September 20, 2020

You Need To Get Rid of Some Of Your Theology

Some of you won’t like what I’m about to say, but trust me, I’m not shooting at you. I’m not shooting at anyone. I’m trying to be pastoral, if there’s any hope that I have any pastoral instincts left.

Here’s the word: Some of us need to let go of some of our theology.

***bottle flies through air***

No, seriously. Some of us need to get to the trash can and empty out some of what’s in the theology file.

***tomato in flight***

Some of you people have got some seriously bad theology, and it’s stinkin’ up your life.

***pitchforks and torches sighted***

I’m telling you this for your own good. Some- not all- but some of what you’re holding on to so tenaciously is messing you up. It may be messing up your life, the lives of others and its going to spread to your children and those you minister to.

***angry voices***

Looks like I better get this said before the rocks start flying.

I believe what Christians believe. It’s what my life is founded on.

My Christian faith is like a map. It tells me where I am, who I am, where I’ve been, where I’m going and what it’s all about.

But I don’t believe everything Christians teach. I don’t believe everything I used to believe. Maybe it’s my own critical, skeptical nature. Maybe it’s the “sola scriptura” Protestant in me. Maybe it’s living awhile and drawing some conclusions. Maybe it’s learning something about what matters.

Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit.

Or maybe, as some of you will conclude, I’m some kind of post modern jellyfish who quits the team when things get tough. One of those post-evangelical emerging liberals who prefers a big hug to a good systematic theology lecture.

I don’t understand our loyalty to things that make God so unlike the one who revealed God on earth. Why we take on whole planks of Christianity that Jesus wouldn’t endorse or recognize.

Personal reference. When I discovered that God wasn’t going to stop something that I believed with all my heart and mind he had to stop, I was really pulled up short. My “map” was well worn with 30+ years of telling who I was and what God was supposed to do for me.

And now, I was discovering that my map was flawed. I’d believed it, and I had a choice. I could deny what was happening around me, in me and in others.

Or I could throw out some theology.

That meant admitting some of my teachers were wrong. Or at the least, didn’t know all there was to know.

It meant that some of what I was sure God had showed to me wasn’t God at all. It was me, or someone else.

I was wrong. My theology was wrong. My collection of Bible verses was wrong.

I hadn’t quite arrived. I didn’t have all the answers.

Part of my misery in the situation I was facing was my collection of theology.

There’s a moment when you realize things aren’t as certain as you thought they were. It’s a scary moment, and you want to blame someone. This collection of verses, statements and opinions was supposed to keep this from happening. The right theology was supposed to keep the sky from falling; it was supposed to keep the trap doors from opening up under my feet.

It makes more than a few people angry to hear that following Jesus is less like math and more like white water rafting. It’s less like writing down the right answers to a test and more like trusting yourself into the hands of a doctor. It’s less like standing on concrete and more like bungee jumping.

It’s less like what you think it is and lot more like something you never thought about.

Some of you have been beating your head against the wall of your bad theology for years. You’ve beaten your head against that wall until you aren’t a very pleasant person to be around. You’ve made yourself and some other people miserable. You’ve been like the Pharisees: you gave others the burden you’d chosen to carry and more. You’ve taken your misery and made others more miserable.

You’ve blamed others. You’ve silently accused God. You’ve sat there, arrogantly, insisting that you were right no matter what was happening. You’ve sought out arguments to assure yourself that you were right.

But the whole time, there was the trash, and some of that trash was theology that needed to go.

I’ve thrown out some of my theology, and I haven’t replaced it all. As much as I would like to know the answer to some questions, I’ve concluded I’m not going to know the answer to them all. I’ve concluded that lots of the theology I’ve been exposed to and taught falls considerably far shorter of perfection than I ever imagined. Some of it hasn’t served anyone very well. Some of it was nothing more than my way of jumping on a passing bandwagon.

