July 9, 2020

When You’ve Read My 800 Page Theology Book, The Bible’s Simple Meaning Will Be Obvious

answer.jpgEvery so often, I entertain the notion that if the theologians would leave us alone, Christians would get along quite differently.

I know someone- actually a lot of someones- are going to tell me that Christians will divide over the color of the carpet without the help of any theologians, and that is certainly true. Once personalities and agendas get involved, divisions take on a life of their own. I know, I know.

But I still can’t help but notice that the big divisions, the really big ones, are made into what they are with the able and capable assistance of theological types who operate on the authority granted them by the fact that they know so much more than the rest of us.

I have a friend who’s going through a reaction to Protestant theology in general. I originally surmised I was watching a typical conversion to Rome, but I was wrong. Instead, my friend is going through a postmodern, Mclaren-esque revulsion to theological battles in general. In the relatively non-polemical atmosphere of post Vatican II Catholic spirituality (I know, I know), the focus is on the church’s prayer, worship, practice and unity. It IS attractive, and even though the RCC actually has more polemical requirements than any other church in existence, and hard line RC apologists are proliferating like kudzu, it doesn’t surprise me at all that from my friend’s seat in mass, it appears that the Christian life is simply being lived and God worshiped, no nasty, divisive, polemics in view. (A good history lesson would dissolve this illusion in the memory of certain unpleasant episodes of Catholic persecution of other Christians, but in the cool light of post Vatican II Catholicism, my friend is released from having to decide if history and theology matters more than the feeling that God comes near in the sacraments.)

My friend is looking for a kind of Christianity where, for example, he can hear the words of instituting the Lord’s Supper and believe whatever he wants about those words. I have to admit the idea has always been attractive to me as well, and gets more attractive the more I read explanations of the presence of Christ in the supper that a NASA engineer couldn’t understand. When Aristotle, long Latin phrases and explanations of the properties of matter according to various theories of physics come on board, I find myself wondering if we are talking about anything that has to do with Jesus. Jesus gave this to Galilean fisherman. He chose his words carefully, and he didn’t say “exhaustively understand it.” He said “do it” and “remember me.”

Did the disciples know how this related to the living Christ in front of them? Did they understand its connection to the Gospel? When the Holy Spirit illuminated their minds, how much theology behind the words of Jesus did they know?

Don’t get me wrong. I believe the divisions among Christians over issues like the Lord’s Supper, baptism and the church are inevitable because of the nature of the Biblical text and the nature of tradition. But I don’t believe those divisions become what they have become without the work of theologians. When I discover that an 800 page book actually explains why those who differ from me are going to hell, then the entire nature of the division changes.

Let’s try some illustrations.

When I was in high school, I was part of a fellowship of Christians made up of high school students from different church backgrounds: Methodists, Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Pentecostal.

Now, we were all quite ignorant in comparison to any competent theologian, but we were aware of our differences. For high school kids, we knew a lot about our traditions and the teachings of our church. We knew our stuff well enough to have many a long discussion on the issues that divided us.

What is interesting to me, however, is that we worshiped together, prayed together, studied the Bible together, served together, witnessed together, fellowshipped together and generally were family to one another without much difficulty. Several of us had a “revival team” that was invited to various churches to do music, testimonies and so on. It never occurred to us that our differences should divide us of the level of actually being disciples together in our high school.

I know you will say the divisions would become inevitable when we eventually had to focus on something like Baptism or the Supper, but I’m naive enough to think that we could have found a way to be divided without losing our unity and our life together.

It would take church structures, schools, preachers and theologians to finally pull us apart.

Second illustration. The ministry where I work is founded on the legacy of two men, both dead, and their vision of ministry in the mountains through education. Now the second man, whose vision defines our recent history, died since I have been working here. He was a larger-than-life character and his life and words could fill a movie or a large book.

Since he died, there are several points of view on what it means to “follow” him in the work of our school. We share the “tradition” of his life and work, but there is no “scripture” that authoritatively seals his legacy in print.

There are, however, differences among us as to what it means to follow this man. Deep differences. Perhaps one day, they will prove divisive to our work, but I am hopeful that will never happen. I am hopeful that we will faithfully pass on the essentials of his vision and not encode what his life and example “meant” in a scholarly way. I truly pray that no one becomes such an expert on his life and significance that they can write an 800 page book and prove that half of us are “lost.”

