, and their primary responsibility must be to the former. Also, one who may serve (or wish to serve) in an elected governmental capacity must not involve himself with unChristian
practices commonly associated with politics. No Christian should ever consciously compromise his inviolab1e values of love for God, fidelity to God’s law and love for ht.~ neighbor equal to love for himself. Nonetheless, the biblical examples of Joseph ruling Egypt and Daniel ruling Babylon are powerful statements about the capacity and opportunity of a true servant of God to serve (albeit rarely) in responsible governmental positions, even though their governments were still of this world [25].”

There is indeed nothing “liberal” about these statements on race and personal responsibility, though they do require that the Christian follow the consistent biblical preaching that there is no place for “race,” only grace, in God’s relationships with human beings.  Likewise, the responsibilities of the Christian are not passive but are active, including serving the community at large and setting an example of godly obedience as well as respect for civil authority and the avoidance of corrupt political practices that compromise our moral integrity.  The Systematic Theology Project, rather than being a “liberal” document, is itself a document with the highest standards of concern for our obligations both to God and our fellow man.

Conclusion

I said at the outset that my look at the Systematic Theology Project would be “brief,” and I apologize to anyone who has made it this far that I was not able to keep that promise, unless by brief you are comparing it with the 422 pages of the Systematic Theology Project as a whole.  Given the size and massive scope of the Systematic Theology Project, it has not been my intention to examine it in exhaustive detail.  Nonetheless, I did think it worthwhile to examine three key aspects of the Systematic Theology Project:  1. its purpose as a guide to the ministry on consistent standards of doctrine and practice as well as a guide to lay members and outside observers of the Church of God as to the doctrinal positions and their scriptural backup.  2. its consistent and rigorous treatment of the Sabbath as continuing in full force and the application of the biblical standards of its practice to believers in the Church of God.  3. its demanding and challenging views to church members on the aspect of race and personal responsibilities, areas where the Church of God has consistently fallen short of the biblical standard of high conduct.

In light of the citations made from the Systematic Theology Project, I hope it is clear to the reader that the Systematic Theology Project was not a “liberal” document, but it was one whose blunt statements on the noble standard of the Christian in many areas of doctrine and practice may have caused offense by those who did not wish to be held accountable to the strict biblical standard and who sought to discredit those responsible for the project.  One can only judge the Systematic Theology Project fairly by examining it for its own merits–it is not as if the document could not have been improved, but it was not greatly lacking in scriptural fidelity or doctrinal rigor, and its own admission of its tentative nature would allow it to be improved upon had the desire existed among ministers to accept a consistent and open biblical standard accessible to all by which they were to be held accountable.  Let us hope and pray that such a ministry now exists within the Church of God community so that this noble effort may not have been in vain.

[1] http://www.hwarmstrong.com/history/wcg_stp.pdf

[2] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-systematic-theology-project/

[3] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 3.

[4] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 5.

[5] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/on-the-difference-between-greek-thought-and-hebrew-thought/

[6] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 5-6.

[7] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 6.

[8] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 7.

[9] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 11.

[10] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/a-modest-proposal-concerning-business-counseling-and-the-application-of-gods-laws/

[11] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/a-modest-proposal-for-the-development-of-focused-education-programs-in-the-united-church-of-god/

[12] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 177-178.

[13] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 182.

[14] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 186.

[15] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 191.

[16] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 214.

[17] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 215.

[18] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 198-199.

[19] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 300.

[20] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 301.

[21] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 301.

[22] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 284.

[23] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 285.

[24] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 306.

[25] Worldwide Church of God, Systematic Theology Project (Pasadena, CA:  Worldwide Church of God, 1978), 307-308.

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5 Responses to A Brief Look At The Systematic Theology Project

  1. Kelly Irvin says:

    Nathan,

    I believe this is well written but attempts to lead your reader to the conclusion that the project was “conservative” based on three examples from the project by your selecting an insignificant subset of it’s text to represent that conclusion. I’m not saying that, in the end, your examples would not be reflective of the whole, but, to me, your concluding paragraph about the merits of the entirety of the project is leading.

