January 17, 2021

Standing on My Own Trap Door? or “I’ll Take My Christocentric Theology To Go, Thank You.”

Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

• Ignatius of Loyola

  • God is love. God loves his own glory most of all. God is holy. God pursues his own holiness most of all. God loves human beings. God manifests his glory by saving persons who find their joy in his glory.
  • God is merciful and compassionate, to the praise of his glory and grace. God is righteous. He is a covenant-making, law-giving God. God manifests his glory in the perfect justice that upholds his law. His mercy and holiness are not at odds, but are perfectly joined together.
  • God saves by forgiving sin and imputing righteousness. The imputation of his righteousness is the core of justification by faith alone. The imputation of Adam’s sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness are the double-sides of the Gospel message.
  • The Bible is inerrant, giving us God’s sufficient word in human language. The Bible is without error, and the evident erroneousness and limitation of human language and communication does not hamper the inspiration or effectual spiritual use of scripture.
  • By studying the text of scripture, we may have the mind of Christ and the will of God for all things that pertain to life and faith. We may apply scripture in any area of life with confidence in its truthfulness, including science, politics and law.

• • •

And on and on I could go. I wonder how many readers are already up for a fight? These are the theological arguments, assertions, debates and declarations that make up the evangelical world today. Any one of the above sentences could branch out into a dozen or a hundred other related assertions.

I can’t recall the author (someone in the Wilsonite compound, I think) but I once read someone who portrayed evangelical Christians as people using all their abilities to get other people to agree to evangelistic sentences. The sentences mattered very much; more than almost anything else. Correctly worded sentences, turned into prayers, lectures, books and so on.

Miroslav Wolf said that Christianity carries a life-lived along side its truths-claimed. Saint Francis — and many others — have suggested that the life-lived communicates far more profoundly than the truths claimed, especially if it’s a matter of which shouts the loudest.

One blogger recently lamented the callous behavior of knuckle-headed cage phase Calvinists, and also lamented the theological cynics who act as if theology doesn’t matter. Having been one and constantly suspected of being the other, I liked what he said.

He makes a good point. The knuckle-headed cage phase Calvinist has theological problems as well as human relationship problems with manners, maturity and civility. My experience tells me that the two are more related than we like to think. The person who says that theology and those who live to obsess over it are an unmitigated good seem to be, uh….a bit overly optimistic.

Take, for instance, the seminary student who discovers that one theological system has all the answers he’ll ever need. All he needs is to buy the books, go to the conferences and check the websites. In more than a few cases, it would be best if he simply stopped his education and went home until he’s willing something to learn again. While he’s certain that he’s right, and he’s correcting his professors and working to overthrow any teacher who doesn’t subscribe to his hobby horse theological system, he’s useless as a student and probably off balance as a human being. The wise and the know-it-alls have no reason to learn from those who can’t/won’t/don’t see the light. (Yes, that’s me in the corner….losing my religion…)

The real problem is whether our know-it-all student is still devoted to Jesus and to what Jesus means in his life. No doubt he’ll say that it’s for Jesus’ sake that he’s hassling his professors, pastor and friends. It’s for Jesus sake that minutia now matters more than his anniversary. It’s for Jesus’ sake that theology stirs him and evangelism/church planting need more study. But does Jesus matter? Period?

The competition to make theology the main thing and just about the only thing is quite real. I have two recent letters from an IM reader distressed that I admire John Lennon as an artist. I assured him that I do not admire Lennon’s atheism, but a piece is still out of place. What’s of real interest to me is why my faith and loyalty to Jesus have to be screened through what I think of John Lennon.

The blogosphere version of the game is to select a few paragraphs out of someone’s blog, write your corrections, evaluations and insertions, then turn the comment threads loose to say the really nasty stuff. The public statement will be “here’s an area of disagreement.” The actual title of the show is “So and So Can’t Possibly Believe This and Really Be A Christian because theology matters.” Theology does matter, but how does it matter? How does it matter among those of us who say the same creed, love the same Bible, believe the same Gospel (even if we emphasize different parts of it in differing ways?)

A recent critique of Calvinism suggested there is an aversion to Christocentric theology. Don’t let that one slip by you. It’s a major league charge. I believe there’s an aversion to Christocentric necessity among theology fans of every camp. I don’t believe we can possibly get anywhere past what God has revealed in Jesus, and by Jesus I mean Jesus, not the character currently appearing in someone’s systematic and complete theology under that name.

We can discuss all sorts of sentences, but we can only know God in and through Jesus Christ. By Jesus Christ I mean Jesus of Nazareth, New Testament revealed, Old Testament concealed, actual God-Man Jesus of the Creeds. Not Jesus dressed up as a speaker at your favorite conference or a professor at your favorite seminary or Jesus hovering over your blog nodding with approval.

Jesus gives us the Bible. The Bible gives us texts. Texts give us words. Words give us something to fight about, to make more sentences about and to write more texts about, taking us back to something/someone we call Jesus. But are we on the right path?

