October 1, 2014

iMonk Classic: I Hate Theology

There is a moment in every torrid romance when things go badly, the magic vanishes, and one looks at the former object of desire in an entirely unsympathetic way. It’s the moment all lovers dread, but if you study the pros, you know its coming. That moment when, despite all efforts to soar above the clouds, you come crashing to earth. That moment when she looks at him and thinks to herself, “I hate him.”

Such moments are not exclusive to the romances of the flesh and the spirit. They regularly arrive in our relationships with other romances as well, such as those of the mind or the heart. The lifelong baseball player looks at the game and says, “I hate it.” The successful executive surveys his office and thinks, “I hate this.” Or, to be more pertinent, the theologian looks at his books or listens to the lecture or prepares to debate and is suddenly overcome with revulsion. “I hate theology,” he says to himself.
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Now truthfully, such moments may come and go, or they may persist and increase. If they should persist, one must decide a course of action. Do I live with my hatred? Do I seek help? Should I seek to understand this sudden change? Can my loathing be transformed into something else; something more palatable? Or will my hatred grow to the point that I must remove myself entirely from exposure to the focus of my feelings? What should I do?

Yes, faithful reader, you should have seen it coming by now. I have recently been overcome with hatred toward my formerly beloved lifelong passion of theology. Having given these perplexing emotions more than a month to migrate out of my system, it is safe to say I’m stuck with a generous measure of hatred toward theology. And now I must decide what to do.

My counselors have been many and wise. I am indebted to each one for caring at all about me, and I am blessed with reasonable and thoughtful fellow theologians who, while not agreeing with me, know how to encourage without making matters worse. Their almost unanimous diagnosis: I do not hate theology, but I am afflicted with a strong reaction to the manner in which some theologize.

This is, no doubt, true. I have little temperament for the fanatic, no matter where I find him or her. Theological fanaticism has recently occupied too much of my time. But, truthfully, I would be dishonest to say that my hatred of theology is entirely born of interactions with the obnoxious and the arrogant. The primary culprit in my distaste for theology is myself.

I hate what I see theology doing to me.

No Escape from the Planet of the Theologians

My counselors have pointed out that saying, “I hate theology” involves me in an absurd generalization. Theology, they say, is anything we say about God. There is no way to make the simplest meaningful statement about God without indulging in theology. Eschewing theology is only possible if I apply a similar hatred to all statements of fact or all attempts at meaningful communication.

True enough. I have examined the crime scene closely enough to say that I am not making a leap into the absurd or becoming a cynic about all statements of truth. I will always be a theologian unless I can find someone who will pay me a living wage to go to the ballpark and eat hot dogs as a professional calling. Since offers aren’t pouring in, I’ll stick with being a teacher, preacher and writer. Hence, there will be no escape from the planet of the theologians.

But I am rejoining my counselors at this point: I still hate theology. Even as I theologize. Even as I write and preach, there is something in me that grows in hostility to what I am doing. And this is, surprisingly, a good thing.

The world is entirely full of people who have no capacity for self-criticism; people who cannot see the dark side of what they are doing, selling or creating. I propose we reconsider the virtue of doing anything without understanding the circumstances under which someone–perhaps even ourselves–might say we hate what we are engaged in. I am suggesting that if we have not trembled with the possibilities for doing harm, we are not in a capacity to truly do good.

For example, is it ever virtuous for a doctor to say, “I hate medicine?” It sounds insane, but if that physician is saying, “I hate medicine when it treats human beings as collections of organs, and not as souls, spirits and image-bearers of God,” then there is a virtue in the revulsion. If that physician hasn’t understood the outright evil that is done in the name of medicine, then he is naive’ in his attempts to do good.

In fact, understanding the potential for harm, the fallibility of the whole effort, the nearness of any human enterprise to disaster is a necessary component of humility and clear vision. To carry within ourselves “hatred” for what we do is to see the potential–and actual–offensiveness, harm and blasphemy (yes, I said blasphemy) of human projects done without purpose, compassion and love. We have to know the full scope of possibilities for good and evil, benefit and harm, in anything we pursue.

