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Volume 13, Issue 3: Stauron

Outlines of Grace

Gary Hagen

An outline of theology is a condensation of a more detailed subject, similar to the way that a kindergartner's stick-figure drawing of his family is a simplified rendition of flesh-and-blood kin.

In a sense, the creeds and catechisms can be seen as distillations or outlines of vast theological truths. Christ spoke of the two greatest commandments. While those commandments were not exhaustive in detail, they were wholly comprehensive in scope; not only of the Ten, but of the entire Law of God.
We live in a time of marked spiritual regression. Many churches have abandoned these outlines of God's grace and in the process have seriously dumbed down the theology understood by their congregations. Thus we take our spiritual inheritance for granted and depend upon the doctrinal capital of earlier generations.
Of course this is unsatisfactory for many reasons. But one problem that is almost sure to follow is a high level of susceptibility to false doctrine. Many heresies that the Church fought and vanquished in ages past now easily dupe modern Christians. An afternoon of listening to some of the sad fare on a typical Christian radio station proves the point.
Consider caricatures. These are distortions or undue emphases of certain features, normally of a politician's face in editorial cartoons. But in theology, this can be the way heresies begin. The balance of the full counsel of Scripture is abandoned, and a single truth is emphasized to the exclusion of other teachings of Scripture. And as odd as it may sound, part of the problem here is an aversion to outlines. Nowhere is this more serious than with respect to soteriology, and the very gospel of grace.
Soteriology is one of those $64 terms meaning "the word of deliverance." It simply refers to the doctrine of salvation. In short, what, exactly, is the nature of the reconciliation effected by Christ? It is easy to take our present-day understanding of this doctrine for granted, and live unaware of the distorted teachings that once crept into the Church. Instead, we are simply content to contrast the Christian gospel to something more clearly distinct, like Hinduism or jungle idol worship.
But those pagan religions are not the wolves at the door of the modern church. In our de-Christianized culture, doctrinal caricatures that are nursed within church pulpits and pews become full-blown heresies akin to the false teachings that both Peter and Paul warned would arise from within the Church (2 Pet. 2:1_3; Acts 20:27_30). One of the more useful places to begin in taking "heed to yourselves," as Paul admonished, is the use of these outlines.
Outlines, whether they be the catechisms, the creeds, or some of the more extensive works1 available, should never be viewed as a substitute for study of Scripture, but employed as a supplemental tool toward understanding the sense and scope of the Scripture's teaching (Neh. 8:8).
Let us return to the question posed earlier: How did Christ save His people? Articles XX and XXI of the Belgic Confession are a wonderful place to refer in answering this question. "The Westminster Confession of Faith" (ch.VIII sec.V; ch.XI sec.III) also provides a summary of salvation. "The Heidelberg Catechism" also addresses the question (questions 12_18; 40). But valuable discussion can also be found in a work like A.A. Hodge's Outlines2 where he poses the question; "In what sense and on what grounds was the satisfaction rendered by Christ necessary? and how does the true answer to this question confirm the orthodox doctrine as to its nature?" Hodge then surveys not only the Reformed answer but also key soteriological "caricatures" and heresies.
Certain of those views held in both ancient and recent times include theories that Christ reconciled us, not by His sacrificial death, but by His incarnation. Another view states that it was not necessary to reconcile God to man, but only man to God by way of the "moral influence" of the cross. Yet another view known as the "governmental theory" holds that Christ's example of suffering was not truly punishment designed to satisfy divine justice but only to impress upon man God's intolerance of sin and to thus deter his sinning. (Hodge notes that Jonathan Edwards, Jr. [1745_1801] held to this theory.) Hodge goes on to clearly but briefly explain both any bits of truth as well as the fallacies or distortions found in the details of that theory. Finally, Hodge reviews the orthodox view known as the "Satisfaction Theory." He notes its history, beginning with the revival of this truth by an eleventh-century Italian, Anselm of Canterbury.
These examples are not meant to plug Hodge's book so much as an exhortation to study books like these. To study the history and answer questions like these by exploring the Scripture proofs helps us to comprehend with all the saints (both present and past) what is the width and length and depth and height of Christ's love, and the richness of the Lord's salvation for His people.

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