January 7, 2011
Biting the Theological Hand that Feeds You
In my previous ironically titled post “Why theology doesn’t matter” I said that it actually does. It provides the structure, the context and the content of the Christian faith.
You may say, “No way man. I just believe what the Bible says. All that elitists academic theology is not for me.” But I don’t think this is very realistic. Chances are if you are a Christian you essentially believe what your church teaches. Your church has a history. It is part of one of the great theological traditions of the historical church, and it interprets the Bible in ways that are consistent with that tradition. This even applies to “Bible only” churches. Now, I’m not suggesting that traditions in themselves are bad and I also think that some traditions are more biblical than others. But we cannot escape the truth of the matter: everyone reads the Bible in a way that has been formed by theological reflection and the great theological debates of the church. Everyone depends on the insights of theology for their notions of the nature of the church and the goal of the Christian life.
Let me illustrate this point about our dependence on theology a couple of ways.
What is the church about?
At a church I used to attend the pastor once made everyone in the church divide up into the four corners of the room according to their idea of the purpose of the church. The four options were:
- The church is a hospital for broken people
- The church is an army of evangelists
- The church is a place to worship God
- The church is a place where we learn about God
What do you think? To be fair the pastor’s point was a bit sneaky. He wanted to divide us in order to say, “it’s actually about all these things, and none of them is more important than the others.” You might have guessed that I was in corner #4 with a very small group of like-minded individuals: the church is a place to learn about God. And I still think that this is the prime corner, or the cornerstone, if you will of the church. And I can prove it.
In this case the pastor set up four different views of the church and he then taught us that they are actually all equally important. So in fact, teaching took the place of precedence, for teaching defined the nature of the church. The pastor’s theology, his ideas about the church, were the key to everything that was done that morning. So it seems to me that the theological task of teaching is indeed the most important office of the church. By that I don’t mean “the adult Sunday school class” or “inductive Bible Study small groups.” I’m talking about the intellectual task of defining and expounding who we are, why we are, and how we should live. Every pastor and Christian leader does this, and when they do it they are being theologians. The sad part is when they act as theologians while at the same time:
- relying unconsciously on the vast insights of theology,
- criticizing that theological hand that feeds them and
- because of this really botching things up.
By pure grace some good comes of it, but mostly this combination produces a paralyzing contradiction. We absolutely use theology, but we say that it doesn’t matter. We don’t progress.
Doctrine is not half the message
Recently I wrote a post taking Donald Miller to task for a similar contradiction. He stated that doctrine is only half the message, the other half is character. His point was a good one: you can’t justify being rude just because you are right. And I agree! But I felt like Don was making a pretty serious error in his exposition. He was saying that to our theology we must also add Christian character. But I ask you, where does Christian character come from? How do we know what Christian character is? Who gets to define in? The inescapable answer is that the Bible does. This means that the question of Christian character is lock, stock and two smoking barrels, a theological one.
This is a classic biting the theological hand that feeds you move. Theology is relegated to “abstract truths” that no one really cares about very much. Practice is then understood in terms of straightforward simple common sense goodness. It’s what “everyone knows” Christians are supposed to be like. All this is done while ignoring that theology is the source of our understanding of Christian character. And so we ignore and dismiss the source of our convictions and the tools used to arrive at them. Then, when there is a question or a conflict about them, the tools that we might have used are not available.
The bitten hand of theology has gone elsewhere to feed a more amenable creature.