The other day, someone who knew a bit about me wrote me to question why I didn’t believe in “limited atonement.” He wanted my verses and my theology. He wanted me to debate, and if he won, to adopt his theology.

I couldn’t explain myself very well to this questioner. My reasons aren’t all about verses. They are about who God is; who I believe God shows himself to be in Jesus. It’s biblical, but it’s also existential. It’s about the shape and flavor of truth, not about who wins the debate.

I can’t bend my faith into the shape of a “limited atonement” Jesus. And I can’t explain that. I only know that I needed to throw that away, because it was shaping me and my world in a way that was taking me away from Jesus.

I don’t expect anyone to understand. It’s inside of me that, ultimately, his song has to ring true. If you can’t hear it, that doesn’t mean I don’t. Having everyone else tell me all about the music was taking away my desire to sing. And I am here to sing, not study music.

I’m pretty sure my questioner wrote me off because I wouldn’t sign up. That’s OK. I respect him, but here me clearly: I don’t need my theology — my opinion of my theology especially — to be that important. It’s unhealthy.

I believe a lot of things. I could teach through a course on theology without any problems. But the difference between myself now and myself in the past is that much of that theology is less essential than it used to be. It does not equal God and I won’t speak as if it does. I won’t pretend that my own thoughts about God are the place I ought to stop and announce what God is always thinking and doing.

Hopefully, it’s going to be a lot easier to have a theological housecleaning. In the future, I don’t plan to fall for the flattery that I’ve never changed my mind or said “I don’t know.”

I know. That’s me. The way too emotional, way too flexible, over-reacting Internet Monk. Baptist one day. Calvinist the next. Catholic tomorrow. Talking about being “Jesus shaped,” whatever that means.

And that’s my trash can in the corner, and what you’re smelling is what I finally threw out.

It was long overdue.

By the way, guess what? I’m still here, believing. Following Jesus, loving Jesus, wanting more of Jesus than ever before.

I don’t recommend my path be your path. I only ask if you’ve opened yourself to the possibility that a spiritual renovation in your life can’t keep all the old junk. Yes, you may upset someone or some important, self-validating group. You may, for a moment, wonder if you know who you are and where you are. It may frighten you to consider that Brother so and so or a sincere family member were wrong.

You may not be excited to discover that all that accumulated trash does not equal God.

I hope that soon you are excited. I am sad to see and hear some of you involved with a God that increasingly holds you hostage in a theological extortion scheme.

That’s not the God who came to us in Jesus. It’s not.

There’s more. He is more. Your journey is more.

Comments

  1. And all God’s people say AMEN!

  2. Sometimes what I think is Godly turns out to be crap, and what I think is crap turns out to be Godly.

  3. wow

  4. You are right.

    Many of you need to alter your theology as it is not biblical as I see it, and if not actually heretical, is contrary to what I as a good Berean know. I am so glad I am not like so many of you who are Pharisees in your theology. I know MY eschatology, soteriology, beliefs on baptism, creation, politics etc. are correct. Why can the rest of you not drop your incorrect beliefs and be more like me.

    At this point I will turn off my SARCASM.

    I need to examine my theology and be more aware and understanding of, even if not agreeing with, others who also believe the basics of Christianity.

  5. Yes and amen. Thank you for saying what I’ve felt for a long time. And I think many more people need to come to this conclusion. It would cut down on the arguing. In addition to some of our theology, we need to also put down some of our labels. We get much too caught up in proving that we are conservative or orthodox or evangelical or postmodern or emergent…you get my point.

  6. This is great way to explain the difference I spoke about regarding a first order reality and a second order reality in the previous post.

    Thanks Imonk!

  7. And therein, Michael, I stand, my theological/religous house of cards down in a heap all around me. Almost went athiest over it all–more agnostic and skeptical, now.

    What gives? Where do we go from here?

  8. “I don’t recommend my path be your path. I only ask if you’ve opened yourself to the possibility that a spiritual renovation in your life can’t keep all the old junk.”

    determining what is and what is not junk is the hard part.