Another illustration. As a parent, I hate what kinds of harm I see parents are capable of doing to their children. I hate the damage that can be done through selfishness and naiveté. Seeing the tremendous harm that can be done and feeling the emotions that go along with that knowledge are fundamental to my own approach to parenting. If I did not feel those negative emotions, I would have an unwarranted optimism and a kind of blinding ignorance that doesn’t even see the damage as it’s being done. I must know–and feel–all that I am capable of as a parent, if I am going to be a good parent.

So “I hate theology” is, admittedly, a provocative approach to one of the primary passions of my life. I’m expressing my arrival at a place in life where I see the harm and the hurt, and I am no longer reveling in the wondrous things possible if I just read another volume of someone’s systematics. I am no longer in awe of theology. I am not ambitious. I am even beyond ambiguity. I see the power of good, and I am horrified at the potential for evil. I love and hate theology, and I will theologize with both those emotions in my heart.

But I see that I must alter my assertion if I am going to write this essay. So I hereby slightly alter my assertion from “I hate theology,” to “I hate theology when…”

Whenever you are ready, I’d like to tour the dark side of this thing we call theology. I have high hopes that, once we emerge on the other side, we may be better theologians for having confronted some aspects of theology its promoters usually ignore.

I hate theology when it’s without humility.

Theology and humility. They ought to go together without much trouble. I mean, this isn’t rocket science. It’s infinitely bigger than rocket science. On his deathbed, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.” We know this is the proper attitude toward our theologizing, but it’s not our normal working stance.

The idea of knowing the truth about God has to be about the most seductively dangerous kind of knowledge we can claim. The more we learn, the more humble we should be. Following the usual theories of knowledge, If God is infinite and incomprehensible, then the more we know, the less we know. That is, when ignorance is replaced by knowledge it opens vast new spaces of the magnificently unknown, and we should be humbled.

Take the modern astronomer. He appears to know far more about the universe than his ancient counterpart who thought the stars were pinpoints of light held by gods or angels. But does the modern astronomer’s increased knowledge make him or her truly knowledgeable, or does it make him or her stupefied with wonder and amazement at what we know and all we don’t know?

So how did we miss this in modern theology? Arrogance, not humility, marks theological discussion and debate among evangelicals and protestants. You would think a few years of reading and study had opened up the mind of the Almighty to be picked through like a card catalog at the local library. The posture of a Biblical theologian ought to be constant worship and wonder, not glibly asserting all that he or she knows for certain.

Remember the story about the reporter asking Karl Barth what was the greatest theological truth he’d ever heard? The answer from the wizened old professor was, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Great answer.

I hate theology when it bullies real ministry.

Those who are worried that I am going over the edge into some sort of postmodern skepticism need to remember one thing about me, the one thing that allows me to say “I hate theology” with a measure of authenticity.

I’ve been to four plus years of seminary, and lived to tell the tale. Until you’ve walked that mile in my shoes, sit down and listen.

When I was in seminary, I sat in a classroom and watched students heckle the gentle and zealous Dr. Louis Drummond as he talked to us about personal evangelism. I watched students in the campus “Evangelism Club,” ridiculed openly as idiots by graduate students who held evangelism in contempt. I heard professors talk about how to deal with the ignorant and unlearned back at the church, those benighted laity who weren’t fortunate enough to know what was really going on as the anointed ones practice the mysteries of Biblical criticism. A friend heard pro-lifers called “fools” by a professor of Christian ethics. Of course, all these distinguished individuals were theologians who would rather theologize than eat ice cream.

I was on church staff during my seminary days at a church near campus. Like any church, we had a lot of simple things to do if we were going to be a church. Staff the nursery. Cook meals. Have prayer meetings. Evangelize. Pray. Minister. Fill committees. Paint the fellowship hall.

The problem was that we could hardly do these things because our church was populated by seminary students and faculty. Theologians. You couldn’t pray. You had to theologize about prayer. You couldn’t have a church dinner. You had to theologize about the poor and economics and justice. You couldn’t adjust the thermostat without a theological debate. The theologians rendered the church virtually paralyzed. (You don’t even want to know what a simple Sunday School class or youth group turned into in this tyranny of the theologians.)

