The words “theology” and “doctrine” can make people today cringe. They bring up associations of arrogance and pride, of theological divisions that cause disharmony within the church, of “ingrow-ness” and arguments that mean little to those outside the church. In general there is a distrust that theology can actually make people more humble and more loving, a sense that “knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” and never the twain shall meet.
The great sadness of the association in people’s minds between theology and arrogance is that theology ought to make us incredibly patient, loving, and humble. After all, doesn’t Christian theology boil down to simply learning about Jesus, who perfectly embodied those characteristics? Because of this, if theology makes a person proud, the fault is in the theologian, not theology itself. There are massive spiritual resources in Christian theology that point those who would know God towards humility and love. Here are just a few:
1. The Bible teaches that each person is an object of God’s love and care. At every moment in their lives, they are the receiver of God’s good gifts. He has given them life and gladness and everything else. God patiently is leading all of us through a process realization, and continues to give his people gifts despite their misunderstandings of him. If he treats people like this with such a greater understanding of where they disbelieve and misunderstand him than we have of each other, can we not do the same?
2. Each person is made in the image of God, as such they are the bearers of glory, dignity, and honor. Our interaction with one another must always reflect that. There are no people whom we may allow ourselves to treat with disdain or contempt. As C. S. Lewis said, “Your neighbor is the most holy object presented to your senses.” As we come to understand that more and more we will not abuse one another with our knowledge. People are more than just ideas – we are people made in the image of God – and we should not view them simply through the lens of their ideas, but through the lens of their creation.
3. The gospel is essentially the story of how we also have received gifts, how everything we have has been given to us because we could not obtain it on our own. That’s what makes being proud of theological knowledge so ironic! The Bible says that even that knowledge is a gift from God, and, apart from the Spirit’s work on our lives we would not only not understand the knowledge of God, we would hate it and flee it.
4. Jesus was not short with people, rather, he became incarnate in their lives. Jesus taught people and corrected people – humble theology does not mean you release truth or the desire for people to believe truth. Jesus knew far more about where the people around him fell short than we ever will about anyone in our lives but did not see that as grounds to make them feels less than. Their misunderstandings of him drew him to them in love, not the opposite. He came to save the lost and to heal the sick. When we come across people who may grossly misunderstand the God of the Bible, it should draw us also to them in love and service, in the manner of the one who not only corrected people’s ideas through teaching, but gave his life so they might be given what they needed most desperately, himself.
5. Christianity throws the door open on the amount of total knowledge because it says that the universe was made by an infinite God. Because God is infinite the amount that we know about him is always infinitely outweighed by the amount that we do not know about him. This should not lead us to adopt the mentality that God is unknowable, because he has spoken – he has revealed himself in language that we can understand (and an infinite God would be able to communicate clearly to his creations) (he made them, after all). As Francis Schaeffer has written, “We cannot know him fully, but we can know him truly.” So we should have a high confidence in our ability to know true things about God, as well as a high humility. Knowing God is not like knowing geometry because he is an infinite field of study, and it will be our delight to spend eternity in Heaven continually learning new things about him. In view of that, it seems silly to be proud of our knowledge of theology, as if we had come to a stopping point and had finished the course.
6. All truth is God’s truth, this lets us pursue the knowledge of God wherever it is found, even if it is not in the “camps” the come with Christian labels. Some time ago a friend experienced a profound spiritual crisis because he was shaken up by the sheer weight of truth and loveliness outside of things which hold the label “Christian” to the point that he was truly considering giving up the Christian faith. It seemed to him that if Christianity is too small to contain all truth, then he must find a larger worldview. In the end, however, he came out of it with a greater commitment to the Christian worldview, not a lesser one because he realized that all truth is God’s truth. If that is true then we should expect to find truth that belongs to God in places we might not expect to find it. We should expect to find it in people we speak with who are not believers and in places that are (as far as they know) completely secular. God has scattered his truth abroad and given his creations an instinctive love for it. If this is true then it leads us not to beat people into our camps and into worldviews with Christian labels, but to see the truth that they love is really God’s truth and to interact with them on that basis.
7. People are full of “wiggle room.” Most people’s beliefs are an incredibly complex web. When we abuse people with our theology it is often because we over-simplify what they believe, or over-simplify the process of becoming committed to a belief. We are not monolithic doctrinal statements, we are people.
8. Our beliefs rise out of the stories of our lives. Our experiences shape what we can naturally understand and what is easy to believe. Some experiences can act as an open doorway for a certain understanding of God. Others as a fortified castle gate, making that person extremely resistant to what we are saying. It is inconsiderate to try to fit people into molds without trying to first understand where they have come from. God himself is leading each individual we will talk to through a story that he has prepared for them. Again, this leads us to approach people with humility and patience and with more questions than answers until we come to understand them.