My love affair with theology

I haven’t been posting much lately. To explain why, allow me give you a sketch of my relationship with theology, which has always formed the backbone of this site.

First, a plea: don’t waste your time cultivating the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying theology until you know what the Bible is, nor until you’re willing to come to grips with reality outside of the Bible. You can contrive an internally consistent history and theology as gleaned from the information in the Lord of the Rings or the Star Trek universe, but your systematization of them is going to be nothing more than a clever fiction unless you can find correspondence in the real world. A police detective might be able to piece together a perfectly consistent and intelligible version of events from a flawed and inaccurate police report, but his job is to first determine the reliability of the sources and take into account the shortcomings and limitations of even his most trusted informants. The Bible is a testimony of reliable informants, the most reliable, but even they were functioning under the limitations of humanity.

By the time I reached high school, I had determined that having good theology was something necessary to set our faith on the right course. This was firmly my impression all through college, in which I majored in Bible and Theology. Seeing the doctrinal mayhem and frequent kookiness that resulted from not knowing the Bible very well or misinterpreting it (I was at a Pentecostal college) confirmed to me the significance of theology. This is not to say I was ever unconcerned by faith in practice: I have long recognized faith in practice as a sine qua non of good theology because you can’t very well say you believe the right things if you don’t act upon them, because one only truly believes in an action inasmuch as he is committed to putting it in action. But considering that any church worth its salt has outlets for faith in action such as ministries and outreach programs, I realized I would have to narrow down my search for an ideal church by finding one that was equally committed to teaching Christians good doctrine.

Not that I seriously expected to find a church with 100% correct doctrine. My father’s example of eagerly gleaning the good and humbly discarding the bad instilled in me the belief that no one had the whole truth, save the Bible. Instead of leaving me in a resigned agnosticism about theological matters, this conditioned me to value truth as a precious jewel worth chasing down at all costs. I’ve never had much tolerance for those who dismiss other understandings of theology without giving them a fair hearing, and no tolerance for those who dismiss people because of differing ideas about debatable points of theology. For instance, unlike the vast majority of people within my tradition, I early gained an appreciation for Roman Catholic theology and a deep affection for devout Catholics as real, honest-to-gosh Christians.

For a long time I felt that I was always on the cusp of finding True Theology, or at very least a reliable version consistent internally and with the Bible. But trying to find consistency was something that frustrated me again and again. In the end, I became convinced of the impossibility of neat, tidy theology culled from sola scriptura (still less from church authority of an orthodox perspective). Even the most complex theological complexes fail to credibly account for certain passages of Scripture. My problem is that I’m not the type to simply brush those under the rug or swallow contrived and convoluted explanations that serve as prisms through which everything must be read (à la dispensationalism and Reformed theology).

I finally became convinced of this when I tried, and failed, to fully systematize eschatology. There’s no doubt whatsover of the fundamental preterist contentions that Jesus and his followers viewed the eschaton as an imminent event, and that the destruction of Jerusalem was the subject and fulfillment of Jesus’ eschatological expectations as recorded in the Gospels. In fact, some of the full preterist constructs are among the most plausible in all of theology. However, despite my best efforts to coordinate the views of some of the NT writings outside the synoptics with Jesus’ words and the OT’s prophecies regarding the Resurrection of the Dead, I was left with the undeniable feeling that I was trying to reconcile truly different understandings. We’re hearing one side at a time of different conversations between different people, and it is hopeless to fully reconstruct their understandings of eschatology, let alone account for their own possible misconceptions. In the end, because I see no cause to doubt that the synoptics got Jesus’ teachings on end times right, I’m sticking with his eschatology and admitting ignorance on the other stuff.

