Puritan Gems

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Why Theology?

"But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine." (Titus 2:1)

"Bad theology will eventually hurt people and dishonor God in proportion to its badness."
- John Piper (A Godward Life Volume Two, pg. 377)


The subject of “Theology”, namely the study of God, was once regarded as the Queen of the Sciences (Aquinas).  Today, the very mention of the subject among modern Christians is viewed as unimportant at best; divisive and “unspiritual” at worst.  Objective truths about the nature and person of God have rapidly been shunned in favor of subjective spiritual experiences and personal exegesis.  Just a quick glance through most “Christian” bookstores will yield a plethora of pragmatic books on successful living, non-redemptive approaches to a better life steeped in pop-psychology and behavioral modification methods, and the latest round pop-prophecy fiction novels whose main characters seem to change every 10 years or so in order to coincide with current events.  Occasionally, one may find a rich theological treasure of books stowed away in a back corner shelf, but these are the exception.

Like it or not, everyone has a theology.  The question isn’t whether or not to have a theology, but whether or not you have a good theology or a bad theology.  Everyone has a view of God.  But is that view based on the objective truth that God himself has revealed?

But Doctrine Divides…

At this point I will concern myself only with Christian doctrine, since Christianity is the only worldview that is objectively true (a statement that will be defended at a later time.)  In an effort to maintain “unity” in the body of Christ, many Christians have adopted the mantra “doctrine isn’t important, just love Jesus”.  Aside from the fact that this statement is itself a “doctrine”, we must eventually ask who is this Jesus, and why should we love him.  Can we rightly love someone without seeking to know something about them?  “Acquaint thyself, I pray thee, with Him, and be at peace…” (Job 22:21)  Once we begin to answer any question about the nature and personhood of God, we are making statements of doctrine and are engaged in theology.

We are often told, "We should avoid controversial doctrines, because they cause division. We need to be unified in Christ." There is much to be said for unity among the saints. Paul urged the Ephesian church to "walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:1-3). This is because "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call -- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6). However, what kind of unity does the Bible teach? Did Paul want the Ephesians to avoid controversial doctrines in order to maintain unity? May it never be said as such. Paul goes on to explain the role of apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). There were "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12). This was necessary in order to "attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God," (Ephesians 4:13). The unity that Paul spoke of was obtained "so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Ephesians 4:14). The Bible teaches unity through sound doctrine, not despite it. In fact, the Bible has much more to say about sound doctrine that it does unity. Any "unity" that ignores doctrine is really no unity at all.

“Divisions and separations are most objectionable in religion. They weaken the cause of true Christianity...But before we blame people for them, we must be careful that we lay the blame where it is deserved. False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate themselves from teaching that is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue and not a sin.” (JC Ryle, Warnings To The Churches)

The Great Commission Demands Theological Study

One of the ramifications to the modern approach to theology is that the Great Commission has been reduced to eliciting “decisions for Christ”.  In fact, the successfulness of a ministry today is often measured by the number of “converts”.  While evangelism is important, it is neither the sole focus of the Great Commission, nor the primary focus.  Rather we are told to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all things that Christ commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).  Teaching requires theological study, and is done by those who labor in Word and in doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17).

Subjective Doctrinal Importance

In an effort to maintain orthodox biblical truths while at the same time avoiding controversy, Christians commonly divide doctrine into “essential” vs. “non-essential” categories, the former being the basic beliefs of the Christian faith, while the later being those unimportant and controversial beliefs that divide Christians and create denominations.  But by what standard will anyone make such a distinction?  If we reduce the gospel to mere “fundamentals”, than what shall we do with the rest of Scripture? What portion of Scripture will we suggest that the Holy Spirit wasted his divine breath in giving us?

The fact is that all Theological Doctrine is divisive to someone.  Is there a God?  What is He like?  What is the way to heaven?  What book is the true revelation of God?  The answers to these questions are divisive among men today, and if the goal of the Christian is simply to avoid controversy, we will not be obedient to our Lord’s admonition to "make disciples and to teach them to observe all things that he commanded us"> (Matthew 28:19-20).  To take any doctrinal stand on any issue is to invite controversy.

"Are there any significant biblical teachings that have remained untainted by controversy? If you have any acquaintance with the history of the Christian church whatsoever, then your immediate answer will be 'of course not.' Whether we’re talking about the triune nature of the Godhead, or justification by faith alone, or the personhood of the Holy Spirit, or the deity of Jesus Christ, or the content of the canonical scriptures, as Christians we have never had the luxury of living in a world where the most nourishing of Biblical truths have existing without opposition. And so when someone expresses a sentiment such as the following: 'I don’t like to talk about a particular doctrine because it is controversial,' we’re not confronted at that point with an expression of great piety or godliness, but rather in most cases a display of Biblical laziness, and in all cases a manifestation of immaturity and ignorance. If your commitment is to feed your soul on only those spiritual truths that have been or are presently non-controversial, than you’ll find yourself staring at an empty plate." (Dr. Arturo G. Azurdia's, Unconditional Election, part of the The Doctrines of Grace Series.)

Handling Disagreements

So does that mean that Christians will all agree on every single point of doctrine? Just a cursory glance over the religious landscape will clearly show otherwise. These disagreements are simply based in human fallibility, and though we seek to know as much objective truth concerning God as He has revealed to us, none of us are omniscient. When confronting a fellow saint who has a disagreement on a particular doctrine, avoiding controversy should not be the main goal, for “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.” (Proverbs 3:13-15). We should argue and debate with those who disagree with us, yet with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). And we should be open to the idea of our own fallibility, having our own theology being corrected by others who love God’s word, as “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)