What I Have Learned in 50 Years as a Theologian (Part 1)

By Jack Cottrell

Since receiving my AB degree from Cincinnati Bible Seminary in 1959, I have been either preparing to teach or teaching theology (Bible doctrine) in CBS’s (now Cincinnati Christian University’s) graduate school. I was recently challenged to sum up what I have learned during this lifetime of study. Here are my thoughts.


First, I have learned that theological fads come and go, but the “fundamentals” are still fundamental. A fad is a seemingly new idea that bursts on the scene and receives lots of attention, especially by authors and publishers. Once the latter have milked the new theme for all it’s worth, it fades into the background and is replaced by something else.

Examples from the past include the “death of God” movement and secularization theology (1960s), the “Jesus movement” (1970s), liberation theology (1970s, 1980s), and the New Age movement (1980s, 1990s). Present examples include militant atheism, open theism, postmodernism, seeker-sensitive services (à la Willow Creek), and the emerging (emergent) church movement.

It is important to understand such challenges, but we must keep them in perspective. We make a big mistake when we look on such fads as either a fatal blow to Christianity or as the solution to all the church’s problems. We seriously err when we embrace such supposedly new ideas, and revise our thinking and practice to accommodate them.

For example, we must resist the temptation to redesign the church simply to fit the preferences of our pagan culture. Seeker-sensitive (i.e., evangelistic) programs are great, but they must not take the place of church services designed to edify the saints. An analysis of what the New Testament says about church assemblies shows their purpose was never evangelistic as such. The services described in the New Testament involved believer-to-God elements, God-to-believer elements, and believer-to-believer elements.

Unbelievers were welcome (1 Corin-thians 14:20-25), but the services were not designed specifically to reach out to them. (For a more complete discussion of this, see chapter 26 of my book, The Faith Once for All, published by College Press in 2002.)

Even Willow Creek now realizes it was wrong to deviate from the biblical pattern: “After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, Willow Creek Community Church now plans to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in their faith.”1 This fad has faded; so will the others: “This too shall pass.”

The fundamentals, however, are eternally true, having withstood one attack after another. A century ago, Christendom came under attack from within, as modernism or classical liberalism sought to strip the Christian faith of all its supernatural elements and leave it as nothing more than secular humanism disguised in biblical terminology. In response, those known as fundamentalists strongly defended orthodox Christian teachings. The term fundamentalist was not an insult then; to be a fundamentalist simply meant one was committed to believing and defending the fundamentals of the faith.

Especially in view of what liberalism was denying, the fundamentalists often compiled concise lists of the most basic doctrines—the beliefs without which Christianity simply would no longer be Christianity. The best-known list was this: the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the visible return of Jesus.

In the early 1990s, Gene Wigginton of Standard Publishing asked me if I would write a small book explaining “the fundamentals” for today. I was glad to oblige, and wrote Faith’s Fundamentals: Seven Essentials of Christian Belief (still available from Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002). I included in one way or another the original five fundamentals in these chapters: “The Bible Is God’s Word,” “Jesus Is Our Savior,” “Jesus Is God’s Son,” and “Jesus Is Coming Again.” Having noted that the original list had nothing about salvation, I added this chapter: “We Are Saved by Grace, Through Faith, in Baptism.”

I also concluded that the original list omitted what I have discerned to be the most fundamental of all beliefs: first, the fact that there is such a thing as TRUTH as such; and second, the existence of the transcendent CREATOR-GOD of the Bible as the only possible source of such truth. This leads to the second thing I have learned in my career.


My 50 years as a theologian (43 of them as a professor) have been based on the firm conviction that there is such a thing as truth. And if there is truth, there is also falsehood. I have also worked under the conviction that human beings made in God’s image are able to receive and understand God’s communication of truth in his revealed and inspired Word.

I take seriously the teaching of Titus 1:9, that a leader in Christ’s church must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”2 Thus a main task of every Bible teacher (theologian, if you please) is to discern and teach truth (“sound doctrine”), and to expose and refute false doctrine.

As I have attempted to be faithful to this mandate of the apostle Paul, I have been pleased to find widespread agreement about the reality of truth and falsehood. But I have also learned over these five decades that a great many within Christendom, including our movement, and often in positions of leadership, do not accept this most fundamental of all beliefs.

I have learned this often in very personal and painful ways. Over the years I have taken very firm stands on important issues. The very fact that I have taken these firm stands has often caused others to put me in the role of a villain or adversary or troublemaker, and to characterize me as someone who is dogmatic and opinionated in the worst sort of way.

The problem is not just that I have taken certain views with which others disagree. On a more basic level I am criticized for having the arrogance to present my views and interpretations as the right and true ones, with the implication that alternative views are actually false!

This kind of criticism is symptomatic of what I have come to regard as one of the most sinister false doctrines, namely, the myth that there is no one right view of anything, that there is no one right position on any doctrinal issue, no one right interpretation of any Scripture. This view says that all personal convictions are “just your opinion,” with one opinion being as good or as valid as any other. This is in effect a substitution of relativism for truth.

Both in my writing and in the classroom, I have never hesitated to take a position on any crucial issue, to defend it from Scripture, to declare opposing views to be false, and to identify those who teach falsely. But one thing I have learned in 50 years of “doing theology” in this way is that it makes one very unpopular in certain circles! It puts me in conflict with what some regard as a more sophisticated and scholarly teaching methodology, namely, that a teacher should simply present the various major views on any issue without stating and defending his own personal view. To do the latter is regarded as “spoon-feeding” the students, and is characterized as a sign of anti-intellectual fundamentalism.

I will not attempt to defend my methodology here. I will simply affirm that my teaching and writing will continue to be based on the presuppositions that truth is real and that it can be known. I cannot do otherwise without going against what I believe Scripture teaches about God, about itself, about the nature of human beings, about truth, about sound doctrine, and about false doctrine.

Thus I affirm today that after doing theology for 50 years, I am more convinced than ever that the following (often-challenged) doctrines are TRUE:

1. The Bible is God’s inerrant Word.

2. The only true God is the Creator-God of the Bible.

3. The transcendent Creator-God knows the future, even future freewill choices.

4. Human beings do have truly free will; Calvinism is false.

5. Jesus is the only Savior, and salvation comes only by knowing and accepting him as such.

6. The Holy Spirit does not give miraculous gifts today.

7. Demonic spirits are real and active today, even in Christian circles and in some Christians.

8. Sinners are saved by grace, through faith, in baptism, for good works.

9. Baptism in water is the point of time when God gives the saving grace of forgiveness through Christ’s blood and regeneration through the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

10. The Bible does not permit women to teach men, nor to have authority over men, in the church.

11. There is no such thing as a secret rapture.

12. The lost will suffer eternally in Hell.

13. The church is intended to be “the pillar and support of the truth” in this world of falsehood and relativism (1 Timothy 3:15).

(To be continued)


1Matt Branaugh, “Willow Creek’s ‘Huge Shift,’” Christianity Today, June 2008, 13; available at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html.

2All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

Jack Cottrell has served as professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary since 1967. He holds a PhD from Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary and has just published his 20th book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace, available from College Press.

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