As one might expect, the theologians seemed to always avoid those little jobs the rest of us did because they just need to be done. Incarnation is a great idea, as long as you debate it instead of practice it.

I hate this, and I am not ashamed to say so. Christ didn’t call theologians, he called disciples. Let’s follow Jesus, not just talk about the two natures. He didn’t establish a seminary or a library, but a church, which is a pretty down and dirty business that does a lot more than just stare at its confessions in wondrous rapture and awe. He didn’t give the great debate assignment, but the great commission. We’re on mission with a God who is doing great things in history. Or are we? Some of us are theologizing about ministry so much that we appear to be undermining ministry itself. It’s a great commission to make disciples of all nations, not a great commotion about who can be more literal about the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

Theology has an important role to play in everything the church says and does. But that role is a servant role, not the role of a bully who intimidates simple, obedient people from obeying and serving. This sort of bullying theology seems to fit right in with the Pharisees who never could get over Jesus’ interest in healing and helping people on the Sabbath. They had theologized themselves to the point of having a God interested more in Sabbath rules than in helping people. They felt perfectly comfortable lecturing Jesus as an ignoramus, all the while walking on the other side of the street whenever they encountered the opportunity to minister.

My advice to theologians everywhere: if you aren’t part of a ministry or a church that is actually ministering to people, praying, giving, going, and sharing compassion, you have no authority to speak to those who are. Memos from the library won’t do. In love, I’m telling you to take a vow of silence. Don’t lecture the man giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name if you aren’t giving anything but advice and lectures.

I hate theology when it becomes the enemy of personal devotion.

At this point I need to share a story about people who are still alive, but it’s such a clear example of what I’m talking about that I can’t avoid it.

Recently, a young friend posted a message on her web page about a book she was reading. The gist of the post was, “I want to love God and hate sin, and this book is helpful to me in that goal.” Given what I know about the Bible and Jesus’ message of repentance and holiness, there was nothing to complain about in the post. It wasn’t a post about the true nature of justification. It was a heartfelt, human aspiration to be more Christ-saturated and Spirit-transformed. With that sort of simple desire to love God on the table, you know there’s going to be trouble.

The problem was that, theologically speaking, some could fault the theology that was cited from the book. It wasn’t precise and it wasn’t entirely up to reformation confessional standards on the true nature of sanctification. The more sophisticated the theologian, the more criticism of the book might be possible. That 0.0003% of the population that knows theology might be “concerned.” And one theologian spoke up. It was a simple glancing blow, but it burned my toast. It made me hate theology with a new intensity.

Now I have no quarrel with theological analysis. I do it and will continue to do so. I have no objection to sincerely and directly warning someone that there is a better way or a clearer truth. It’s the loving thing to do. I have no problem with theological discussion of personal piety. Any theologian may write and comment to his or her heart’s content on the modern devotional writers popular today. It’s a service to the church.

The problem here, as is so often the case, is that theology too often stands in judgment over personal devotion as either 1) ignorant or 2) legalistic. I’ve been guilty of this, I’ll quickly admit. I’ll also say it’s ugly and I hate it. I hate it a lot.

Let’s be really clear here. God is a lot more jazzed about a person who wants to avoid sin and love Him than he is about anyone’s expertise on historical and systematic theology. When we’ve reached the point of thinking we are doing God a service by discouraging personal piety because it doesn’t measure up to some theologian’s standards, we’re bad off.

See, the true theologians are tempted to live a life generally free from such petty concerns as personal repentance, devotions, prayer, private worship and pious expressions of love for God. Good theology covers a multitude of sins. Who has the time for such wastes of mental energy when you can read another chapter of some theologian’s dogmatic explorations of the decrees? That need to debate is so much more intense than the desire to pray, isn’t it? Another book, or a time of devotion? Why is the choice so easy? (It’s Wretched Urgency III: The Agony of the Theologians.)

Am I bugging you yet? Good, ’cause I’ve been bugged for a long time, and I want other people to suffer with me.

If the theologian has a service to render here, I wonder if he or she could find a way to render it without making the ordinary Christian feel like a moron for not realizing what a waste of time it was to read a book by a non-theologian that encouraged you to love God and hate sin? Is there a way to help us with those theological gifts without belittling the non-theologian? Without seeing ordinary piety as dangerous? Without making it appear that theology is the better way, and ordinary devotion is the way of lesser, fallible mortals?