This circle is inherently unavoidable, and extremely dangerous. But a devotion to Jesus should make the wide path of circularity avoidable and the narrow path of following the Trinitarian God possible.

I’m more than ever determined to make Jesus the center, the substance and the unavoidable conclusion of my theology. And when it comes to equipping my students with an understanding of the Bible, I’m going to be sure they understand the relative importance of the recipe, the cake and all subsequent opinions of either one.

I figured out long ago that my place in the world of internet theology is going to be decorated with posts saying that I’m throwing out babies with bathwater and I’m sacrificing truth at the expense of unity, etc. The fact is that I’m as theologically opinionated as the next person, but I’m more impressed with Jesus than I am those who write, talk and preach about him.

The single most unnerving thing N.T. Wright says is his frequent confession that he’s fairly sure he’ll one day conclude about a third of his theology was wrong. How you feel about that statement probably says all that needs to be said about the entire subject.

That means I’ll find something critical to say about everyone (starting and ending with me), just to remind myself that there’s only one Jesus who reveals the God who can’t be known otherwise (John 1:18.) And I don’t believe that when the Samaritans believed in Jesus (John 4), the appropriate next step was to set up polemic and apologetic ministries to straighten out the Samaritans on everything they believed that was wrong. Believers in Jesus one day, dangerous emerging liberals the next.

Those Samaritans (and Corinthians and Protestants and Catholics) DID believe plenty that was wrong, and Jesus spoke to it directly, but he wasn’t selling his big book of right answers. He was saying “All of the questions and answers stop right here with ME. I’m the revelation. I’m the temple. I’m the Kingdom. I’m the Messiah. Game over.”

Do I think some theologians get this better than others? Absolutely. My affection for Luther, Capon, etc. is well known and I don’t apologize for it. Do I think any of these points are worth arguing today? Of course. I’ve read Galatians. I know what Paul said about the Judaizers, who looked right at Jesus and said “Nah…..not enough.” Do I put any of my own arguments with fellow Christians on the level of believing in Jesus? Well on that one, I’m going to be very, very, very, very cautious. I’m prepared to err on accepting many of my brothers and sisters who are devoted to Jesus before I’m prepared to proclaim myself the “reformation police” and demand to see a written essay on your theory of imputation before I let you pass.

So, once again, someone can say there’s all that postmodern, emerging, touchy-feely suspicion of truth itself. I’ll answer that Jesus is the truth. The Bible is true. The Creeds are true. The Solas are true. And you’ll say there’s much to argue about to establish all of those things. You may be right, but one thing I’m sure of: The Great Commission wasn’t about theological argumentation, but about proclaiming the Gospel, planting churches and making disciples. As theology helps us do that, it’s useful. When “doing theology” replaces that Great Commission, something is wrong.

When I replace the Great Commission with the Great Ongoing Polemic To Prove My Theology Isn’t Wrong, it’s time to pull over and check the map and see if I’m anywhere close to where I think I am.

Am I standing on my own trap door when I say “Jesus isn’t identical to anyone’s theology and someone says “Without theology, who or what is Jesus?” Possibly. That’s another argument that can go in circles forever. Count me as one who’d like to find a place to stop, rest, and as the carol says, “Now let us all with one accord sing praises to the heavenly Lord.”


  1. Chad Winters says

    Truth Unites… and Divides:

    Can you really not see that you’re habit of constant debate illustrates what motivates posts like this.

    Just once I’d like to see you respond only with:

    “I can really see where you’re coming from and you made me think. You have a good point.”

    I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be offend. The point is there is a time to debate, and a time to empathize, a time to understand.

    If someone is spouting clear heresy, by all means, debate them. But if an obviously clear thinking believer discusses how he feels, within orhtodoxy, it should not spark a polemic argument.

    Benny Hinn needs correction, I would have a hard time not being polemic in his commbox. But I don’t think Michael needed correcting here.

    That’s how I see it anyway

  2. Truth Unites... and Divides says

    Chad Winters,

    Please look at my 11/29/07 comment at 9:16pm. I wrote: “Jared expresses why I winced on rare occasions during my reading of MS’s generally good essay.”

    Generally good essay.

    “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be offend.”

    I appreciate the advance apology. Because despite your claim of not trying, you most certainly did offend.

  3. i sure do love Jesus ! 🙂

  4. Truth Unites... and Divides says

    “What I am saying is this: it may actually be God’s sovereignty that brings about division over the doctrine of God’s sovereignty! This does not mean that wrong belief is always justified. Neither does it mean that we need to be content with agnosticism or lessen our conviction about any doctrinal issue. To the contrary. It means that we engage in it more vigorously than we did before, being confident that God has a dignifying reason for conflict resulting from diversity.”

    I appreciate the perspective offered by C. Michael Patton in his blog post: “Doctrinal Disagreement to the Glory of God” over at Parchment and Pen.