The “Crimes” of Theology
by David Faulkner
One of the adult members of the church where I grew up was a man named Don. I probably knew him all my life: I went to Sunday School and youth group with his kids and later was a frequent visitor to the adult class which he sometimes taught. In the early 1970s, Don got involved in what was called the “Charismatic Renewal,” an outbreak of Pentecostalism in the mainline churches.
I confess, in those days I didn’t nave much tact. I still don’t suffer fools gladly. So, when Don began to say, “I don’t have a theology: my only theology is Jesus,” I would respond, “Oh yes you do have a theology, probably a bad one. Every Christian has a theology.” He would disageree and, of course, the argument would be on.
If I’d been wiser, I might have done what I’m about to do here. After all, “Theology,” which used to be called, “The Queen of the Sciences,” seems to have become, for many, a dirty word. There are, I think, two main reasons for this. The first is that the disputes that have broken out among theologians, particularly since the Reformation, have divided the Church. Those disputes are seen as being the primary cause of the splintered state of Protestantism. Indeed some of the issues that men–theologians were mostly men–have found to quarrel over seem to us to be trivial, more quibbles than real issues.
Even some of the major issues won’t raise much of an argument among Americans. Martin Luther and Huldrich Zwingli, two early reformers, fought over the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Luther insisted that, “This is my body,” had to mean that in some way the elements of the Lord’s Supper actually became the body and blood of Jesus. Zwingli insisted that “is” meant, “a symbol of.” At their famous meeting at Marburg Castle Luther is reported to have carved the words, “This is my body,” into the top of the table at which they met, then pounded that spoon on the table whenever Zwingli said the Super was no more than a memorial.
A few years later John Calvin came along and wrote a little book in which he said that the elements in Communion became the body and blood of Christ in that Jesus was spiritually present in them. Luther, in 1543, is said to have read Calvin’s book and remarked, “If this man Calvin had managed that affair with Zwingli, the Reformation would not be divided today.” Unfortunately, by that point Luther had less than a year to live and Zwingli was cold in his grave, killed fighting as a common soldier in the wars of Zurich. All this squabbling has given theology a bad rap. So two things need to be said.
The first one is that people didn’t need theology to have something to argue over. Human beings have been arguing, fighting and going to war since long before theology was even a word in the most primitive of languages. Christians have argued over practice as much as they’ve argued over theology. Just remember the kooks out there running around condemning contemporary Christian music as, “of the devil.”
But secondly–and this is what I should have told Don–it is impossible to escape theology. Consider that most basic of Christian statements, “Jesus saves.” It looks so innocent when you put it down on paper or sing it in a hymn. But think of the questions it raises. Just who is Jesus anyway? Why do we need him to save us? What do we need him to save us from? Asking that last question would lead us into a discussion of sin, then to the question, “Why is sin such a bad thing?” The answer must be that to sin is to act against God. Or if we look at the first word in the statement, “Jesus,” we might ask how and why He has the power to save us from sin.
If we pursue either line of questioning long enough both will lead to the question, “Who is God that He should have the right to judge us for or save us from our sin?” When we ask that question, we have made the one inquiry which is the foundational question of all theology. At their roots, every statement of Christian truth, whether the most simple or the most complex, is a theological statement and there is no way to escape this fact. Like it or not, we are stuck with theology so long as we are going to profess Christianity. Theology is, simply, “What we say about God.” We cannot escape it, try as we might.
So why do some people try. I think the answer lies in the second reason why theology is being ridiculed today. That reason is nothing less than pure, cussed laziness. Learning theology takes work. Carrying out Paul’s command to Timothy to, “Study to show yourself a workman approved of God and not ashamed,” requires that we apply ourselves to learning all that Scripture has to teach us about who God is and what He has done for us. But study means work and we have fallen so much in with the world’s way of thinking that we have concluded that the only reason for educating ourselves is so we can make more money. Everybody knows, after all, that theologians and pastors don’t make much money.
So we denigrate theology and substitute emotional experience for hard-earned knowledge. The world today is dominated by emotion, motivated by the quest to feel good. When I taught History at Ohio University my students would often use such expressions as, “Thomas Jefferson felt…” I would always correct them. What Jefferson did was study the teachings of the thinkers of his own and earlier times, then think his way to conclusions that made sense to him. So the line should have begun, “Thomas Jefferson thought…”
In this as in other ways we are far too eager to conform to the world. Indeed one of the reasons we look and act so much like the non-Christians around us is because we have never learned the truth set forth so cogently in Romans 12:2; “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” The theologians like to say that, in a way, theology is, “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” If we don’t think God’s thoughts, it is not surprising that our minds are not renewed and so look just like the world.
So, when Matthew West, in an otherwise excellent song, sings, “Gonna let my heart defeat my mind,” he is on dangerous ground. The “heart,” as the seat of emotion, is notoriously fickle. Further, in the song it appears that the singer is struggling with doubt. Believe me, the cure for doubt is not an emotional experience or even the sense of God’s presence, because that can change in a heartbeat. The cure for doubt starts with getting into God’s word and bringing to mind all the great and wonderful things He has done for us. Even the Psalmists knew that.
I am not opposed to emotion. Revival and emotion have been closely associated for almost 300 years now. But there has got to be a balance and heart and mind have to work together, not at cross-purposes. There is no room in the faith for ideas such as those set forth in a recent Jason Gray song; “It’s more like falling in love than something to believe in; it’s more like losing your heart than giving your allegiance.” We may like the song, but those words directly contradict the teaching of Scripture, which says, “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” The statement, “Jesus is Lord, set Christians at odds with their fellow-Romans, whose statement, “Caesar is Lord,” was their essential statement of allegiance. And as for believing–how can you fall in love with a God in whom you don’t believe?
So when my local Christian station plays that song, I hit the button to change to another Christian station. (I do the same when, “I Can Only Imagine,” comes on–a mediocre, shallow song that states the obvious and that, by daily play, the Christian stations have beaten into the dust.) I think we should be more proactive about songs such as, “More Like Falling in Love.” Call the station and insist they stop promoting heresy.
So the question before us in the evangelical Church, no matter what denomination or “non-denomination” we associate with, is not whether we will have theology. The question–and I’m not opposed to emotion in its proper place–is whether we will, by stressing emotion at the expense of the hard mental work of study, look more and more like the world, and so make ourselves as irrelevant as is the theologically liberal branch of Protestantism represented today by the dying mainline churches. If we do, we can expect to fall into the same mean dotage they are currently in, and to lose our relevance both to God and to the lost.