  9. Michael:

    Much of what you write here resonates with me. But what I have found to be the antidote is more, not less theology. With more comes (hopefully) better that exposes the bad and not only forces it out but replaces it. In one sense it could be argued that your unreplaced theology is itself theological. The theological task is unavoidable to believers.

    Press on,
    tom

  10. Kenny Johnson says

    I know that I can get arrogant about some of the things I believe. God is usually quick to humble me though. I do try to though be “always reforming.” That is, I think my own understanding of things needs to be fluid — or better yet, malleable. However, I need to anchor it also, so that it doesn’t move too far from the truth.

    I know that I need to not hold on to things so tightly, because if I’m wrong, then who can ever move me to the correct place?

  11. So, we find ourselves with our feet planted firmly in midair. There, the only thing to do is trust God, follow Jesus in what we know about him today, and let the Holy Spirit continue to work–or maybe better, try to discern where the Holy Spirit is indeed at work. We all may be, or need to be, more agnostic than we ever believed that we would be. We simply don’t know nearly as much as some of our more/most certain brothers/sisters do. But we do know Jesus!

  12. Yikes! Even this RC can feel that bite. Maybe I’ll go sit in the corner for a while and think about how I might walk humbly with God.

  13. David Higginbotham says

    And the hits just keep on coming!!

    Tough to hear…tougher to do!

    This is why I keep coming back to hear what you have to say…it’s also amazing how often I hear Father talking at the same time.

    The thing I appreciate the most is that you did not provide a list for me to consider!

    Godspeed…

  14. Many will say “well said and true”, including me, and yet we are the same ones that type mile-long responses as we debate issues like complementarianism.

  15. Another big AMEN! Your journey sounds similar to mine – Free Methodist -> Charismaniac -> Calvinist -> ???. I’ve had more than one of those “I don’t know who I am” moments, but I survived – and learned that God is bigger than my theology, or who I think I am, or what I believe. The older I get, the less I know, the less I’m sure of.

    One of the biggest things I’ve drawn from Calvinism is grace – I don’t have to think perfectly, do perfectly, believe perfectly for God to love and accept me.

    As I get less concerned with having my theology and behavior right, I’m discovering more how little I know Jesus himself. The next step looks like some kind of “Jesus Shaped Spirituality” …

  16. “Jesus is less like math and more like white water rafting”
    Really liked this line. Gonna go chew on it like a Redman plug.

  17. Tom A:

    I did a search to make sure I never told anyone they needed less. I said they need to dispose of some of what they have. Whether they need to acquire more/better is another post.

    I sat with a fellow today whose theology is literally destroying him. Every Calvinist I know would tell this fellow to hit the trash can with what he believes God MUST do.

    If I had determined that everything I believed 2 years ago was equally essential and healthy, God knows what I would be.

    You, my friend, are the finest example I know of theology doing someone good. Have mercy on those of us who are not quite that good an example. Some of us have acquired some theology that needs to be shot and removed asap.

    I always found the theology of the Founders to be the good stuff. (Except for the L, but small difference) 🙂

    peace and great respect

    mspencer

  18. Michael said, “And I am here to sing, not study music.” Me too, Michael! May God help me (and all of us) to trust in the love and mercy of God, to not be afraid, and to sing for all we are worth. Jesus has shown us that we are worth very much.

  19. It’s funny that one hears, “I am put a humble sinner, viewing God as through a glass, darkly… but here is EXACTLY what God wants us to do and what you HAVE TO BELIEVE.”

    Perhaps more emphasis on humility would make in-roads but perhaps not. Many seem expert at holding conflicting views in their heads at one time. Once again, the best strategy may be witnessing by action. When asked about a contentious issue, respond with, “I don’t think that we can know the answer to that?” Hopefully, the inquisitor would not simply turn to Rick Warren for answers.

  20. I’ve made a specific effort to go to a church in which I’m not in complete agreement with most of the leadership and membership theologically. Nothing major or heretical, but enough that I have to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut sometimes.

    I’ve done that so I won’t go overboard, so that I’ll learn to keep my mouth shut and listen sometime, so that I’ll be in a place that will challenge my thinking and force me to reexamine myself regularly. Doing that has prevented me from teaching some things I have believed and do believe. But it has also prevented me from teaching some things that I did believe and no longer believe.

    I think any time we gain some new theological knowledge, we should keep it to ourselves for a while. Study it more, read more about it, listen to opposing viewpoints, and just sit on it. See if it sticks. See if it’s more than a passing fad or thought. Don’t be so quick to jump on the train. And don’t be so slow to throw it away if we need to.

  21. For me the epiphany of “theological trash” came when I began to see theology, from Reform to Conservative to Liberal, as only a “best guess” from the theologians. They read scripture, studied the world around them and then presented their “best guess.”

    Martin Luther offered his “best guess” as do the expounders of Calvinist, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Feminist, Socialist and Neo-Orthodox theologies.

    Once I stopped equating my “best guess” with truth, I began to discover who I truly was as a person and even began to understand who God is through Christ.

    It has been humbling.

  22. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. ” 1 Corinthians 3:2

    Apparently, the amount of food isn’t what changes but rather, the consistency of it. Might take a little longer to chew.

  23. “Wonder”, “Amazement”, “Astonishment”, “Marvel”- All of these speak of my God. These words are full of questions, not answers. And I find personally, that there are less and less answers and more and more questions. Sometimes the questions are painful, because they reveal my own ignorance. They shake my world in ways I wasn’t expecting. And all this doesn’t fair well with the prideful “me” that I am. Yet in all the questions, painful as they may be, God reveals Himself as being sooo much bigger than I first thought, or second thought or third thought… and so I think it will be throughout the ages. Knowing more? – yes, but seeing more clearly the infinite.
    So yes, there is a lot of trash Theology here too. God forgive me of the pride of having it all figured out.

  24. John from Down Under says

    The most common emotions I feel when I visit some theology blogs are frustration and anger. (The curator of one them was URL-linked from your home page a few days ago, I’m glad it’s no longer there) I am not accustomed to being as deeply moved as I was after I read your post. It is reminiscent of Solomonic reflections (a la Ecclesiastes). Is there a way we can force-spam it into those ‘prominent’ theology sites around the blogosphere??? They can all do with a good dose of this honesty.

    So if I hear you correctly you have entertained more ‘epistemic humility’ lately and gone to the next step of house cleaning. You’ve reconciled with the life shattering notion that some of your past theology may not be as airtight or hermetically sealed as you initially thought. How can that NOT be healthy?

    Some of the toxic theology you described has so over-intellectualized and academized (my spell checker doesn’t like it but I’m using it anyway) the Christian faith, that has totally dehumanized Jesus and his gospel. It is refreshing to read a phrase like prefer a big hug to a good Systematic theology lecture.

    I’m gonna save this post and savour it for a while. It’s like the fragrance of freshly ground (Fair Trade Certified:) ) coffee early in the morning. YOU HAVE TRULY MADE MY DAY!!!!

    With antipodean appreciation.

    John

  25. Some very wise thoughts posted by Wade Phillips here on 30 Apr 2009 at 5:27 pm. Thanks, Wade.

    And John…I had to look up “antipodean.” Good word! I like to learn new words. We are having Spring here so you are into late Fall weather, I would guess, huh?

  26. yes, Yes, YES!!! Wildly applauding here. I’ve been beating my head against the wall with “my theology” and finally figured out that all it was giving me was a headache.

  27. And now for the invitation…every head bowed, every eye closed…

    I will be first at the altar.

