I have lost count in recent months how many times I have ventured onto Christian blogs and social media with the intent to engage in discussions of a doctrinal or theological nature, only to be met with not just intense resistance but outright hostility. I can sense that immediately everyone gets their backs up, ready to pounce on the guy who has the harebrained idea to discuss theology. I am even held up for prayers by the group for deliverance from my devilish reliance on “man-centered traditions.”
It seems every generation follows a set pattern: the younger generation grows up thinking itself to be infinitely wiser and more sensible than the generation that preceded it. Then as the current generation ages and gives way to the next, it realizes how much their ancestors really understood.
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s I was thoroughly convinced that my generation was going to be a trailblazing paradigm of how to change a society. Looking back now, I see what little wisdom lay behind all of that, and how not respecting the work of those who have come before us is folly.
The same holds true for the church. The past tells a clear story of how whenever doctrine and teachings of God-gifted and inspired preachers and teachers of past times and previous generations have been marginalized, and something “new” brought in, the decline of that church was immediate and some never recover. This elevation of self and the moment and repudiation of the past has been dramatically harmful to the Christian church.
I find it never ceases to amaze me how few Christians, especially those who have set themselves up in some kind of discernment role in the church, have actually studied church history and Christian theology to any substantial degree. What would seem to be an obvious goldmine of treasures and figuratively an embarrassment of riches contained in the past generations of two thousand years of God’s church is left virtually untapped, or worse, disparaged and denigrated. The great spiritual discernment gifts God gave to scholars and preachers of the Word throughout the church age seem to hold little value to some of the church leaders in what are considered “progressive” ministries today.
Their generation, they think, will be so much more forward-thinking than their predecessors. They are so puffed up they actually believe they will bring to the forefront real truths about scripture that nobody ever thought of for two thousand years of church history. They will show us, they claim, how foolish it is to get our theology from “a bunch of dead guys,” as one person put it recently.
I am encountering more and more frequently those who scoff at theology in Christian discussion. It is like you have said a bad word, and frowns immediately appear, along with wrinkled foreheads. Try it sometime when you are engaged with a Christian discussion group and see how quickly a distress signal reverberates that has a visible and tangible effect on the listeners. “Oh, no, not this this man-centered theology again!” I have recently interacted with Christian discernment groups on the internet who openly mock anyone who ventures forward in defense of theology. It doesn’t even matter which theology; these people condemn all interpretations of scripture ever penned by man. If these were actual brick and mortar churches, they would probably physically throw out the offending upholder of doctrine.
The Beginnings Of The Theology Downgrade
In London in the year 1887, Charles Spurgeon published the first of two articles entitled “The Down Grade” in his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel. It was edited by his close friend Robert Shindler. Thus the famous Down Grade controversy started in England. As reported on spurgeon.org, Shindler closed his first article on the Down Grade with these words:
“These facts furnish a lesson for the present times, when, as in some cases, it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. . But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true. “
Spurgeon had become alarmed at the strong trends in the church which were carrying it away from sound doctrines and theology which had been the strength of the church for generations and was carrying it to feelings and experiences and ‘new’ doctrines of people who were “strangers of the work of renewing grace.”
In the same issue of Sword and Trowel Shindler tells of a chapel on High Street where Charles Darwin had been introduced to the blatant heresy of Socinianism. It turns out this was the same chapel that had previously flourished for years under the pastorship of Matthew Henry, a great theologian who wrote the famous commentary on the entire bible. Here was a church that had slipped from a doctrinal high road to the depths of heresy which denies the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.
The reasons for the current down grade of theology today can run the gamut from simple to complex, but basically can be traced back to a few root causes.
Avoid Controversy At All Costs?
Many people see controversy as something to be avoided in Christian discussion. Believing that having a strong position on a doctrinal issue is by its nature divisive, they think that it follows that Jesus would not approve of any strong beliefs being forwarded, lest another party be offended. I think the scriptural record shows that Jesus was much less concerned with people taking offense at his teachings, than he was with speaking the truth.
The idea itself that a Christian is never to offend anyone is not upheld when examined in light of scripture. The biblical guideline is to not be a “stumbling block” to one’s brother in Christ. In 2 Cor. 6:3 we have the text:
We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed“
The Greek word for offense is “proskopen” meaning a difficulty or obstacle, or “stumbling block,” as Paul previously used the word in 1 Cor. 8:9. If one stays true to the teaching of the gospel, it is in fact inevitable that someone will be offended! For the message of the cross is foolishness to some, as we are told in 1 Cor. 1:18,23.
The concern Jesus had for truth over feelings was demonstrated in how he dealt with the Pharisees. At one point the disciples had to come to Jesus and warn him that the Pharisees were getting offended by what he was saying. He continued to speak the truth. Very often those people who are not living in alignment with God’s truth will be offended.
Calvinist-Arminian Debate Cited As Reason To Abandon Theology
Much has been said about the controversial debates going on since the days of the Reformation between Calvinists and Arminians. Since the followers of Jacob Arminius introduced the Remonstrance in 1610, articles which were in disagreement with the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church which held to the teachings of John Calvin, great debate has been going on in the church.. Much has been made about how destructive these differences have been, but I believe the net effect has been to generate a great increase in the searching of the scriptures by both sides. Just like the noble-minded Bereans of New Testament times, both sides have been spurred to diligently study the word to find what is the truth.
Which points of the Calvinists seem to stand up under scriptural scrutiny? And what points of the Arminian view hold up? I know in my personal experience, no single issue or debate has been more of a catalyst than this, for me to diligently bury myself in God’s word.
Essential doctrines such as the Atonement, Justification, Election, and Sanctification are the issues at stake. Even those with a neutral stance somewhere in the middle have been stimulated to go to the scriptures and check for themselves. To claim these are issues which simply should not be brought up, and worse, to excoriate and mock all who engage in discussion of them, is certainly not a healthy sign. The decline of interest in theology in a ministry has historically always been closely followed by a decline in efficacy of gospel preaching, with an attendant rise in interest in aberrant teachings foreign to the gospel.
What We Believe About God Is Our Theology
“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Prov. 27:17
To claim complete independence from any attachment to theology is an inconsistent position for any believer to hold to. If one has no theology, one has no position on God and the revelation contained in his word. Every time we search the scriptures we hone our theology. The result should be an increase in exhortation, encouragement, teaching, admonishing, praying, and the sharing of God’s word.
Those clinging to the notion that controversy is always to be avoided in Christian circles, of course, see theological debates as a great tragedy and as shameful chapters in church history. These are the ones who think they are positioned as the “enlightened” generation who will lead the church out of the past dark ages of foolish reliance on “man-centered” doctrines coming from their clueless ancestors. They think they will lead the church into a shining new era where no man’s scholarship, preaching, or teaching will be acceptable. They look at this as some form of “cleansing” the church of its polluted humanistic views and positions.
The idea currently in vogue with some Christian discernment ministries is that all theological positions ever developed by men are by definition “man-centered” and as such are merely “traditions of men.” The implication is clear: that simply reading the scriptures, and avoiding like the plague any teaching or preaching of the gospel by men, is the way to keep your Christian walk pure and uncontaminated. But is this the Christian walk that is found in these very same scriptures?
Isn’t having no theology actually a theology in itself? If a Christian teacher or expositor has read the scriptures, and has become convinced that no man can accurately capture and exposit the teachings therein, has he not fallen into a trap of his own setting? Is this not eisegesis or “reading into” the word something that is not there? Is there anything in scripture which warns man not to develop a methodology of coming to understand and teach its meaning to others? Does not this teacher’s eisegesis then become his theology, which he then passes down to those who sit under his teaching?
The great irony, of course, is that while teaching others not to listen to men, he breaks the same rule he is teaching. And sadly, this obvious truth is completely lost on those of the “new generation” of Christian thinkers, out to change the face of Christianity and lead it out of what is sadly deemed to be the ignorance and darkness of their forerunners.
Anyone who has read the scriptures with any degree of depth has already developed a theology. It is impossible not to. Whatever you get from studying the bible IS your theology. To denigrate all theologies while you yourself have a theology, reveals itself as a “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy.
Theology Really Does Matter
C.S. Lewis had the following to say about the importance of theology in his classic book “Mere Christianity”
……if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.
Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.
Here I think Lewis provides a helpful analogy in defense of theology: that we can look at scriptures and get the genuine thing, as in the person looking at the ocean from the beach, but in a map, while published on mere paper, is compiled through intense study and actual hands-on experience by actual sailors who have ridden the high seas for years. We get the chart as to how to navigate safely. This is how theology works. While no theology is perfect, just as no map is without imperfections, I will still take a map with me before embarking on a journey, instead of haughtily rejecting the work of the cartographers because it has been filtered through “human minds.” I earnestly desire to be aided by the wisdom, experience, and inspiration of those who have travelled the same route before me.
Is Theology The “Redefinition” Of Scripture?
Some of those who would have us throw out all theology do so because they claim it “redefines” scripture. But to redefine something, you need a definition to start with. They think that they are bringing no interpretation themselves, and no definitions, simply lifting the text of scripture directly into their minds without the influence of anything they have ever read or heard, or have been taught. How sweet it must be to have such a virgin mind, a veritable “blank slate”, upon which no human influences have ever been allowed to trespass and pollute.
Take, for example, John 6 verse 28:
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
A Calvinist will have the interpretation that this demonstrates the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, while someone else, either Arminian or of a different persuasion, might say it simply speaks of no one ELSE snatching them, but they still might lose salvation by their OWN undoing. The point is, both sides are applying themselves as good Bereans to come to an understanding of the text. Something without definition from the reader is something that is not understood at any level. An understanding of a thought or word which is not defined by the thinker of the thought or the reader of the word, is a frivolous understanding. It would be nothing different than a file produced by a computerized text-to-speech program.
Doctrine Will Always Matter
The Apostles planted churches, and instructed them with what Jesus had taught them. They set down the doctrines in the churches. This was to be passed down from generation to generation. Nowhere were the churches allowed to put aside doctrine and improvise. Teaching has always been vital to church growth. Paul makes the importance of teaching clear: Rom. 6-17:
17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.
Here is Paul speaking of doctrine to which the followers had been ‘delivered’. He could have spoken about being delivered to Christ, or delivered to the gospel, which would have been quite true, but he chose to say “the doctrine to which you have been delivered.”
And Paul speaking to young Timothy, about the importance of doctrine:
1 Tim 4:6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.
Again on doctrine, and a warning that some will go against it:
Titus 1:9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
And Paul to Timothy, stressing the importance of always continuing in doctrine:
1 Tim. 4 16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.
When Jesus had just 24 hours before he would be nailed to the cross, what did he choose to teach the disciples? The doctrine of the Trinity. The last four chapters of John, about twenty percent of his gospel, is devoted to the last day of the Lord before his death on the cross, teaching the doctrine of the Trinity.
Doctrine Must Be Balanced With Love
Paul was the consummate theologian, having been educated at the most prestigious rabbinical seminary of the times. But he knew the danger of relying too much on “head” and not enough on spirit. He knew that too much head knowledge tended to make man think more highly of himself than he ought to.
1 Cor 2:12-13 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
Apostolic Sign Gifts Continue, But Gift Of Discernment Has Ceased??
I find it ironic that many in the new anti-theology movement themselves believe human offices of Holy Spirit apostolic sign gifts of prophecy, healing, and tongues continue to be open and thriving today, just as they were on the day of Pentecost. But many of these same people believe no man is to be listened to when he uses the Holy Spirit gift of discernment in the teaching, preaching, or biblical scholarship of the Word of God. They believe these things to be “man-centered theology” and as such treat them like pagan traditions instead of giving them the reverence and attention they deserve as being equally as Spirit-endowed as any of the other gifts.
Are We To Believe the Prophets and Healers, But Not the Preachers?
Is someone who publishes a supposedly “thus sayeth the Lord” prophetic utterance on the Internet to be revered more highly than a preacher who stands up before a congregation and exposits passages from scripture? Or the theologian who writes a book on certain parts of the bible? What a tragic development that ordinary, simple, and down-to-earth theologians, preachers and teachers toiling to reach the lost with God’s word or to exposit passages in scripture at a level where their truth can be opened up to believers everywhere are mocked and ridiculed, while the haughty, headline-hunting “healers and prophets” are raised up to glorious heights by prideful man. Such is the result of our truly fallen nature to always choose the flashy and colorful over the humble, the simple, and the true. People like this will never truly agree with the authority of scripture. They will always be seeking something newer, and shinier, and better.
In 2 Timothy 4:2-4 we read about this trend:
2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
Who Do You Believe: Neitzche or Packer?
Lest anyone be fooled by any of this belittling of theology so popular today, I present this sobering quotation from one who is rightly considered one of the most God-hating men who ever lived:
“Whatever a theologian regards as true must be false: there you have almost a criterion of truth………..”
And compare that view of theology to that of Christian scholar J.I. Packer, who said:
“Theology is for the praise of God and the practice of Godliness…”
All blessings in Christ,