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Theological Anemia. Part I

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Theology has fallen on bad times. In one sense, it always has. The image of the guy with an insanely long beard, surrounded by books, looking like the guy in the photo above, is just not appealing to us. It’s too cerebral, too based on the brain, too intellectual. “Christianity is not intellectual, it’s faith, the heart, the soul” – according to a preacher friend of my dad’s. That attitude is pervasive in evangelical Christianity.

For instance, I recently went with my Dad to go and visit a church. Now, whenever I go somewhere with Dad and people see this burly guy right next to him, they usually think I’m one of his elders and so my Dad will point out that I’m actually his son. After the service, the pastor of the church, who used to pastor in the same denomination as my Dad when we lived in Germany, came and sat with Dad and myself and asked me what I was studying. Before I could even muster up an answer, my Dad mentioned what my degree is in and then (incorrectly) said I was also studying theology. Aside from the fact I was mildly annoyed – I am 23 and rather capable of answering direct questions, the pastor’s response was telling. The pastor immediately said, “Why?”, followed by a comment to my dad about how theologically-minded people are always the first to criticise his ministry. I said nothing – after all, I’m smart enough not to challenge someone in their own house, especially when I didn’t particularly want to be there. I kindly corrected my dad in the car home, reminding him that I don’t formally study theology and that he really didn’t need to mention that in the first place.

To be honest, the experience of a mild telling-off for no real reason had gotten to me, but it got me thinking. Why is it that the pastor in question, my dad (himself a pastor of many years’ experience), other pastors I’ve had the opportunity to come in contact with and loads of “lay people” have this aversion for the theological? What is it about theology makes Christians so frightened of doctrine?

In his fantastic work Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Dr R.C. Sproul lists several reasons why Christians in general tend to have an aversion to doctrine and theology – three of which particularly appeal to me.

1. The “Childlike Faith” Error

Time would fail me to deal with just how prevalent this idea is. Basically it goes a little like this: in places like Mark 10:15, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Receiving the kingdom of God like a child is then taken to mean that like children don’t have all the knowledge in the world but just believe, so we should adopt that kind of attitude.

Now my gripe isn’t so much with Mark 10:15 – Scripture is Scripture. My gripe is with a reading of this text which equates to childish, not childlike faith. Dr Sproul explains:

There is a vast difference, however, between a childlike faith and a childish faith, though the two are often confused. A childish faith balks at learning the things of God in depth. It refuses the meat of the gospel while clinging to a diet of milk. For this, the childish Christian receives an admonition:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

A refusal to go deeper into the name of maintaining a misguided innocence is childish. In fact the Bible expressly commands us to grow up in terms of understanding:

[14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

(Ephesians 4:14 ESV)

[20] Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.

(1 Corinthians 14:20 ESV)

Childlike faith is childlike in its dependence and trust, not in its inability to understand. The Bible calls us paradoxically to be mature yet childlike. It is foolish to pick one and reject the other.

2. Fear of Theological Skepticism

Let’s face facts – there are many unbelieving people with an interest with theology. As I write, I’m reminded of the name of Leslie Weatherhead. Weatherhead, a Methodist, was pastor of  City Temple, here in the city of London. To say he was a theological liberal would be something of an understatement. For instance, here is his take and you can read his words for yourself if you don’t believe I’m telling the truth:

The doctrine of Jesus’s “Virgin Birth” was not part of the missionary message of the early Church. As far as we know, Jesus did not mention it to His apostles. Certainly, Mark, Peter, Paul and John show no knowledge of such a miracle. And if it really had been a “Divine Conception”, surely Mary would have told her Son? If she had, then He and His apostles would undoubtedly have regarded it as highly significant, and included it in their teachings.

However, in St. Matthew’s Gospel we read that Joseph seemed shocked at Mary’s pregnancy and was “minded to put her away privily”, “not willing to make her a public example” [chapter 1, verses 18-19]. References elsewhere to his being “a righteous man” rule out premarital intimacy. Besides, if the child were his, Jewish law would have demanded his care for Mary and her unborn child. He would not have been allowed to “put her away”. Indeed, it would not have entered his head to do so.

Whence then came Mary’s pregnancy? Can we suppose that some village rascal was responsible for her condition? I hold that the beauty of the peerless story rules this out. Read again the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel and imagine a village maiden of sixteen or so, after some mystical experience beyond the power of any pen to describe, saying quietly, “Behold the slave-girl of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word!” [Luke 1, verse 38].

One explanation of Mary’s pregnancy has been put forward by Mr. C. A. Wainwright of Oxford. First, he refers to the “sacred marriage” ceremony which was an ancient and widespread custom in the Near and Middle East (including Egypt and India). The high priest played the part of a divine messenger. He was “married” to a virgin with whom he cohabited. The offspring of such a union was regarded as a son of god, or a divine personage.

Now Zacharias was the priest on duty in the temple at the relevant time. He “executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course” (Luke 1, verse 8). We are told that, though old, Zacharias was not impotent, for he made his wife Elisabeth pregnant though she was past the normal time of child-bearing. John the Baptist was their son.

We are also told that after Mary’s visitation from the angel who told her she was to bear Jesus, Mary replied: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” Mary was then reassured: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also that which is to be born shall be called holy, the Son of God” [Luke 1, verse 35].

We are then told that Mary entered the house of Zacharias [Luke 1, verses 39-40], stayed there three months, and then returned to her own house [Luke 1, verse 56].

In a “sacred marriage” of the sort described by Mr Wainwright, a stay of three months was required in the house of the priest, or in the sacred precincts, to make sure that pregnancy was established*. This would explain why Mary stayed in the home of Zacharias for that length of time before returning to her own home. Indeed, what an otherwise strange reaction to Gabriel’s message was her hurried journeyinto Zacharias’s house! “Mary arose, and went with haste and entered the house of Zacharias” [Luke 1, verse 39].

Now here’s a man saying that the Virgin Birth was more a lurid tale of an older man sleeping with a younger girl in some weird kind of spiritual-sexual rite. But people will read stuff like that (and sadly, there is a lot of it) and say, “See, that’s where theology will take you. I’d rather just believe it and leave it at that.”

The problem is unbelief in the name of God isn’t all that new. In the days of the New Testament, there were a group of men called the Sadducees. The Sadducees were part of the ruling religious class of the day and they had some peculiar views. They denied any sort of resurrection, didn’t believe in the afterlife or in much of the supernatural. As you can imagine, they just loved Jesus and the Apostles. No, they opposed his message with everything they had – yet they felt themselves to be true to the Law of Moses. Why expect times to change? Didn’t Paul says that the risk of believing another Jesus was always a threat (Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Cor 11:4)? The existence of the counterfeit and false doesn’t rule out the existence of the genuine and authentic. The answer to theological unbelief is not the rejection of theology – it’s the rejection of unbelief! As Christians, we are a believing people – either we believe that God has spoken and we need to listen (which is the natural orientation of Biblical Christianity) or we believe that we have spoken and God needs to listen (every other form of “Christianity”).

Rejecting theology because of aberrant forms of it is like refusing to watch an Arsenal game because Spurs are useless. (UK readers: don’t argue – just smile and accept it.) In all seriousness, it’s more akin to rejecting the use of money because counterfeits are circulating. It’s like refusing to drive because they are drunk drivers or refusing to eat because some folks cannot cook. It sounds absurd, I agree, but that is what we do if we shun all theology because of the “bad apples”.

[Contributed by Kofi Adbu-Boahen]