The conclusions birthed from my insistence upon intellectually honest readings of Scripture yielded a recognition of the persistent intractability of doctrinal debates and the irresolvable inconsistencies in Scripture. But full realization lagged somewhat behind my coming to grips with the fact that the Bible isn’t an inerrant witness to science and history. The delay was a result of my abiding conviction that rejecting historical/scientific concordism (the expectation that Scripture perfectly represents historical/scientific reality) doesn’t entail rejection of all theological insight in the Bible. Even bad newspapers tell the truth every now and then, and I am convinced that the Bible was written by men who loved the truth of God as much as I do and were better informed of it than I am. So I assumed that most of the Christian doctrines would remain intact; central Christian teachings like the atonement, total depravity, and Christ’s deity were not initially challenged by my wholehearted rejection of scientific/ historical concordism and my half-hearted theological concordism. This is not necessarily the case anymore. The more robust the theological system based on coordinating verse after verse of Scripture from different authors in different times, the more likely that some of the glue holding it together will be strained, as will the honest hearer’s credulity.

The chief offenders for me are the Reformed. They have a perfectly clever system for which they can find innumerable passages that back up the seemingly innumerable points that all interlock neatly. They have championed logic and taken it as their own with a superficially unassailable apologetic called presuppositionalism, a philosophy that’s haplessly based upon an inerrant Bible. They remind me of a guy who’s worked out the Star Trek timeline and come up with clever ways to reconcile continuity errors between episodes and between the various series and movies, except in the Trekkie’s case, at least he’s aware that his solutions are fiction piled on top of fiction. If you take Paul’s writings as 100% accurate (something I cannot do based upon my acceptance of science), their soteriological construct seems pretty credible; it might be hard to come up with an Arminian or third option from the classic Reformation reading of Paul alone. But try to factor in the Hebrew perspective of James; read Paul through the eyes of the so-called New Perspective, which despite the misleading moniker takes into account the first century’s perspective much better than did Luther; face the fact that Paul’s view on the Fall of Man was inaccurate; etc., etc. These are no trifling objections, and the Reformed have clever answers for it all, but in the end, it’s clear that their efforts are all directed toward trying to clear away objections to a system that admits no objections, rather than sacrificing or adapting their system to account for facts.

But it’s not just the Reformed who do so; it’s only their all too typical overconfidence in their position’s rational basis and their fondness for heresy-hunting that brings me to call them out specifically. In actuality, I’ve come to realize that the first action of evangelical and fundamentalist theology, especially systematic theology, is to shut the door, close the blinds, and discount everything but the Bible (and sometimes church tradition), because they truly expect that the Bible contains all that is necessary. They seem to take an inverted version of 1 Timothy 3.17 that substitutes, “All Scripture is profitable for doctrine, etc.” with “Only Scripture is profitable” or “All that is profitable is in Scripture.” Unless I’ve somehow missed it, neither of these latter is even intimated in Scripture, chiefly for the reason that the Bible as we know it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. (I happened to stumble across a good article by a preterist echoing my concerns about the limitations of certainty within our theology.)

The thing that has grown ever more sure in my mind is the centrality of the Christian ethic. Dotting i’s and crossing t’s with our doctrines and dogmas will only ever be a guessing game. But what will last is Jesus’ example of helping those in need, as demanded from Micah 6.8 to Matthew 25.31-46, to James 1.27. So for me, getting right practice (orthopraxy) right is more important than getting all our doctrine in order (orthodoxy).

The question will be asked, “What do you still believe in?” Such a question is much too broad; ask me something specifically, and I’ll tell you my level of comfort with the traditional version and/or give you any alternative model that I find shows promise. At this point, I’d tell you that I believe in God and in Jesus; I believe that Jesus is Lord, and that he conquered death with his resurrection; that our faith has always been about joining God in His work, chief of which is caring for those in need. Any theological debates that distract us and keep us divided such that our mission and influence are compromised are debates best reserved for the afterlife.

Something else I believe: that the single fundamental characteristic of our faith should be humility. And not just the kind of humility that’s based in a dogma that harps on our being wretched sinners, but humility in the fallibility of our understanding. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

So why haven’t I been blogging? My love affair with theology is on the rocks. I know, the base definition of “theology” is what we believe about God, and I’m certainly always looking to having a better understanding of Him and His ways. But even popular theological hobbyhorses such as the method of the atonement start to sound like speculations about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I think we’re all better served — the Kingdom of God is better served — if, before we become embroiled in a theological debate, we begin to ask ourselves if we don’t have something more important to be doing.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts: