And next up for best blog posts of 2009:
Theology and Its Abuses [May 18, 2009, Andy Patton]
The value of theology is a topic seen before on this blog, but I want to take two posts to speak to the dangers surrounding theology, both in neglecting it on the one hand, and abusing it on the other. The first post will make a case for why theology is something every believer should love dearly. The next will point out some ways that theology can be abused and cause our love to fail.
It can be a difficult topic. Especially right now, when so often you hear the word theology used as if it were a dirty word, as if the Christian life were really about things that theology couldn’t help the believer attain. On the other hand, in making the case for a love for theology, it is easy to fall into the opposite distortion, that of believing that the Christian life is solely about bare knowledge and little else. Theology is the knowledge of God, but in a fallen world even it can be twisted in the hearts of sinful people.
But an answer can be given. The point is not to err on either side, but find the theology that Jesus knew, that made him both incredibly loving and incredibly committed to truth. Living where we do it is easy to forget that those two things are not mutually exclusive, but in the gospel they are not. So pursue that theology. Here are a few other reasons to love theology:
1. We are “bent inwards”: We are fallen people living in a fallen world. We not only sin, but we tend to sin. Left alone we will not remain static, we will slowly deteriorate. It is because of this that the Christian life is meant to be one of repentance, one of constant correction, one of continuous seeking to know the Lord better and more deeply. To stop is to fail. As Jesus said, he is the vine and we are the branches. The only vines that live are the ones that remain in him. In part, this means remaining in theology. Learning to know the Lord better and come to understand his revelation of himself to a greater degree. In a sense, we are living in a river and to stop swimming is to be swept along. Theology is no different.
2. We don’t know what we don’t know: Everyone thinks what they know presently is everything there is to know. Sure we “know” we don’t know everything, but it is easy to think we have basically enough. Then we learn and realize how much we have been missing. The new knowledge really does change the way we live in ways that we are happy to have. It is like living in a large, dark room with a narrow spotlight above you. The light illuminates a circle of ground around you and you make the mistake of thinking that this is all you need, but there are things out there in the darkness that you really need. Then you leave the room and go and live your life, love, suffer, and grow, and then when you return the circle of light has expanded and there are all sorts of wonderful things that you did not know about that are now illuminated. In a sense, you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. The same is true of God, who is infinite and who every new bit of knowledge is our delight. If this is really our human position, why would we not continue pursuing knowledge of the Lord, and trying to make the how much of him we can see expand?
3. Theology is not an abstract concept: The word “theology” is so often synonymous with the word “obsolete” or “elitist.” It is used as a catch all for ideas and concepts that are esoteric or unnecessary. But this is an unfortunate glitch in the language, saying more about us than about theology. Theology is not abstract, it is incredibly practical. To take an example, when I learned more about the sovereignty of God in salvation (sometimes the classic example of theology that doesn’t connect to real life) it changed the way I forgive, the way I pray, the way I suffer, love, date, conflict, hope, plan, shop, etc. It changed everything. There was a connection for me between things that are true of God and the way I could live my life.
4. You cannot avoid making a theological statement: Sometimes just “loving Jesus” is offered as an alternative to getting immersed in theological debates, but even “just loving Jesus” is a theological statement. The point is to follow Jesus, but Jesus is only the starting point and all the 360 degrees to move from that point are only determined by theology. How can you even begin to answer the question of what it means to following Jesus without entering the realm of theology? If you are going to have to do it anyway, you may as well be as sure as possible where you are following him is where he is actually going. Or to put it another way, how could you possibly hope to know how to follow without knowing the beliefs about God that he was following?
5. Theology is reality: 90% of the problem people have with theology and doctrine comes in the definition. It is easy to simply define theology as impractical things that theologians argue about. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? Infralapsarian? Supralapsarian? Etc. However, if you define theology as the Bible seems to most of the problems vanish. The Bible puts theology for as simply the knowledge of the way the world actually is. Theology is reality. If that’s true then it makes no more sense to stop pursuing it than an ostrich putting its head in the sand and imagining it is safe.
6. You can know truly without knowing fully: No, you cannot know everything there is to know about God. Yes, there are areas of theology that are mystery. What else is there to expect when you are dealing with an infinite being and doing your reasoning with a finite mind? This is not a reason not to love theology. Because the sidewalk ends is no reason not to walk to the end of it, especially if your right worship of God depends on going as far as you can. Sometimes you will even be asked to take a step over the edge and trust that, though the jurisdiction of your reasoning has come to an end, you will still be upheld. Because we cannot know God fully does not mean that we cannot know God truly. I would say that I know my friends, but not that I know everything there is to know about them. God has revealed himself to us in our own language. He speaks to us in ways we can understand and tells us things that we can trust are true.
7. We are commanded to: Simply put, the Bible is full of commands to persevere in our effort to understand God better. It is filled with warnings of the danger to those who do not. It calls those who would teach lies wolves hungry to devour the flock. It calls those who would teach faithfully shepherds willing to lay down their lives for the flock. Paul warns Timothy to persevere in his doctrine because doing so would save himself and his hearers. It is difficult to put it in higher terms than the Bible puts it.
8. Theology is a mosaic: If theology is reality and it is practical, then theology is a mosaic. It is not about “accessories” vs. “the basics.” Rather, each piece, like a mosaic, brings us closer to seeing more clearly the face of the father. Because theology is practical the shape of the theology is the shape of your life, because your life flows down out of your picture of God. We spend our lives placing bits of understanding on that mosaic and growing in our understanding of who God is. That is the work of theology and the grace of it. It is the promise that God has revealed himself and when we come to know and worship him rightly our lives will flourish.
See part two of this post on theology here.