I’d like to continue doing what he did, hold to the essentials and not be divided unless it is essentially necessary.

But I’m a dreamer.

Maybe the divisions among us are necessary. Maybe we need theologians and preachers doing polemics, telling us all the truth that they have access to as scholars; the truth he ordinary Christian can’t see in an English translation read in a contemporary context. Maybe we need to understand just how wrong other views are in comparison to the truth “rightly understood.”

Or maybe we could stop a lot sooner and find ways to be one in Christ, even when we disagree. Perhaps we could do the work of Jesus in such a way that the differences you only see after you’ve studied them for years don’t stop you from being the church, as much as possible, together.

As I said, I’m a dreamer. But it’s a good dream and I’m staying with it.

Comments

  1. We recently had a member of our church leave because he found no affirmation in our denomination’s statement of faith of eternal security (C&MA). There are many Calvinists in our denomination, probably well more than a majority, and our senior pastor is a Calvinist. I believe all of our elders are Calvinistic. I am the associate pastor and I ride the fence. 🙂

    At any rate he decided to leave because he couldn’t support a denomination that didn’t clearly support eternal security. He is also fiercely dispensational.

    All that to say, I wish that he could have continued fellowshipping with us despite very minor theological differences. He and his wife have a beautifully compelling testimony, obvious love for our Lord, and were becoming more involved in the life of this local body… until they found out about this one ommission.

    It’s sad that such petty things divide (and yes, I think it’s petty in light of the fellowship that we should all enjoy because of Christ). I think of 1 Corinthians 13 in light of this reoccurring divisive theme in our churches.

  2. Theologians
    They don’t know nothing
    About my soul
    About my soul

    -Wilco

  3. Did theologians exist in the 1st century?

    Because I think there were divisions among christians since 1st century.

  4. Good post. Looks like we’ve been thinking about similar things lately. Check out what I wrote last weekend on a related topic.

    Jim

  5. Well put, Michael. I’ve been thinking about things somewhat along these lines, too, as a result of some of my Thomas Merton reading. In Zen and the Birds of Appetite Merton discusses Experience versus Theology and it seems that this is the dichotomy you talk about. To use the Lord’s Supper as an example, my take on it is that on the one hand you can think about and analyze and dissect the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and on the other hand you can experience the Lord’s Supper. I think the former prevents the latter, in a way, because the former tries to dictate how you should experience or what you should experience. And so you get all wrapped up in expectations or conforming to ritual that the experience, itself, slips by unnoticed.

    Now, the theology is innately divisive and the experience is innately not divisive. If all you have is the theology — the analysis and dissected remains of the Lord’s Supper — then that’s the only measure of commonality which you have and so naturally you want to associate with those adhering to the same thinking. But if you have the experience itself, then it doesn’t matter. The commonality is the experience; you are experiencing the Lord’s Supper and so is the other person.

    Now, I’m not saying that all theology is bad or useless. But I am saying that theology should be secondary to experience. As you said:

    Jesus gave this to Galilean fisherman. He chose his words carefully, and he didn’t say “exhaustively understand it.” He said “do it” and “remember me.”

    Jesus’ focus was on the experience and not on the theology of what was taking place.

    Theology does come in very handy when you want to share your experience with someone else. It can be very difficult to verbalize experience (at least verbalize beyond phrases like “that was cool” or “that was beautiful” or “wow”) and that’s where theology comes into the picture. But it should an (attempted) explanation of the experience and not a definitive how-to that defines the experience.

  6. Greg Long says

    Frankly, I’m extremely thankful for godly theologians who throughout history have helped us “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and to confront “ignorant and unstable” people who “twist [Scripture] to their own destruction.”

    Didn’t Paul “systematically” develop doctrines in his writings?

  7. Michael,

    You said: “When Aristotle, long Latin phrases and explanations of the properties of matter according to various theories of physics come on board, I find myself wondering if we are talking about anything that has to do with Jesus. Jesus gave this to Galilean fisherman. He chose his words carefully, and he didn’t say “exhaustively understand it.” He said “do it” and “remember me.””

    I think you are absolutely correct. This is another danger inside the church today. Many of us are still functional modern rationalist who have to have a complete and rational/reasonable argument for everything we believe. These are the fruits of the enlightenment still playing their part.

    But, at some point, especially with the Supper, we have to say “yes, there is a certain amount of mystery involved in Christ’s presence in the Supper.” At some point in our Theology we come up against those wonderful things that God hasn’t revealed to us, and then speculation comes in. So, we have to avoid the danger of rationalism: that everything has to have an explanation.

