The Dangers of Theology

Monday is a bad day for me. I am trying to recover each week from the “Southern Hills Marathon” – my normal Sunday Study/Preaching schedule. I’m no spring chicken anymore and it leaves me exhausted. I usually start my day with a long list of things I want to do, then tend to squander the day reading blog posts and sometimes writing them. That’s what I’ve been doing this morning.

Lo and behold, there was some good stuff up there.

I would recommend Bart Barber’s insightful post asking whether Catholicism is actually a monotheistic religion. Well worth reading. Ed Stetzer (I’m guessing most of you follow him already) has a moving tribute to Dr. Roy Fish, who has passed away. Jelani Greenidge had a well-argued article “Why You Should Stop Posting Meme Photos on Facebook,” to which I would add a hearty amen (except when I post one!). There is lots of good stuff out there.

But two articles really caught my attention.

Mike Leake: One Reason I’m Not a Huge Fan of Watchblogging

The first one is by one of our contributors here, Mike Leake. If you are not following his blog, you should be. I’ve said it before, we will one day say, “I knew Mike before he was famous.” Of course, if I compliment him too much and give him a big head, he will probably stumble from his pride and start writing silly sports articles picking football winners or something. Anyway, he wrote an article entitled, “One Reason I’m Not a Huge Fan of Watchblogging.” After a corny riff (greatly appreciated by this Iowan) about blogs about Swiss Army watches, he quotes Proverbs 17:20 as a warning against the negativity and harshness of watchbloggers.

A man of crooked heart does not discover good. Proverbs 17:20

Those of us who care about theology and study it need to heed this warning. It can become an unhealthy obsession, especially when we start treating those with whom we disagree as if they are enemies of the gospel and of Christ whose story is recorded in the gospel.  As Mike says, it is not that watchblogging doesn’t have some value, but it also has some dangers – and we need to heed these. Mike’s article is well worth reading.

Then I read another article that said some of the same things – linked to from Trevin Wax’s site.

Ray Ortlund: Theology Can Be Overrated

This post built on the concepts of Mike’s article (I’m sure that Ray Ortlund reads Borrowed Light and gets many of his ideas from Mike). Again, Ortlund is not someone who disdains theology, but he does see the dangers of it. There are some powerful quotes in that post.

The religious flesh relishes theology, because it requires no death of ego, no surrender of control, no apologies.  Theological disputation can feed a spirit of superiority.  But because it’s about truth and right, our smugness can go undiscerned.

Boom. We must be careful that it is Jesus we love and serve, not our theology about Jesus. I have seen (and been guilty of) way too much of the latter.

Again, he makes it clear that theology matters and that we fail the church if we ignore it. But he says that it is as important that we recognize the other things commanded in the Bible (attitude, the way we treat one another, etc). The perceived correctness of my theology and the perceived incorrectness of the other’s does not justify unkind words and harsh condemnation.

Perhaps the money quote is this one:

The Beatitudes of our Lord do not say, “Blessed are the orthodox.”  What he did say, first and foremost, was, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3).  Among people of strong and rich theological conviction, the Lord looks first and foremost for weakness and poverty.  Personally, I resonate more with an Arminian whose heart beats with self-reproach and need than with a Calvinist whose heart beats with self-assurance and demand. 

There is a danger inherent in doing and writing about theology, and in discussing it on blogs. We can overemphasize orthodoxy and underemphasize orthopraxy and orthokardia. We can use our theology to justify treating other Christians with disdain and contributing to the disunity and fracturing that is going on.

Quite a blogging tag team from Ray and Mike. I thought both of these article were well worth reading.

Now, back to my to-do list, right after a nap.

Comments

  1. Dave Miller says

    Normally, I would have just asked Mike to re-post his article here (and he would have done it – he never turns down any request I make). But I saw these two articles together and made this link.

    We need to do theology without letting theological correctness undo us.

    • says

      I never turn down any request b/c you have so thoroughly brainwashed me.

      Thanks for the kind words. And you are correct I can’t count the number of times that Ray has emailed me asking if it was okay for him to post an article that he basically stole from one of mine. (Whether I can’t count the b/c it’s zero or b/c it’s too high a number I’ll leave for you to decide).