I think it was that well known theologian, The Rock, who used to say, “Know your role.” If the heresies that frolic in the minds of non-theologians stir you up to the point of book burning, maybe you need a new career. There is a role for theologians who comport themselves in a way that ordinary Christians trust them and value their words. See J.I. Packer, Don Carson and N.T. Wright for excellent examples.

I’ve got no time for myself or any other theologian who can’t see the beauty of a heart that passionately wants to follow Jesus because we’re too ticked off about some book he’s reading. Sounding gong. Clanging cymbal.

I hate theology when it acts like it’s revelation, rather than fallible human effort.

My BHT friend Jim Nicholson gets the credit for this one. For those of us who believe in the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, it appears that more than one practicing theologian has a note from God excusing him from something the rest of us have to live with all the time: the pervasive influence of sin in every area of human life, including the intellectual exercises necessary to theology.

It seems strange to say, but it appears that some Protestants are ready to defend their theologizing as correct on the basis that God must somehow preserve the church from error. Do Protestants really think this way? The heirs of Luther really talk like this about this very human, thoroughly fallen exercise called theology? Unfortunately, yes, and with consequences that range from the mildly annoying to the devastating.

As many have said before, theology is potentially dangerous precisely because once we have arrived at the “truth,” we’re sure that God is on our side. The conclusion seems to guard the process in the minds of some theologians. What may be true in a conclusion–that we are privileged to know the mind of God–should not be generalized into some kind of authority that resides in the whole process or in an individual person.

Perhaps the best example of this is our beloved Reformed T.U.L.I.P. Is God committed to the TULIP? Or is it human theological effort? Is it our shorthand, our thoughts and words? Or did God send it down here to bless us, and it needs to be carried before us into battle like the ark? (Careful, don’t touch it!) Of course, I believe that, to some extent, TULIP presents a shorthand summary of what good people believe scripture says, but the fact is I have to make a conscious decision to treat TULIP as less than scripture. It’s NOT revelation. It’s theology, and it’s the product of sinful minds thinking less than perfect thoughts. As a human thought, it’s no more divine than the menu at MacDonald’s.

In fact, are we ready to admit that scripture nowhere implies that knowing what scripture says changes the fact that what we think is, and always will be, fallen and depraved? Having scripture in our minds doesn’t change the nature of my thoughts or invest me with authority or infallibility. (See Christian history for examples of what happens when you get this wrong.) Salvation by grace through faith doesn’t have small print that says “mental works” done in the name of good theology are exempt from the all-corroding influence of sin.

I’ll go one more level on this game. Could we quit quoting theologians like they are the 67th book of the Bible? Behold the following barely fictionalized sentence: “I believe that (insert theologians of choice) have been used by God to (insert preserve, recover, discover, clearly communicate, etc) the true Gospel.” Anyone heard that before? Stated like it was as certain as “In the beginning, God…”

Enough already. This just won’t work. “Theologian of choice” in the above game is a depraved sinner who was privileged to graciously receive light and put some fallen version of it into print. His words and work may change my life. It may put me in my Bible or lead me to worship, serve and love Jesus. But I can’t say anything about this character that approaches revelation or divine authority. (Funny how Christians turn their heroes into such supermen, while the Bible pulls all its “heroes” right down into the mud with the rest of us.)

Take John Piper’s theology of Christian hedonism. It’s impacted my life in a powerful way. It’s been a lifesaver for me, and I’m more grateful to the guy than I could ever say. But he’s a fellow stinker, and his theology is fallen and flawed, and there is no authority–NONE–in Piper’s version of Christianity that’s greater than someone else’s.

It should be said for the record, the problem here is rarely with the theologian. It’s with his fans, and I’ve been as guilty as anyone. When we can quit toting around Calvin as if the Bible was incomprehensible before him, then we may have properly repented. Hate theology that creates celebrities with authority. It’s a good thing we have theologians, as long as we remember that they are just like us. Don’t burn the books. Burn the posters and autographed t-shirts.

I hate theology that must swat every error on sight.