  28. It is a stark realization when you understand at a visceral level that many “orthodox” Christians are motivated more by a desire to win people to their “side” or “spin” or “faction” than anything else. This is not to denigrate or abandon orthodoxy. But to affirm that bad motives corrupt good theology. May God break our hearts and convince us it is the fame of Jesus and the love of sinners that we should be about.

  29. Thank you for the breath of fresh air.Wouldnt it be great if we just LOVED one another? Pretty simple theology that Jesus left with us.

  30. “It’s inside of me that, ultimately, his song has to ring true. If you can’t hear it, that doesn’t mean I don’t. Having everyone else tell me all about the music was taking away my desire to sing. And I am here to sing, not study music.”

    +++++++

    What a beautiful post. Thank you brother for sharing this.

    This relationship with Him DOES change. It is mere human twaddly ego that makes us think we have all of the answers. What a blessed relief when we are able to throw off those shackles – for others around us also. Christians who have all the answers really are some of the ugliest people on the planet.

  31. KR Wordgazer says

    Thank you, iMonk.

    What I’ve been re-discovering is that God wants it to be about faith, not about being certain we’re right about everything. Uncertainty is part of the human condition. I believe that’s by design.

    Too many times I want to *know* when God just wants me to *trust.*

  32. GratefulForGraces says

    There’s something about this post that is disquieting to me, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the RC in me that I believe that God is the author of Truth, revealed through the apostles, scriptures and teaching authority of the Church. It’s up to me to submit to revealed truth,regardless of how I may personally feel about it at any given time.

    “I believe what Christians believe. It’s what my life is founded on.”

    I’m not trying to be a smart-alek here, but which Christians? Which beliefs? The differences can have great consequences.

    “It’s about the shape and flavor of truth, not about who wins the debate.”

    So iMonk, it sounds like you might believe in objective Truth. You say that “his song has to ring true,” but how are you the final authority? If something rings true for you, but not for me, what do we do with that?

    I do like what you say about tossing out what takes you away from Jesus, and I believe that good and true theology draws you inexorably toward him. But do we each have to figure it out on our own, or is it already there for us?

    Still mulling this over.

  33. Grateful for Graces:

    Just a note to remind you that I do not post comments that are invitations to be evangelized into the RCC. We don’t go there, or vice versa.

    peace

    ms

  34. By definition, theology is the study of that which is beyond all human comprehension, anyway. 🙂

    …let God be true, but every man a liar … Romans 3:4

  35. Michael:

    I reread your post and see your point; I assumed too much. My bad, and thanks for helping me see that. I hope you will do a follow-up post. Entitle it “replacement theology” and you’ll probably gain some new readers! 🙂

    Thank you for your (too) kind words. All of us have problems with our theology…we just don’t see them yet. True communion of the saints helps with that.

    Grateful for your friendship,
    ta

  36. Tom: After this year, if I still have a theology at all, I’m hopefully addicted. I only want to abandon all theology after talking to the Lutherans about the sacraments.

    Gratefulforgraces: What shall we do if we disagree? Read the comments of this blog for the past few years and see for yourself.

  37. Here’s a statement that makes me cringe: “The Bible says X, Y and Z… unless you believe there’s no absolute truth.”

    I’ve often wondered, if the Bible is the literal word of God, how can there be some many denominations, so many positions, so many arguments on what it says?

    Don’t we think that if God commands us to do something, He would make it perfectly clear to everyone? If I tell my kid to clean her room, it’s very clear what I want.

    I am not sure how theology draws anyone closer to God. It may exercise the brain, but I’m betting we’ll find as many people who know nothing about it in heaven as we do esteemed scholars who’ve written book after book.

    I think too much thinking and not enough feeling can even be harmful to a person’s walk with God.

    God would still exist if there were no Bible, and He would still speak to us.

  38. Imonk,

    I totally understand your stance on Limited Atonement; I’m in the same position. Trust, I tried so hard to believe it at the behest of my devout Calvinist friends…but I just couldn’t!!!