    But, on the other hand, the more clearly we know and understand God, the more we know who he is and who he is not. Piper calls this seeing God with “edges.” When we clearly define who God is, i.e. give him clear edges, then we can see that this God is worth dying for and this God alone is worthy of or praise and worship.

  8. I always told my wife that if I went for a doctorate to shoot me. Too many who I encountered were more reliant on their knowledge then their knees. But here I am, going for it, and she hasn’t shot me yet.
    When I look at John Pipers text on the use of the word slave in the NT and the incorrect translation as servant in almost 124 cases, I see the need for a scholar to come along and point the way to great depths of spirituality throught he text itself. Do we need more than Edwards, Calvin, Luther and Augustine, when most contemporaries freely lift from them right and left? I think so. But we sure are making it difficult for ourselves.

  9. Michael,

    It has just become to fashionable to engage in a bit of heresy hunting. I’ce written on the subject before, but suffice to say that the identification of heresy is a very, very serious issue. In my analysis, we should not define heresy unless it can be clearly shown that the teaching is contra – scripture, and contra the historic (unified) church’s understanding and exposition of the Scripture as present (for instance) in the three ecumenical creeds etc.

    But the more relevant issue is why people write 800 page books defining whatever. I think there is a deep, psychological need to do so, because we place our trust and faith in our doctrine, not in Christ. In the protestant world it often takes the form in “justification by believing in justification by faith”, instead of justification by faith (in Christ). This pattern is repeated in high Church as well as low Church. And because our security is in our doctrine, and not in Christ, we defend it like the blazes. That is the wrong use of doctrine – our doctrine should point to Christ, but many Tr’s and others today have Christ pointing to our doctrine.

  10. Well said. I’m with you. You can’t control what you don’t understand, and most of us are so uncomfortable with the slightest bit of mystery in our theology that we try to master it through our endless analyses and scientific formulations, rather than letting the gospel master us. It’s too bad really.

  11. ron fournier says

    the rcc has sacred tradition and the magesterium along with sacred scripture to hold things together and give authority, the other churches in some ways run the risk of an emotivism in the sens that hat they say now is true thus leading to conflict and misunderstanding. although the rcc may cause some to quiver their writings do ring true.
    ron

  12. Wow, great thinking on this topic.

    http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org

  13. Scholaster says

    This is just an impression from my own experience, but I blame theologians less than some ordinary churchgoers for unnecessary doctrinal divisions.

    Most of the theologians I read are pretty enthusiastic about the idea of cross-denominational Christian unity. Meanwhile, I’ve known people in Baptist churches who can’t even define “sacrament” yet are quite certain that most Catholics are going to hell.

    That said, I do also know of a whole lot of seminary graduates who seem awfully eager to excommunicate each other. But in the end, what else can we expect from a religion that makes having the right set of doctrinal beliefs the prerequisite entrance into heaven?

  14. Consigning one to the pits of hellfire is the responsibility of God. I also seem to recollect Jesus once told someone that if we judge someone we will be judged likewise. One might think that simple caution would prevent folks from the hubris of claiming moral authority. It might also allow us all to live alongside one another gentilely in our differences.

  15. Bob Sacamento says

    This post would have really bugged several years ago, when I was young and enthusiastic and held to a rationalist, Francis Schaeffer kind of faith. But in the intervening years, i have seen believers get mad at each other, and get puffed up at their own intelligence, because of the stupidest “doctrinal issues.” So I have alot of sympathy for this post, though I think that the absence of theology would probably lead to even more disunity, with believers whining, “You’re trying to invalidate my personal experience!” I don’t where the balance lies. I like what C.S. Lewis said, though: We need good theology because we can be sure that we will always have bad theology.

  16. Several of you aren’t getting your comments approved, and I want to be clear why.

    If you are going to be a wise ass, snarkily taunting evangelicals from your sacramentalist superiority complex, do it on your blog. We all know about “is” and we all know the hundreds of instances where “is” isn’t “is.” So you are wasting your time treating the other posters on any thread on the sacraments asif they were stupid.

    Start your own blog, or I can send you to some that are on that song 24/7.

  17. bythegraceofGodinChrist says

    I don’t find any obvious answers on this one.