In the summer, we have flies here in southeast Kentucky. I don’t like them, and so I often teach with a rolled up newspaper within reach. When a fly lands near me, I swat him. Now I don’t mind, because I hate the flies, but my students have frequently noted that it goes beyond distracting when I am swatting away between every third word, or stalking the room chasing down the one I’ve missed.

Welcome to an analogy that describes some of the theologically minded. They are right, errors are intolerable, and they are going to swat them on the spot. Like my classroom, pretty soon the main event is swatting flies, and nothing else really matters.

When I first met a full-blooded Calvinist, it was one of these fly swatters. No matter what I preached about, he came by the next day and explained to me how I had violated the tenets of Calvinism. Did I realize I had called for people to make a choice? You can’t do that. And did I know I had strayed into the wilderness of Arminianism on several occasions? Swat! What about that invitation? (This was back in the day.) Swat, swat…SWAT.

I feel sorry for you if you have to teach, pray, preach or otherwise communicate the Gospel around the theological fly swatters. You’ll spend most of your time getting whacked, and you are going home angry–and bruised. Yes, you may go home, read the Bible and change your mind (or not), and the theological fly swatter will be encouraged to continue fighting the good fight, one pesky fly at a time.

Which brings me to the question, is the theologian’s conviction that he is right and that theology matters more than niceties a reason to excuse poor behavior? I mean, after all, wrong teaching can send people to hell. It can destroy the church. It dishonors the Gospel. Truth is what matters. How can a real theologian overlook error as if it didn’t matter? As if error were insignificant? Once you are aware of the truth embodied in your theology, the smallest, most commonly accepted error is really the doorway to hell, and you should have no regrets about pulling the cord, bringing the train to a screeching halt and shouting “Fire!” to the souls in imminent danger of damnation.

In the mental health field, they call this Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It’s treatable, but the patient must admit his or her problem and take his or her medication.

I suppose there is nothing that has made me feel sickened at the prospect of talking theology like this behavior. It’s theological wretched urgency. It’s a kind of works theology. It’s ungracious. Despite what some think, I don’t believe Jesus gave a daily Matthew 23 tirade to every Pharisee he met or upon every erring word he heard from a small town rabbi. I believe he laughed a lot, shook his head and told another story. I don’t think Paul–an intense guy, for sure–couldn’t pray with other people because their theology bothered him so much he had to correct them on the spot. I don’t think it’s a manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit to lie awake at night thinking about the burden of being the only one within twenty miles who is right, knows the truth and can correct the erring.

Again, I hate to say it, but there are mental illnesses where the patient has a “messiah complex.” I must save the world. Argue with everyone. Straighten out the mistaken before it’s too late. Any sermon, any statement of personal devotion, any discussion of personal religion becomes a hill to die on for these people. They can’t see it, and they convince themselves that their “ministry” is being God’s red pen grading everyone’s theological papers. If there are repercussions to their fanaticism, guess who’s the victim and who’s the persecutor or the liberal heretic or both? Righto.

We all err. We believe errors. We propagate them. We read them. We tolerate them. All our theologies carry errors. Only Jesus is that Final Word without error, and he doesn’t come in a systematic theology textbook edition yet.

We ought to strive to be as theologically correct as possible. We should encourage one another in that pursuit. It’s permissible to be abrasive if the situation calls for it. Obviously, no one likes to be told he is wrong. But I’ve got one more point to make, and I hope we will all listen carefully, because it’s the key to what I am feeling and what I am trying to communicate.

I hate theology that ignores our humanity.

Ultimately, theology doesn’t matter. What matters in this universe, right behind God in and of his Trinitarian self, is the human person.

In the 1928 novel, Mr. Blue, Myles Connolly put this soliloquy into the mouth of his central character. Put the theological fly swatters up for a moment and read something wondrous. (Thanks to Peter Robinson at The Corner.)

[Blue] put his hands into his trouser pockets and leaned backward, his face toward the heavens, now filling with stars.

“I think,” he whispered half to himself, “my heart would break with all this immensity if I did not know that God Himself once stood beneath it, a young man, as small as I.”

Then, he turned to me slowly.