      And I was correct on a couple of my NFL picks. Wimbley got one sack on Brady and practically broke his nose…so that has to count for something, right?

  2. Dave Miller says

    I think maybe we should declare a moratorium on public proclamations of how much our theology humbles us until we are better at demonstrating that humility!

    • Greg Harvey says

      Hmm…I see what you did there…

      /rant on
      God humbles me. Man-made speculation on God? Perhaps not so much. Theological passages from Scripture? Very much so.

      Let’s put this in perspective: imagine no Internet, no telephones. The Roman Empire had a postal system, but no motorized vehicles to deliver mail. We have no descriptions of messaging in the OT that are more sophisticated than sending a specific messenger who presumably went on horseback at best.

      Now consider the sophistication of just the following books: the pair of Ezra and Nehemiah, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and the pair of Luke and Acts. These books feel contemporary to me today and reflect very deep theology and very intricate grasp of history. We speculate that Job might even be the most ancient of the OT books!!

      There are concerns in placing the Luke books into the secular history, but as we learn more, we find out how Luke’s perspective fits in. Nehemiah and Ezra as far as I am aware accurately reflect the secular history regarding the changing of empires in Babylon and the resettlement of exiles.

      Most specifically: they reflect accurately the difference in strategy between the Babylonians–who devastated leadership and took exiles–and the Medes/Persians that kept their empire under control by coopting home region leaders and tribes.

      Now I’ll confess: I’m not a historian so most of what I just wrote is gloss, but it’s based on God working with me based on reading the OT when my dad preached to fit all of this together and then expanded my understanding at Southwestern (my undergraduate degree was in the theology of the periodic chart…so to speak.)

      I trust the theological expansions in the books of the Bible precisely because I am an inerrantist. I distrust many human speculative theological explanations because I distrust our lack of humility in making them. This kind of reflects the continuationist v. cessationist discussion. I am very comfortable with the thought that the canon is closed and short of additional miracles that clearly validate and certify new messengers from God, I’m far more likely to agree with theological comments based directly and clearly on text than with comments that construct a system that is “extrapolative” from text.

      And for me it all boils down to humility. Which is why I really appreciate the turn of the phrase you chose. We need more humility when speaking about God. And theology is essentially human commentary on what we think we understand.

      I will add that Dave’s insistence that we argue from Scripture is good. I also will add that I’m uncomfortable when Scripture isn’t just completely transparent even when we attempt an “interpolative” conclusion. It isn’t that I think we’re mishandling Scripture, but I really do wonder why the Holy Spirit would permit an incomplete knowledge knowing that we humans are, well, designed by God and also knowing how sin impacts us. It seems to me that we just need extreme care in dealing with those kinds of passages is all.

      But, still, humility is the watch word. In dealing with unbelievers? Humility. In correcting believers who sin? Humility, i.e. a willingness to admit our own shortcomings when correcting others. A press that makes fun of us? Humility, of course. The question of a Mormon president? I think you catch where I’m going with this: humility.

      Not humiliation. The kind of humility that acknowledges God really is sovereign and we don’t have to win the battle for him. We don’t even have to win the battle FOR OURSELVES. The battle is the Lord’s.

      Humility centers us in trusting God. It’s a central characteristic that unites the gifts of the Spirit. It is the underlying theme of the love chapter in 1 Corinthians and of the Beatitudes. It is eye-opening, strongly evidence based, and reasoned. It is not in any way pretentious.

      Humility. Maybe I would not advise praying for either humility OR patience, but our spiritual maturity determines our qualification to represent God on thorny issues. And humility is the strongest evidence of that maturity.
      /rant off

  3. says

    I do think that bad theology can be dangerous.

    But good theology (Christ centered) can be very beneficial and keep us off of the spirituality/holiness project.

  4. says

    Dave,

    I mean placing the focus on what ‘we do’. Trying to lift ourselves (ladder-theology) by what we do, say, feel,…etc. This theology is a lot of God and a little bit of me, theology, and it is akin to Catholicism, although many Protestants who are engaged in it, would deny that. But basically, it’s the same stuff.

    • Dave Miller says

      Okay, but we cannot ignore the call to walk in the fullness of the Spirit or to walk in holiness. There’s always a balance.