    “The best theology would need no advocates; it would prove itself.”
    ~Karl Barth

  39. The study of God does not equal God. But sometimes it becomes an idol. I’m thinking, maybe we need a dumpster.

  40. Grateful for Graces,

    Let me try, in a hopefully light-hearted way to explain what Michael is doing.

    He’s trying leave the Jesuits and go to either the Benedictines and/or the Franciscans.

    To Michael, I’m always glad to read that others have trouble with Limited atonement. That has always bothered me.

    GRIN, but if you want some more theology books, I have a few by Cardinal Dulles, I’d be willing to give.

  41. Jonathan Hunnicutt says

    Great Post.

    I find it amusing that some theologians (ironically those with a high view of depravity), have a incredibly sense of certainty about their theology. As if our depravity has not touched our theology…

  42. …..I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by idolatrous veneration of a system ……

    Bishop Ryle (speaking about a specific theology, but it applies to many/all)

  43. Anna A said, “Let me try, in a hopefully light-hearted way to explain what Michael is doing. He’s trying leave the Jesuits and go to either the Benedictines and/or the Franciscans.”

    I like that, Anna! 🙂

  44. I’m dutifully sharpening my pitchfork and assembling rotten fruit, but without specifics, I can’t seem to work up the necessary lather to use them.

    Perhaps you could be more specific on a few ares of theology you classify as garbage? THEN, maybe we’ll see the predicted angry mob form.

    Sorry to poke the bear, but I like a good, uh, discussion 🙂

  45. I’ve seen some garbage in the thinking of a recent correspondent.

    But my garbage isn’t your garbage.

    But try this….God is playing a game with me. He will answer my prayers when I finally do the right thing.

    Cruel. Toss it.

    Or this: Common human courtresy is defined by your adherence to my version of Calvinism. Deviate, and you’ll be shunned.

  46. I’ve been encouraged by the concept of the church Fathers that a ‘theologian’ is not someone who has amassed a great deal of information about theological topics, but someone who has the true knowledge of God that comes from holiness and prayer. I think that this is what we’re getting at here. Less ‘theology’ and more true theology.

  47. back and surfacing again. Question: do you think that our potholed theological road has been formed by the need to have “modern” or “advanced” beliefs? Is one of the corrupting forces the desire to change for change’s sake?

  48. I confess I like theology, and spend time in my own western catholic space, and affectionately in the eastern catholic (and orthodox) space, and by curiosity in the arminian, calvinism, lutheran space and in bewilderment in those spaces that are loosely held together. Sometimes it’s like a hobby, where I feed my head, other times its like spiritual food where I feed my soul. I see it sometimes as a tool box – I have a bent toward christian mysticisism as an example, but its part of the toolbox. Go too far and it turns into Quietism.

    Now I can pick out the bad theology in others eyes, dispensationalism, prosperity gospel, etc but I have a harder time seeing the plank in my own. Maybe because I think of it as a toolbox, or maybe I’m just blind. I can see it in my own faith formation, but again as it happens to others…those that go too far in ritual, those that follow too exclusively the messages of private revelation, those that spend too much time in legalism. So folks pray that I can see my own bad theology and pray I am not spreading it around too much and warping someone’s mind (especially the eighth graders I teach in faith formation class).

  49. When I am teaching classes at church, I tell people when they are judgmental or critical of other viewpoints, or act like they understand it all, that “we are created in God’s image, quite trying to make Him in your’s”. If they don’t get it, I normally press them to explain how quantum mechanics relates to the physicality of God and the scriptural aspect of his omni-presence. It normally doesn’t take too long of me explaining it in great detail to a very blank face before they realized that everything might not be as simple as they think.

  50. Lately I’ve come to believe less (as expressed in the creeds) more firmly and held on to the periphery with a sometimes firm and sometimes looser grip. I wonder if sometimes don’t construct hard theological structures to keep us from dealing with the center. He is after all the still point in a turning world.