Seminary is often called cemetery. This is because people who have lively Christian lives come to seminary and then are pummeled by high academic work and strong challenges to beliefs, convictions, and lifestyles. But for me seminary has been an experience of equipping, emboldening, and empowering. I have indeed been challenged philosophically, emotionally, and spiritually (and sometimes physically through long nights). But, after coming from an environment which was devoted to only studying one point of view and not looking at other claims or viewpoints, coming to a seminary which allows for theological differences was at first a challenge, but ultimately a blessing. I have professors which are strong 5-point Calvinists. I have professors which are strong 5 point Arminians. Eschatological views are all over the map among students and faculty, and so on and so forth. The view of my college was that if you have the truth, why spend time looking at things you know are not true? This has some legitimacy to it. The rationale went something like this: When the U.S. Government identifies counterfeit money it does not spend time looking at all the different counterfeit bills. They study the true bills so meticulously that when they come across a counterfeit, it is obvious. Now I don’t know if that is actually true, but it does sound reasonable. But it really doesn’t hold weight when we are thinking about theological issues, doctrines, traditions, and opinions. To say we know the truth about every doctrine, even ones which are not that clear in Scripture, seems a bit presumptuous, and perhaps a bit ridiculous. There are doctrines which have been hotly debated by Christians who are fully committed to biblical ennerancy for a couple thousand years. These people want to know the truth of Scripture and obey it. Yet, over the centuries people have disagreed, fought, and sadly have killed over differences in beliefs. This has nearly always occured when people think that their view is the only possible view and that any other view is heresy.
Now of course it is true that there is typically only one TRUE interpretation when looking at Scripture. Most of the time the correct interpretation is so clear that there truly leaves little serious debate or doubt. However, there do arise passages in Scripture that are ambiguous enough to have multiple legitimate interpretations. There is a correct interpretation. There could be a handful of interpretations, but ultimately there is only ONE true interpretation. There also is the possibility that no one has the correct interpretation when everyone thinks that they, or their tradition, has THE correct interpretation. Hence, as we continue to understand the original languages, context, and historical setting of the various books of the Bible, we are understanding Scripture better and better.
Something that has really helped me deal with various traditions, viewpoints, and interpretations has been a statement made by Chrysostom. He said,
In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, charity. In all things, Jesus Christ.”
As Christians we need to learn that God is big and that He cannot be put under our thumb. We do not know nearly as much as we think we do about God, and we are not as smart as we think we are. How we live is directly affected by how we view God. We many times love to think we know why exactly God does things. We love to think that we have God all figured out and that Christianity really is not all that complex. But this is not a reality. Sure, aspects of Christianity are simple, salvation by faith alone seems simple enough, but the Christian life is complex. We live in a world of sin, despair, tragedy, hurt, and suffering. The Christian is called to be different. As the world is entrenched in sin and despair, the Christian has be broken from that sin. The Christian is now not to be conformed to the ways of the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind through the power of the Gospel. We are the light of the world, and a light set on a hill cannot be hid.
To be able to combat the world’s philosophy and hedonism, we must be thoroughly studied up in the Scriptures. We must know the commands and precepts of the Bible, and find delight in doing them. We must desire Godly wisdom and not turn our ears from it. We must hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Unfortunately, what happens many times is that as we meditate on Scripture and hear sermons from people we respect and formulate our own personal systematic theologies, we can give too much dominance to our own personal interpretations. We end up becoming so attached to some of our theology that to have it challenged is a personal attack of our person. But we must remember, the renewing of our mind must come from Scripture, not theological frameworks. If we equate theological traditions with the authority of Scripture, we have taken a step in the wrong direction. We are giving too much weight to man’s organization of what Scripture says. (Side note: I am completely a fan of systematic theology, I am just saying that we need to be careful to not let one system which makes sense to us determine how we interpret the Bible. We must remember to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and to allow a specific passage to be seen in its own context).
This brings me to my main point:
If we honestly desire to know truth, no truth claims should scare us
What is our authority, Scripture or our own theology? Many times we can grow up in a biblical tradition that makes sense. Various passages of Scripture are explained in such a way which all bend toward a certain theological position. And oftentimes when we have held to a specific theological tradition and then find it being challenged we get defensive. In some cases, people begin to doubt their entire faith because of a tension within one aspect of their theological framework/worldview.
This is easily seen in tragedy. Take, for example, a horrible car crash in which a husband loses both his daughter and his wife. Most would assume that because this is such a horrible tragedy the husband would begin to doubt the true goodness or sovereignty of God. Ironically, this is not typically the case. It is typically the friends of the family, or other various family members whose faith and theology have been shaken that they are uncomfortable with a God that would allow this to happen.
A prime biblical example is Job. God wiped out everything that Job had — his family, all his possessions, and even his health. Satan assumed that Job only worshiped God because He had blessed Job so immensely. But after all this tragedy had taken place, the first thing Job did was fall to his knees and worship God. How could this be? It seems so counter intuitive. Job obviously was upset. He sat silently for a week in sackcloth and ashes, the symbol of sorrow and misery. But he was not alone. Job had friends. They were also initially quiet with Job. But as they sat silently, they obviously were trying to contemplate how such a thing could possibly happen. Job was righteous and he feared God. In fact, they probably could not think of one thing that he had done wrong. He was blameless, and continued to be throughout these horrible days of his life.
But to his friends, this just didn’t fit their theology. How could this happen to Job? There must be some reason this happened. So Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, began to question Job. In doing so they exemplified their devotion to their personal understanding of who God is and why He does things. Surely God would have to have a reason to do such or to allow such horrible things to happen to him. Surely their own theologies were right, and therefore Job must have done something wrong to deserve this. In doing this the three friends question and interrogate Job – doubting his blamelessness and sincerity.
In the end, the friends of Job were truly not friends at all. They were critical. They were accusing. They were kicking a man while he was down, and ultimately led Job down the path of bitterness towards God. They were lovers of their own theology more than lovers of God. They assumed that because Job was suffering, he must have done something to deserve it. They assumed this because that was what they had already believed about how God worked. But, what they didn’t know was what the reader is privileged to know — that God and Satan made a “bet” over whether or not Job would bless or curse Him even when he did not have all the blessings from God. Also something to note, God never let Job in on why it all happened either. He was left, like many are today, not knowing exactly why things happen. In Job’s case he suffered BECAUSE he was righteous. It was the exact opposite of what his friends thought.
We should learn from this ourselves. Do we try and make everything fit into our theological framework or are do we allow life to help us better understand who God is? Are we okay with trusting that God is good and not knowing why God does everything that He does? And we must learn not to make the same mistake that Job’s friends did — to defend their own theology, when they should have been supportive of their friend, perhaps by simply keeping their mouths shut. God does not need to be defended. People who go through terrible tragedies will often tell you this. They don’t need their theologies reassured, they need simple support and love. Job’s friends were not defending Job or helping him, they were trying to help themselves.
I give Job’s story as an example of how we can become married to our own theologies rather than simply trusting God. They let their personal convictions come between them and a friend in need. And many times we make the same mistakes. And it happens with the most fundamental conservatives as well as the liberal leaning evangelical. For the fundamentalist in the pursuit of purity, people are rejected, scorned, and discord is sewn. For the evangelical in the pursuit of unity, people are mocked, criticized, and pushed away. That’s what happens when we hold too strongly onto our own convictions and doctrines — people are hurt.
Something that has become abundantly clear to me is that we as the body of Christ need each other. We can’t do it by ourselves. With all of the various traditions and denominations, no one has it completely figured out. We need each other for accountability and to not fall into one locked theology in which we use as a lens for interpreting the Bible. The Bible must be kept as the focal point and lens by which we examine one another and our interpretations of the Bible.
But some reject such an idea, and I believe the root cause of this rejection is not truly a desire for purity. It is fear. Whenever people are challenged in their beliefs, especially long held beliefs, they get defensive. It is natural. And I believe it is definitely forgivable. We all do it. It’s practically inevitable. But that is even more reason for why we need to be exposed to other viewpoints. We may be surprised at how much we become sharpened in our faith if we allow for our defenses to be let down a bit and to honestly hear out another take on a passage we have understood in another way.
There are things which are the non-negotiables, so to speak. These would be considered dogma – the things which make Christianity what it is, the orthodox beliefs passed down through the centuries. For example, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the crucifixion and atonement of sins, the resurrection of Christ, etc. These things are pillars which are not to be compromised upon. These are the uniting orthodox doctrines of true Christianity throughout the centuries.
There are doctrines which we hold dear, and are still foundational to our theology, but are not necessary for salvation. These things are firmly held within various traditions of the church, but can be disagreed upon if their is biblical merit for such a disagreement. This is what makes many people uncomfortable and it takes spiritual maturity to have honest conversations about differences in these areas. Examples of such doctrines would be how baptism should be done, how communion should be done, etc. Differences in these types of doctrines are extremely important for various traditions. It is also something not to be taken lightly. People have died for some of these differences because they have felt them to be dogmatic. Honest conversation is a hard thing to do, and it takes humility.
There are also various convictions that people hold about how to live the Christian life. These are things like strict music standards, strict dress standards (skirts for girls), not going to movie theaters, not drinking alcohol, using the King James Version, etc. These are things which are convictions. Many people scoff at such things. In fact, I lived in such an environment and lived by such rules through four years of college. But as I lived in this environment and thought through the issues, I realized that these were the were “weaker bretheren.” They would most likely not agree with that statement, but I wholeheartedly believe it. And once I came to that conclusion, it helped me understand how to relate and navigate in such an environment. But these convictions are important because it is in these convictions that people are able to serve God where they are at in their walk with Christ. They love and serve Christ, too.
God is amazingly merciful. He uses people which are all over the map theologically. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but if we are honest with ourselves we’d admit that we don’t really have everything figured out. There are doctrines that we hold to and believe because that is just the way we had it presented to us, and it makes sense that way. And we love to hold onto the things that just make sense to us, or to things that our pastor always taught. But we don’t have it all figured out, and neither does any one tradition. We need to be humbled by this fact. We many times like to think that God uses us because we do have Him figured out (so we think). God uses us because He wants to be made known among all people. And He uses those willing and submitted to Him to proclaim His word. Remember how Paul explained us in 1 Corinthians? He uses us, who are generally foolish and simple, to confound the wise.
Oftentimes when we see God using people who don’t seem to believe the same things as we do, we get all defensive and emotional — perhaps even scared. But this should not scare us. This should encourage us as we grow in our own relationship with God. This should simply drive us to the Scriptures and check scholarship and truth claims against what the Bible says. We have the truth — revelation from God through man. We should not be alarmed. And scholarship about the text helps us understand the original context in which Scripture was written. And as we find out or discover aspects of our faith which are incorrect, or built upon faulty premises, we should have the honesty to change our opinions and convictions based upon the TEXT rather than change the text based upon our CONVICTIONS. But sometimes that is hard for people to do. It is uncomfortable, but if we want to truly worship God, we have to be intellectually honest.
If we have the truth, no truth claims should scare us.
We have the truth given to us in Scripture. We have the Holy Spirit to help guide and illuminate us. We have the example of Jesus Christ in how to live and to relate to others. These are amazing gifts to us which should be the foundation of our faith and understanding.
Because of these objective truths, we should not be afraid of others who CLAIM to have truth. There have been many who have claimed things which seem to be contrary to what we know and believe traditionally. Initially, I believe it is okay to have “red flags” go off in our heads when there is something presented by someone that appears to be contrary with what we know about Scripture. But it shouldn’t SCARE us. We shouldn’t live in fear of those who seem to be making truth claims.
I believe they initially should quickly be considered, held up to Scripture, and then categorized as legitimate or illegitimate. Our initial reaction should not be fear. If someone is preaching falsehood, then we should indeed point them out, and explain why. But we should not just run away from the conversation. That is not healthy. And to just simply label something as heretical is not intellectually honest. We need to consider things in a very honest manner.
Earlier in the year there was an amazing amount of attention put upon Rob Bell and his new book Love Wins. In this book Rob Bell challenges the traditional views of hell. Initially people seemed to react with fear, anger, and hatred. Then there was the second wave of people reacting to the reactors with anger and disappointment. But this was all caused because anger and fear were the initial reactions. We simply need to interact with each other in charity and in honesty. (Of course Rob Bell does seem to try stir up controversy, so he can take part of the blame as well…)
My point is that if we have the truth (and we do) then we shouldn’t be scared of truth claims. If we draw attention to the false claims in fear and anger, then we do nothing but hurt ourselves and our faith. If they are not true, then we should explain why they are not biblical and move on.
Claiming to know it all…
We like to think we have God figured out. And many times we act like we do have God figured out. I believe we have to be careful of claiming to know why God does what He does. Remember, God is infinite and therefore we could not possibly know why God does all He does. I personally believe we should not try and define the working of God in short pithy statements. But people do it all the time. Famous preachers and teachers do it all the time.
John Piper, to me, is notorious for doing this. He summarizes much of why God does what He does through simple, easy to remember one-liners. They sound good. They seem biblically sound, but is it the whole truth? Can God really be summarized by the fact that He does EVERYTHING for His glory? Can missions really be summarized by saying that “missions exists because worship doesn’t?” To me, John Piper seems to be claiming to know why God does all that He does. And of course he backs his arguments with Scripture, but what else is he leaving out? We need to be careful that even in our theological statements we aren’t putting God in our own theological box. I believe we always need to be recognizing that God is bigger than we can truly describe, and He cannot be put under our thumbnail.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I appreciate MUCH of what Piper says and does and what he stands for. But sometimes Piper can be a bit too heavy handed in his theology and discount much of what others bring to the table. There needs to be a balace. There needs to be grace and mercy in our conversations with people. We have a lot to learn from Piper and his insights, but I believe that he also has a lot to learn from others’ points of view as well.
Ultimately my point is if we believe in God and His sovereignty, then we should not be afraid. God loves us. He makes that clear over and over in His word. He wants us to know Him intimately, and we can thanks to His Son Jesus Christ. There is no reason to live in fear. For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. Let’s focus on those because fear has no place in the person of faith.