Recently, I’ve been seeing an increasing amount of slogan posts decrying the stuffiness of theology and suggesting that we should return to “just loving people and Jesus”. While I appreciate what these posts are warning against (namely, theology as a baton of arrogance or condescension), I cannot agree with the simple conclusion that we should love people over against practicing theology.
One such post has a list of “Things Jesus Didn’t Say”. Some of the phrases listed there are:
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have correct theology.”
“And you will know the truth and the truth will make you superior to all the other simpletons who never learned Greek or Hebrew.”
The purpose of this list is to remind Christians of what is genuinely essential to the Christian faith, and to implicitly decry the state of the modern mega-church with all of its focus on buildings, programs, and other “religious” distractions. A lot of young adult-ish believers are sharing this post (and thus endorsing it) in an effort to express their desire for an authentic Christianity, but I wonder what kind of benefit this sort of satirical polemic really provides us.
A list like this places theology and practice at odds. It mocks the modernistic tendency to quantify and classify God, and it exposes the inherent arrogance that such quantifications can fuel. Basically, this list is saying that because theology is so divisive and cumbersome, we should just focus on loving one another. We should focus on accepting one another without all of the qualifications and hoops that we hold over people. Warning heeded. But let me offer a counterpoint. We ought not jettison theology just because some are doing it arrogantly (is that arrogant of me to say?). Rather, we should re-engage theology with the same kind of humility that it takes to love people. Let me offer five reasons why theology is important to loving people rightly.
1. Orthodoxy (“right thinking”) leads to orthopraxy (“right action”). To love anyone at all is an inherently theological act. It is motivated by what we believe about the worth of people (is it based on the image of God or functional worth?), about the heart of God, and about what love truly is. All of these are informed by right thinking about God, His word, His heart, and his creation. Love is, in and of itself, theological.
2. Discipleship is actually defined by right thinking about God. Jonathan Edwards wrote that the way to affect the actions of a person is first of all to affect the mind. If the mind can see value, it will incline the heart and will to move towards that object. Discipleship is about seeing the worth of Christ, valuing it, and pursuing him with all that we are. The more we value him, the more we will follow him. Thus, we need to know him better. We need to look closely at the contours of his glory and not just settle vague generalizations. It’s the difference between seeing a masterpiece painting from distance and going up-close to see the brushstrokes and the painstaking detail involved. You can definitely enjoy a painting from a distance, but when you begin to see what goes into it, it takes on a whole new level of value.
3. Love the Lord your God with your mind. Too often, we reduce life in Christ to an emotional feeling or a charitable act. While both of these have value in the Christian life, they must be held together by the life of the mind. Too often what I feel about God is in contradiction to what I know about God. That’s when I have to actually preach to myself. I have to take what I know to be true about God (theology) and rehearse it, work over it, and rephrase it such that it begins to affect my actions and my emotions.
4. While theology can sometimes be dividing, it can be uniting as well. I believe that unity in the church is one of the most powerful witnesses to God’s new creational, new humanity-creating work through the cross. However, it is not just unity for unity’s sake. It is unity around the good news that Jesus has defeated death by taking the brunt of sin’s just punishment. It is a unity that is forged as we, from varying backgrounds and ethnicities, belong to each other. It is a unity that says everyone needs grace, and it comes through Jesus alone. This is the stuff of theology. Throw out theology and you get a unity that is really nothing more than corporate activism. So sometimes, disunity is actually a necessary thing. If we can’t agree on the majors, then our fundamental premise is off. This doesn’t give us the right to be jerks or arrogant, nor does it necessarily mean we can’t work with someone. However, we shouldn’t just throw out theology in the name of unity. Too much is at stake.
5. Everyone practices theology. The entire list of 15 things is actually a theological treatise though informal in its presentation. The author of this list is saying that the kingdom of God is in our midst, that new creation means the earth will be made new, not destroyed. He suggests a theology for church practice, for evangelism. He is in essence saying, “this is THE theology that really matters. All of your lesser, petty disagreements should be put aside and everyone should just embrace this.” Isn’t this the same sort of condescending polemic that the author sets out to expose and renounce?
Just to be clear – I am not in disagreement with the author’s premise or his statements. I am just concerned that when we launch a polemic like this, we can inadvertently push the pendulum to the other side. Like Martin Luther said, we can be “like a drunk who gets up on one side of the horse only to fall off on the other.”
So let’s not throw out theology (actually, I don’t think it’s possible to “throw out” theology. We can only so ignore the importance of theology that we unknowingly do “bad” theology), but rather seek to do humble theology such that a gracious and humble orthodoxy leads to radical and sacrificial orthopraxy.
(A great little primer/reminder about the challenge of doing theology well is “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians,” by Helmut Thielicke.)