    Alternatives seem to be along the lines of

    1) Hone doctrine as though God is also in the details, and be castigated for being too persnickety by half.
    2) Let doctrine be damned, and be nice to virtually everyone, making sure never to give voice to theological imperatives (aka judge).
    3) Harbor secret doctrinal beliefs.
    4) Love. And do your worst.

    Is there something I’m overlooking. (I hope)

  18. Mairnéalach says

    The hard, incontrovertible fact is that most Christians do not believe Jeremiah 31:34. Oh, they might pay it some pious platitudes, but they will kill it with the death of a thousand qualifications, as they do so many other texts.

    Quite a few of these are ones who call themselves “biblical Christians”. The irony resounds.

    Theology has one purpose–expounding upon how good God is, and how bountiful his gifts are, and how worthy of trust he is. If a child can’t appreciate it, the trash heap can have it. It will only send people to hell.

    But, as Paul said, “as long as Christ is being proclaimed”. God apparently is content to use vainglorious fools just to get the word out. Such a shame so many of them won’t see heaven themselves, but at least they may ignite a spark in someone who actually wants Jesus, instead of a power trip.

  19. Michael,

    I’m a sacramentalist, and I might well be one of those people “on that song 24/7.” You might also know that I’m a communicant of Saint Pat’s in Lexington, and one of the things that I appreciate about our liturgy is that there doesn’t seem to be a heavy demand on our people affirming incredibly specific things about what they are consuming. I’m not a fan when people refer to That which sits upon the altar after the consecration as “bread,” but do you know what else I believe about the Sacrament? I am convinced that it’s a gracious action whereby God further actualizes what began in baptism: we are one in Jesus Christ, and are being made one in Jesus Christ. That means I suck it up and learn to deal.

    Richard Hooker urged his contemporaries to back off on the debates as to what rested on the altar.

    One of the things I appreciate about your writings on this matter is that I hear you imply something something that I try to make explicit, that “it’s the eschatology, stupid” (ahem). The most important thing about our celebration of the Eucharist (or scandalous lack thereof) is whether and how we welcome what God wishes to do in us and to us by our participation.

    At the same time, I could not in good conscience share in the Lord’s Supper with many evangelical friends at their churches, because I would be subjected to, along with the words of institution, an interpretive gloss that specifically disaffirms the notion of any sacramental grace being conveyed through the instruments of bread and wine.

    We would do well to remember that needless and divisive theologizing (falsely called) can and does go both ways.

  20. John Richie says

    As believers and theologians…all of us trying to come to a greater knowledge and experience of God…keeping a balance between what we know and what we do is a wonderful antidote for unnecessary and uncharitable division. By actually living in community, serving the least fortunate and loving unbelievers, we are supernaturally led away from the knowledge that puffs up and toward practical wisdom from our heavenly father that leads us to love and support. At the same time, the balanced life will give us the courage and the clarity to divide when essentials have been breached.

  21. (Mairnéalach: most Christians believe that what Jeremiah 31 decribes is still in the future. There is absolutely no irony in “Bible-believing Christians” not applying NOW a passage they believe to apply to a future age.)

    My general reaction to Michael’s post: I see as much divisiveness stemming from those who are IGNORANT about what other Christians actually believe as I see from theologians.

    Disunity is a function of sinful human nature. Those who know a lot will make their knowledge an excuse for division. Those who know little will still find reasons for divisions.

    One thing that has struck me about the renewed debate sparked by the recent Vatican document on the nature of the Church is that all the insulted reactions stem from a wrong understanding of the ecumenical enterprise.

    We will never achieve true unity by sweeping existing differences under the carpet or otherwise pretending that they don’t exist, nor by pressuring people into giving up sincerely held convictions because they are somehow an obstacle to unity.

    Rather, we need to start appreciating the areas where we already agree, and work and fellowship together as much as possible. Where there are differences, we need to acknowledge them RESPECTFULLY, ascribing neither ill intent nor lack of intelligence or spiritual insight to those who differ from us. Above all, we need to pray to the Father, with the Lord of the Church, that the spiritual unity which is already true of all His children would become more and more manifest in visible ways.

    But I am not holding my breath waiting for institutional or organizational unity; I think that’s the least important aspect of it, anyway.

  22. That’s one thing I like about the Orthodox. They seem to be happy to admit that something is a mystery. Luther also did that – some things he claimed he cannot explain, we must just believe (don’t ask me for the exact quote, though).