“Did it ever occur to you that it was Christ Who humanized infinitude, so to speak? When God became man He made you and me and the rest of us pretty important people. He not only redeemed us. He saved us from the terrible burden of infinity.”

Blue rather caught me off my guard. I might have admitted in him a light turn for philosophy. I did not expect any such high-sounding speculation as this. But he was passionately serious. He eyes were glowing in the dark. He threw his hands up toward the stars: “My hands, my feet, my poor little brain, my eyes, my ears, all matter more than the whole sweep of these constellations!” he burst out. “God Himself, the God to Whom this whole universe-specked display is as nothing, God Himself had hands like mine and feet like mine, and eyes, and brain, and ears!….” He looked at me intently. “Without Christ we would be little more than bacteria breeding on a pebble in space, or glints of ideas in a whirling void of abstractions. Because of Him, I can stand here out under this cold immensity and know that my infinitesimal pulse-beats and acts and thoughts are of more importance than this whole show of a universe. Only for Him, I would be crushed beneath the weight of all these worlds. Only for Him, I would tumble dazed into the gaping chasms of space and time. Only for Him, I would be confounded before the awful fertility and intricacy of all life. Only for Him, I would be the merest of animalcules crawling on the merest of motes in a frigid Infinity.” He turned away from me, turned toward the spread of night behind the parapet. “But behold,” he said, his voice rising with exultancy, “behold! God wept and laughed and dined and wined and suffered and died even as you and I. Blah!—for the immensity of space! Blah!—for those who would have me a microcosm in the meaningless tangle of an endless evolution! I’m no microcosm. I, too, am a Son of God!”

He finished his outburst with a great gesture to the stars.

My humanity matters. I hate theology when it takes away our humanity and reduces us to carriers of ideas. Students in a class, always in danger of failing. Dummies being terrorized by the smart kids and belittled by the teachers. I hate theology when it makes the smart kids, good readers and high IQs into the real Christians, and the rest of us into fodder for their razor sharp arguments and endless citations. Where is the beauty and the dignity of humanity in all of this?

This is why I find myself needing to read Brennan Manning and Robert Capon, because they are in awe of God, Jesus, and the fallen image bearers. I love to listen to White Horse Inn, because no matter what the topic, they can laugh, joke and enjoy music. I love Steve Brown’s jocularity. In fact, call it an ego stroke, I like my own sense of humor more than my theological mind. I’ve thought some deep thoughts, but they were all gifts of grace popping into a mind that usually thinks more of sex, dirty jokes and slugging percentages than it does of the love of Christ. If that’s not a hoot, I don’t know what is.

Theologians need to meditate on God’s inexplicable habit of wading into the river with us sinners. Clothing Adam and Eve. Giving a break to Cain. Hanging out with Abraham, Moses, Noah, David and Elijah. None of them were great theologians. All could be petty and were frequently wrong. They were notorious sinners. The theologians are down at the temple, oiling up the big religion machine only they understood. God’s favorites are chopping down Philistines, writing poems and romancing women. Now there’s a God I can appreciate.

Theology can become a club to beat down the gentle children of God. If it knows God so well, it ought to act like the God it knows. The good shepherd. The gentle healer. The weeper over Lazarus. The one who makes water into wine. Jesus wasn’t one of the Pharisees in theology or in personality. When he got angry, it was because they didn’t see the need to heal a man on the Sabbath. What would he say about some of our theological tricks that separate believer from believer over “confessional” matters in the footnotes of the footnotes? When everything becomes war between the theologian and the erring world, cruelty and barbarism are excusable. After all, God–and nothing else–is important. Right?

That people matter to God–erring, ignorant, people–seems lost on too many theologians. They can sit behind their books and debate the angels on the head of a pin, while someone with unacceptable theology lives out the Sermon on the Mount and dies loving people in Jesus’ name. The theological mess isn’t excusable. I concede that point quickly. But the lack of humanity is worse. It’s outrageous. It’s dangerous. And I hate it.