    My memory of the late ’70’s was a time of laxness in the church. It is hard to explain, but a mindset was developing in the congregations that seemed easy come, easy go. There was a lot of emphasis on self. Note that I was preteen in the late ’70’s, but even I could see this. Also, to explain, I was in Houston, a very cosmopolitan, culturally diverse area of the country with very large congregations, possibly susceptible to a greater level of immorality than, say, somewhere in the heart of the Bible belt or mid-America.

    I believe the core doctrines are very well explained through our existing literature. Wouldn’t you say so? What is difficult to put a finger on is the areas of scriptural instruction we do seem to officially ignore interpreting, like conflict resolution. We also have the problem, as you have noted, of “inspired” interpretations to biblical instruction, although it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.

    Instead of an all-encompassing project, in my mind I just see a need to deal directly with how brethren lay their lives down for the brethren. In that same vein, I think it is extremely important to realize that true Christianity will not be achieved by codifying some of that, because it is an expression of the Spirit of God. In my mind, we need a firm biblical grasp on some practical aspects in scripture that are not well expressed in our literature, especially in that which I have already referenced, conflict resolution, including the clearly stated biblical requirements for making negative judgments against a brother.

    • There is a lot of information that can be found in the Systematic Theology Project, though I did focus on areas where it was conservative (like Sabbath observance) as well as areas where it could be judged liberal (its views on community involvement and race), in order to present a balance on both sides as much as possible. Though it is far beyond the scope of any reasonable work to provide the full context of the late 1970’s, a time in which I was not alive and cannot therefore offer a first-hand understanding of, I wished to demonstrate that a blanket condemnation of the STP or its authors as liberal is unjust.

      Concerning aspects of biblical conflict resolution (the Matthew 18 method, if you will), it is but one of many areas in which the church has not done well. It is a big one, to be sure, but the very purpose of a Systematic Theology Project of any kind is to place the truth of the Bible in a broad context so the appropriate interconnections and place of all of the smaller doctrines can be understood in their proper place and proportion. It is this sense of proportion that is sorely lacking as a whole in the Church of God community. How do we determine the majors from the minors? That was an issue the STP explicitly tackles and that we have a difficulty understanding. In the end, the goal of a project like the Systematic Theology Project is not to either be “conservative” or “liberal” but biblical. That is what I seek to be personally with regards to doctrine and practice, and ought to be the goal of every Christian and every organization. Our understanding of fundamental doctrines, for the most part, is very solid. There are, however, a large amount of edge areas of doctrine, from prophetic speculation, from problems with race, from the separation of hating the sin but loving the sinner, from a healthy understanding of the need of all human beings for dignity and honor but for all to avoid selfishness and a narrow self-centered perspective for anyone, from conflict resolution to a proper understanding of the responsibility of individuals to enforce the standard of the Bible on themselves rather than depend on “Sabbath police” or “tithing police.” It is these areas where our conflicts tend to lie, precisely in those areas where our understanding of the biblical position, and our obedience to that standard, is weak. It is in consistency with the whole biblical standard as well as in the judo-like transformation of our own struggles with personal weaknesses and disastrous personal backgrounds into opportunities for preaching the truth of God’s kingdom to a world struggling with sin and corruption in need of a message of hope and encouragement (and righteousness) that we could use more help in.

      As God’s law remains applicable to all walks of human life, a systematic study of the Bible is practical to the extent that it provides us with a vivid and real understanding of our obligations to obey God with all our heart and all our mind and to love others as we love ourselves. As we are bound by the terms of our conversion and baptism to judge by the biblical standard, we have a sore need to understand first what that biblical standard is before we can consistently and fairly (and lovingly) apply it. It is the task of theologians to study that standard and to teach it to others. It remains for all of us, once we know what the biblical standard is, to apply it consistently in our own lives ourselves. But how can we learn without a teacher?

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