Why Theology Matters

“To think theologically is not the privilege of an elite group of people, but the work of every believer...” by Roger J. Green, O.F., and Jonathan S. Raymond

November 2023 marks 25 years of purpose and mission for Word & Deed, the Army’s journal of theology and ministry. From its inception in 1998, the Army’s intention for the journal was “to encourage and disseminate the thinking of Salvationists and other Christian colleagues on matters broadly related to the Army’s theology and ministry.” The journal was established to help Salvationists understand topics central to the mission of The Salvation Army, integrating the Army’s theology and ministry in response to Christ’s command to love God and neighbor. After 25 years, the purpose and mission remain the same.

When Word & Deed was founded, we were intentional about the title, supported by the subtitle that reads “A Journal of Salvation Army Theology & Ministry.” Words are important and the order of those words demonstrates our commitment that theology always precedes ministry. Otherwise, ministry can easily become ungrounded and self-serving. 

While we are in debt to many in the past, such as Luther or Calvin or Finney, we feel that the clearest expression of Christ and His Kingdom is that found in the writings and teachings of John and Charles Wesley and their successors. Their exposures to Methodist experiences made possible their spiritual formation, divine calling and shared ministries. The Wesleyan movement then occasioned the seminal, faithful work and ministries of William and Catherine Booth, the founders of today’s world-wide Salvation Army. With that theological identity, we always press on, however, to the ultimate goal—Christian theology.

As we are in conversation with Christians of other traditions, we respect and learn from their cherished history just as they respect what it means for us to be biblical Christians in the Wesleyan tradition. We are all grounded in Scripture and embrace the great doctrines of the Church rooted in the Trinity. Thereby doctrines such as Creation, Justification, Salvation, Holiness, Church and Ministry, the Kingdom of God,  and Christian Ethics are what we hold in common and proclaim to a fallen world.

In our history the Army has never had a journal specifically focused on theology and ministry. We have had several magazines representing various aspects of Salvation Army ministry, but never one with the focus of Word & Deed. This journal strives to reflect the Army’s international mission statement. Word & Deed is committed to supporting that mission in every way possible, but especially in recognizing our biblical and Wesleyan faith, and maintaining that faith in spite of possible criticism either from without or within. Word & Deed  is a form of new fruit with new seeds producing new fruit. It took 300 years of faithful saints, beginning with the Wesleys, to render what would become the Army’s journal of theology and ministry.

By God’s good grace and the undaunted support of the leadership of The Salvation Army in the United States of America, beginning with the Commissioners’ Conference that approved the journal, this journal has been sustained for 25 years. But while Word & Deed has had full support from the United States, including financial support, its message and ministry extend around the Army world and even, at times, into the worlds of other Christian denominations.

Commitment to theology often means defending theology. In a world very much like the world faced by the first Christians, that is what we are called to do. Our world is one in which the Church and its doctrines are either attacked or ignored, often by a culture that says, “Me first.” The whims of selfishness define the culture, and the Church, with its insistence on lives of holiness and purity within a community designed to serve each other is censured, sometimes from without and sometimes from within. The warning of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “The Cost of Discipleship” still stands: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.” That grace is biblical grace, centered on the life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. In short, Bonhoeffer reminds us that “costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Facing that reality, several metaphors come to mind. Theology is the foundation of all knowledge because it speaks about God the Creator of all things. Theology is the ship that rescues us from the raging seas because it helps us focus on God the Son, Savior and Redeemer.  Theology is the air we breathe because it gives us life in the Holy Spirit.

The beginning point of that theology is John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (RSV). Karl Barth called this verse “theology in a nutshell.”

And so, the Scriptures provide the substance of theology and the Founders of The Salvation Army were wise to make the Scriptures the first of the doctrines to which members of the Army commit themselves. Little wonder that this became the first doctrine because as the Scriptures were coming under attack in the 19th century, the Founders realized that all theology was in danger if it was not based on that foundation.

But this was nothing new. The Scriptures and therefore the central story of the Scriptures—Jesus Christ and His Kingdom—have come under attack since the early Church.  God by His grace has raised up men and women to speak theology to the Church and thereby remind the Church of its first love and its primary mission.

Without their commitment to theology, the Church would have lost the battle either because she could not muster the courage to face those who would bring down the Church, or because she would allow a slow theological drift that eventually championed a compromised and unbiblical theology. One of the great theological tragedies of the 20th century was the “Death of God” movement, a short-lived testimony to the result of trying to construct theology apart from the Scriptures.

The Salvation Army is not exempt from those whose view of the Scriptures is so compromised that they sadly fall prey to the wider ever-shifting culture that places the individual before the community, personal needs before the unity of the Church, and the privilege of the self before the health of the Body of Christ, resulting in bondage to that culture.

However, the Army is founded on a theology that is rooted in the Scriptures and bound to a hermeneutics that relies on tradition, reason and experience in understanding the biblical narrative and what that narrative expects of us in return. And, like all denominations that take theology seriously and are committed to a basic theological framework, we in the Army recognize that the framework for the theology that we take from the Scriptures is best understood as Wesleyan.  

If there is any watchword to the journal it is this: theology matters. To think theologically is not the privilege of an elite group of people, but the work of every believer that Our Lord Himself calls to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” And to work theologically daily is not the privilege of a committed group of missionaries, but the privilege of every believer that Our Lord calls to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In so loving, we demonstrate the heart of theology: commitment to God in Christ and to His commandments.

Therefore, we confess that we deny any doctrines, beliefs or practices that are shaped by the prevailing culture if they contradict the biblical message with some kind of cultural word or deed. To be molded by the culture is to accommodate to the culture, which finally leads to capitulation to the culture. Then theology no longer matters.

We see two dangers in the Army today—creation of theology that is contrary to the Scriptures, or perhaps worse, a theological drift that eventually shows little concern for biblical doctrine. We constantly stand in the danger of the same historical pattern of Evangelical groups that no longer embrace their doctrinal heritage and being aware of these dangers is part of the theological discourse of the journal. 

General Paul Rader’s comments in the first issue still ring true: “The value and timeliness of this journal will be measured by the willingness of Salvationists to own it—contributing to its interactions, subscribing, sharing and using the material that appears in its pages to sharpen our own understanding of our identity and mission, and as a stimulus to both creative reflection and redemptive action … We live in a time pregnant with the possibility of strengthening and expanding our mission, the enrichment of our inner life, and the enlargement of our capacity to contribute to the life and mission of the whole Body of Christ.”

And so, we live and think and write with great hope. When the Bible is forthrightly proclaimed, theology is secure. The present Archbishop of Canterbury was a model of such proclamation recently on two occasions: the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III. He preached a sure and certain gospel of Christ and His Kingdom for the world to hear.  

We rejoice that Word & Deed proclaims the same gospel and stands as a reminder that in every generation, theology matters.