Several years ago, I was reading A.W. Pink’s book, The Sovereignty of God. I knew nothing about Pink, except that my friend was convinced if I read Pink, I would become a Calvinist. (I later joined the Reformed camp, but it was in spite of Pink, not because of him.) At the end of Pink’s book was an appendix on John 3:16 and Pink’s view that God doesn’t love everyone. If you have been around Calvinistic circles, you know that the question, “Does God love everyone the same way?” is a live wire, and you also know there are lots of Calvinists who say “No. God does not love all people in the same way.” In fact, there are people quite excited by this doctrine.

Pink’s appendix made me angry. I found myself thinking of a song we used to sing when I was a child: “Jesus loves the little children. All the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I imagined a little children’s choir, made up of all the children in this song. Pink was saying God didn’t love some of those children. He was so devoted to the “L” in the TULIP, that he wrote an appendix telling me I cannot look at a room full of children and truthfully say, “God loves all of you.”

Could Pink come up with the scriptures and the logic to sustain his theology that John 3:16 isn’t true for all the children of the world? Certainly he could. Would Pink vigorously defend his theology as being a true presentation of who God is and what God is like? Is this about the Gospel or about Spencer’s schmaltzy illustration? Does it matter that it’s offensive? Pink would defend his interpretation as God’s way of dealing with human beings. If I don’t like it, that’s my problem. I should quit trying make God into nice and let him be Yahweh.

Well, I’m feeling it again. I hate theology that is this inhumane. Theology that actually says God doesn’t love people and gives me permission to make a distinction between the elect and the reprobate in my personal dealings with human beings. Don’t say that’s not a danger. It is, and Christian history testifies to it again and again. If you can look at Jesus and say God doesn’t love some children, then write a book of children’s sermons so I can break the news.

I know more than one person has read this far and is chortling with delight that I am such a hypocrite that I would write a theological essay on how I hate theology. I know I have not outrun my own contradictions in method, and I never thought I would. I know that a theology of hating theology renders me a fool and a ranter. So be it. I never promised to be consistent, just to be human.

I must find a way to get beyond these feelings of aversion to the joy of good theology and of being a good theologian. It’s not going to be easy, because after 32 years of being a Christian, I’ve had my fill of theology that has little humanity and too much arrogance. But I’m going to be a Jesus theologian, if it kills me–and it will one day. Truth is beautiful in Jesus. It is hard edged and gentle. It divides and it heals. I can’t find this balance in many theologians anymore, but I do find it in Jesus and in a small number of his followers who know what matters most and what matters little.

I’ll be with them.

Comments

  1. Kudos to Michael for being THIS honest about his profession. Any human endeavor that finds its purpose only in satisfying the self will ultimately lead to negative results. If the illumination that theology can provide does not make stronger disciples, then it has lost its purpose. This was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s criticism of many seminaries before WWII. And relative to the previous post about suffering, it was Michael’s wrestling with his hate towards theology (suffering) that led to his clearer purpose in making disciples (joy).

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Example from science fiction. Specifically, “Hobson’s Choice”, one of the side stories from Eric Flint’s 1632 series, about a c.2000 West Virginia town kicked back in time and space to 1632 Europe during the peak of the Thirty Years’ War:

    In 1633 London, some uptimer books and uptime news articles surface. Somebody notices an article about a crop failure with yields of only X bushels per acre. This uptime “crop failure” is a higher yield than a 1633-vintage bumper crop.

    The question among those who notice this is “How are the Uptimers able to get such huge crop yields to the point where our bumper crops are their crop failures?” The main story is trying to get a fact-finding visit together — bootlegging it behind the back of the Official Enquiries to the uptimers. Because “All they want to do is argue how this affects Predestination and Theology, NOT how our crops can prosper. With crop yields like this, we can head off famine! And they just argue whether this proves Predestination and how it fits in Theologically — forever!”

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Several years ago, I was reading A.W. Pink’s book, The Sovereignty of God. I knew nothing about Pink, except that my friend was convinced if I read Pink, I would become a Calvinist.

    The original Internet Monk mentioned A.W.Pink in other essays. Including how A.W.Pink achieved the theoretical end state of Protestantism, a “True Church of One” worshiping alone at home because he never found a church that agreed 100% with his Perfectly-Parsed Truly Reformed Theology. ALL were Apostate and/or Heretical.