  5. says

    Of course we don’t ignore it. But we must realize that we are not up to it and fail daily. And this leads us to repentance. The holiness preachers and churches water down the law and it’s demands so that people actually believe that they are doing a pretty good job of it. This leads to pride. Those in those ‘holiness churches’ that are honest with themselves and know the full extent of those demands, can be lead to despair. And actually, they are better off (unless they chuck the whole thing) because now they might hear the gospel and become freed from the religious project.

  6. says

    So how does one read Mike Leake’s article and discern whether or not Ray Ortlund’s article presents an overrated or an underrated theology that matters?

  7. Christiane says

    I would love to know the consensus of Southern Baptists on the ‘monotheism’ or ‘polytheism’ judgement of the faith of Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. I didn’t get a ‘consensus’ from the comments posted by Southern Baptists on the article posted by BART on his site,
    but I hope that this could be further explored in some blog posts in future . . .

    I did not know of the depth of this concern prior to reading Bart’s post, so it was very informative for me to read. Looking forward with interest to more posts that discuss whether or not Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox faith is polytheistic or monotheistic, if people care to pursue this.

  8. says

    You nailed it!! Forgive a shameless plug, but this (and a few other things) is what I discuss in my new book, *What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology* (Tulsa: Word & Spirit Press, 2012). After all, if you laid all of the theologians in the world end-to-end, they’d never reach a conclusion.

  9. says

    We’ve got to be careful about putting a bad spin on ‘theology’.

    We must remember that all those denominations, sects, splinter groups, etc. that “just use the Bible”, all come up with different interpretations.

    • Frank L. says

      Sunday God pointed out to us that it is not “theology” that proves we are His disciples, but “love.” And . . . that is not “love of theology.”

      I I understand the Bible even a little bit, then a book like Corinthians gives me great hope that God can use even a church full of problems–including problems with theology.

      But, He cannot use a church full of hate.

      • says

        You’re right, Frank. God can certainly save us without good theology, but good theology will aid in our assurance, and our freedom (Gal. 5:1) in Christ.

        And bad theology can send us into pride, or despair.

        • Frank L. says

          Steve,

          No argument with that. I just think that when our theology becomes so important we would carry wood to burn heretics, then I think it has become something other than Christian theology.

          Love is the measure of a disciple and nothing else. As you say, a proper theological position that makes you more loving is certainly to be desired.

  10. says

    Frank,

    I agree.

    I’m not one of those who thinks that people aren’t Christians unless they believe as I do.

    I’m always looking to help liberate people from their ladder-climbing/religious project, and help them to rely totally on the finished work of Christ (and I don’t mean to imply that about anyone here, just folks in general).

    Good theology is a tool toward that end.

    Thanks, Frank.

  11. Christiane says

    It is said that ‘theology’ is ‘faith seeking understanding’.
    But there is something more powerful that leads men to faith in Our Lord than just the understandings of men:

    Those baptized in the Holy Spirit, who ‘drink from the sacred well of the Holy Trinity’, are strengthened to speak the words that point towards Christ, that by the grace of the Holy Spirit are tuned to that sacred vibration that awakens a response in the hearts of those who hear them . . .

    those words are often best heard when they come from the humble people who understand ‘I must decrease, that He will increase’
    and are heard by those whose own humility has made a place within themselves for the Presence of the Holy One to come and reside . . .

    ‘deep speaks unto deep in the roar of waters’ and those among us who have come to a place of repentance will be forever attuned to that sound:

    ““ I hear a murmur
    of living water
    that whispers within me
    ‘Come, Come to the Father’”.

    The ‘words of life’ have only one Source.
    Those who help others to find that Source are the among the most blessed servants of God in this world.

  12. Frank L. says

    Steve. I don’t disagree with that. But in my experience with religious folk theology is more often used like a club rather than a tool.

    • says

      You should use a different word than religion then. Or at least perhaps one with a modifier in front of it (like Colossians 2:23). True religion is not bad.

      “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

        • says

          my Colossians reference was in relation to the modifier. Colossians 2:23 refers to “self-made religion”. That’s what, I think, Steve is looking for. And yes you are correct the text I quoted is from James.