Unfortunately, it seems that with each new poll that comes out we continue to find a declining interest and concern regarding theology among those who identify themselves as evangelical. People are attending church, but those in the pews are more ignorant of doctrine, theology, and biblical content than they ever were. Beyond the seemingly obvious reason of protecting the church from heresy, I’ve come up with a few more reasons as to why theology should not and cannot be ignored. Not only is theology important, it’s necessary and essential.*
One: Emotions and Experiences Cannot Be Trusted
One cannot escape the reality that experience has always played an important role in evangelicalism. From Jonathan Edwards and beyond, evangelicals have fully understood that the gospel requires a recognition of God’s call and the regeneration of one’s heart. Because of this, more often than not the impression is given that it is us who “finds” God, instead of God choosing us, and that is through some kind of personal “experience.” The problem with this is that it’s a stepping stone to Gnosticism (theology is also important so you learn the definition of words such as “Gnosticism”). Charles Colson once stated a concern regarding this: “that doctrines must be extracted from inward experience—that is, personal feelings” is “a version of Gnosticism.”** The truth is, there is no guarantee or assurance that the experience(s) one has do indeed point to God. We need a surer, more concrete way to know God.
Fortunately, God has given us the way: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). In Jesus, we have the perfect exegesis of God and an everlasting foundation for our faith.
Two: The Bible is Not a Wikipedia Entry on God
In an honest attempt to prevent improperly using experience as a base for our knowledge of God, some have turned to Scripture as their infallible guide to faith and living. Now this is a good thing, however, far too often this turn is made without really considering the work and difficulties involved in true biblical interpretation (and I don’t just mean the difficulty of learning at least the basics of the original languages).
Pointing to this or that passage has been used far too often in order to justify a wide array of ethical, and unethical, positions. Proof texting has been used to support issues such as slavery, apartheid, the oppression of women, and anti- Semitism. In addition, all the so-called “heretics” in Christian history knew their Bible quite well and could find plenty of support for their positions inside its covers.
In an attempt to fix this problem, right from the onset the church developed two rules of interpretation: the “rule of faith” and the “rule of love.” The rule of love refers to the point that one needs to read Scripture in a way that “promotes the love of God and neighbor, and the rule of faith offers the church’s shared theological affirmations as a similar guide for reading. Jesus Christ stands behind each of these rules: He is the one who both enacts perfect love for God and neighbor, and he makes the Father known, as already mentioned.”*** We must read and study Scripture with one eye focused on Jesus Christ, and with a constant effort to see how each section of Scripture directs us back to Him. As Martin Luther stated “whatever promotes Christ is the Word of God to be sought and found in Holy
Scripture” (Luther’s Works 35:396).
Three: Cultural Context is Essential
Often times Christians toil under the wrong assumption that the cultural forms and norms we have personally inherited from our predecessors in the faith are what are distinctively “Christian.” We all have, to some degree, cultural blinders which can cause us to misread the biblical text, to perhaps find rules and guidelines that simply aren’t there. “Cultural norms about money, gender, race, work, and family seep into our subconscious and percolate into our daily life.”**** We are bombarded by them in TV commercials, on magazine covers, in water cooler talk, on billboards, and even in church-sponsored events and sermons.
What lurks behind all of this is the notion that there is only one way to be and to live, and of course, that one way just so happens to be our way. But when we look through Scripture, we see an extreme diversity of human identities, social classes, and cultural actions. The “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) is not a good idea, instead, it is a command to follow Jesus in the diversity of our local cultures and contexts and in the unity of God’s kingdom. When Jesus rejects the accepted family values and standards of both his time and ours (Matt. 10:35–36), he is not telling us to hate our families. What He’s doing is introducing a vision of “fidelity to God’s kingdom that is bigger than a single culture’s social norms.”*****
Four: God is not a Self-help Guru
The way American culture envelops us with the idea that we have within ourselves everything we need for success and happiness sickens me. It is true, the United States was founded on the principle that we have certain “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but where we’re at today is far from what our forefathers had in mind.
What is most sad about this is that this way of thinking has found its way into the Christian faith, preaching, and worship. All over the country we find preachers who are more occupied with the wants and emotions of people than they are with Christ. Visit a local Christian bookstore and just read the titles. Titles that promise to give you the good life now, the life you deserve. This causes us to start viewing God on our terms. He becomes some kind of cosmic genie we expect to grant our every wish. And when those wishes aren’t granted, we either blame Him or we are guilted into believing we must have done something wrong. But it is we who are weak, and HE who is strong; it is we who are lonely, so we lower God to the level of friend; it is we who lack knowledge, and we demand that God answer.
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that theology is not in the business of ‘exploiting human weakness and human limitations.’ Rather than understanding God in terms of human life, human life should be defined by the power of God in Jesus Christ. Christian faith acknowledges a God who discloses to us our true weakness—sin—and sovereignly acts in Christ to reconcile us to God and to each other. As the community of this God, the church is not a community of self-help instruction but a place of missionary self-giving.”*****
Five: God is not a Dictator
Reformed/Calvinist adherents in particular, but many other believers as well, find great comfort in knowing that God is in complete and absolute control of our lives. Knowing that God’s plan is perfect doesn’t just give the certainty of salvation, but it also offers hope and comfort in times of great tribulation and distress. Maybe it’s no surprise that in an age of political uncertainty, which is fostered by the inability to find any sort of common ground, we find assurance in a Sovereign God that actually makes the final decisions regarding all things.
If what I just described is not kept in balance though, we simply end up with another version of the self-help guru concept of God, albeit in a different way – one who seemingly meets our needs and solves all our problems leaving us sort of “sitting on the bench” and possibly keeping us inactive and not accepting responsibility. We need to keep in mind that God’s sovereignty is not the “arbitrary power to make the circle square or evil good. Naked sovereignty leaves us with no confidence in who this God really is and whether God loves us and will be faithful to us.”****** Thankfully though, the Bible teaches us, as Bloesch puts it, “God’s power is manifested not in arbitrary decrees but in sacrificial, other-serving love.” Or to put it bluntly, in Jesus Christ.
Six: God’s Will for Your Life isn’t Really About YOUR life.
The question that has plagued the most people for the longest period of time has to be, “What is God’s will for my life?” But, trying to “find” God’s will presupposes a distinction between God’s “hidden will” and His “revealed will.” According to the Reformers, God providentially rules over the world according to His “hidden” or eternal will, while Jesus only gave us access to God’s “revealed” will in regards to salvation. Therefore, we are left to search for clues (the skeptic would say) in Scripture and experience. If one is not careful it can lead to treating God’s hidden will as some sort of murder mystery to be solved. I am Reformed, by the way, and am describing an issue that can arise if one is careless or fatalist in their view regarding this matter.
Could it be that if we take yet another look at the New Testament it calls into question the idea of two wills in God? We see from Paul, “He [God the Father] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will. . . . With all wisdom and understanding, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and things on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:5, 8–10).
So, is it possible the “mystery” of God’s will is not quite so mysterious after all? Perhaps it is not confined to the remote crevices of eternity but is indeed “made known to us… in Christ.” My point is this, the question about God’s will is not first and foremost about our own lives, it is about HIS life. Therefore, God’s will is not so much a riddle to be solved, it is more a reality that is to be praised and shared.
Seven: It’s Not Simply What You Believe, but also Why and How
whenever we think or talk about God. Since this is true, every person is in some way a theologian. The question that remains is whether or not one will be a thoughtful, responsible theologian or a careless, irresponsible one. Much of the journey on the road of Christian discipleship is learning why we believe, and thinking seriously and carefully about this belief, not so that we can attack others with our knowledge but so that we can be faithful witnesses for God in all areas of our life.
Theology is not so much about the “what,” it’s much more concerned with the “why” and “how.” We are called as Christians not to sign along the dotted line of a certain doctrinal statement but to follow a certain way of life. The goal is not to simply to repeat the words of the wise apostles, prophets, and theologians that have traveled the road before us, but to think and reflect under their teaching about how we get across that same message today.
“Theology is inherently an act of prayer, insofar as we offer up our words and thoughts in service to God in the expectant hope—by the grace of the Holy Spirit—that they will build up the body of Christ. And this prayerful task of theology is never done. Like God’s mercies, it is new every morning.”*******
[Guest Post by Dr. Jeff Hagan, President at True Grace Ministries and Theological Institute]
*This article was inspired by, and highly adapted from, “Ten Reasons Why Theology Matters” by David W. Congdon and Travis McMaken, Christianitytoday.com, Oct. 27, 2016.