  4. Bill Metzger says:

    About five years ago I experienced (ouch! There’s that word) an interior change. I can’t/won’t explain it, but suffice it to say that this experience changed my view of SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY. Having an OCD (CDO) personality and loving to neatly control and categorize my life, I naturaly loved “systematizing” God. What I (along with my lovely wife) experienced would no longer allow for that or tolerate that. God cannot and will not be categorized, tamed, figured out or leashed. I still teach systemtaic theology in catechesis (seventh and eighth graders as well as adults who are new to the Lutheran expression of our faith), but now it’s no longer about theology; it’s about Jesus! As you can see, the problem I have with systematic theology is MY problem. By making it about theology, and not about Jesus in the past, I was/am to blame for this difficulty. Now it’s about Jesus and systematic theology serves HIM and not the other way around. ‘my bad. Romans 5:20.

    • Bill: Very nice. This sounds similar to a mysterious experience St. Thomas Aquinas had shortly before he died; it resulted in that most prolific of theologians declaring he would never write another word about God. He didn’t.

      I like and appreciate systematic theology in reasonable doses, but I also love the Orthodox definition of a theologian as one who prays.

  5. Pure doctrine?

    Hardly. Doctrine is a result of history and we seem to muck it up, at least a little.

    Pure gospel?

    Yes. And that is what a good theologian rallies around. And that we may know if what is coming out of the preacher’s mouth has anything to do with what Christ has done.

    Or does it all end up back onto us.

    • Steve — The word “doctrine” just means that which is taught. We can teach the Gospel, in which case the Gospel is our doctrine. When Paul in Romans says “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” he is saying that the good news is what is being taught, hence is doctrine. I don’t think an avid desire to categorize everything as “Gospel” and “non-Gospel” helps us understand our language and God’s nature in any depth or complexity.

      Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “The Dogma is the Drama” deals with the issue of doctrine, or dogma, well.

      • I don’t think an avid desire to categorize everything as “Gospel” and “non-Gospel” helps us understand our language and God’s nature in any depth or complexity.

        If I had the time I could find several over-played dichotomies: I think “our efforts vs. GOD’s efforts” falls (often) in this kettle as well.

        GregR

  6. I remember this essay. It was formative for me. Without the imonk, I may have become exactly the type of theological bully (minus the credentials) that he is up against here. I thank God for him, because I’ve seen what happens when theology ignores humanity.

  7. Very similar feelings as I”ve been reading reformation history a little lately. The parts about the anabaptists getting the “river test” for right theology or just plain torched by both sides of the Tiber (the reformed magistrates nodding and adding their tiki torch to the wood). If theology doesnt take us to love in and for Christ and others, what good is it ??

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Theology became Ideology.
      And Purity of Ideology justifies any atrocity.
      We saw enough of that in the 20th as well as the 16th.

  8. Bill Metzger says:

    Damaris: Very, very nice! “One who prays”. Wow!

  9. This essay was my introduction to Michael many years ago. I really can’t over-emphasize how serendipitous and timely it was for me as a young man. Thanks for reposting.

  10. I love this. Thank you. I’m speechless actually. I have so much trouble with the theologies of exclusion and hatred. I get bogged down when people tell me I live in lala land because GOD hates thus and so people and GOD spews thus and so people out of his mouth and on an on an on ad nauseaum. Thank you for an article that remembers the humanity of us all. Thank you.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I get bogged down when people tell me I live in lala land because GOD hates thus and so people and GOD spews thus and so people out of his mouth and on an on an on ad nauseaum.

      A lot of Christians these days are “All Culture War, All the Time”. And that usually comes across as a more genteel version of Fred Phelps.

      It’s just another form of God-talk One-Upmanship, Debra. “ME SHEEP! YOU GOAT! HAVE FUN IN HELL! HAW! HAW! HAW!”

      And Heresy and Backsliding and “living in lala land” is always the OTHER guy, NEVER you.

  11. Theology is not a thing of itself. Theology is a way station on the road to other stuff, like going and doing and becoming and developing. Theology should be the bow that sends the arrow, you, out to do His work and into your closet to find your own personal sanctity, not the foxhole you hunker down in, waiting for someone to come by and cover you with dirt. The end, Christianity, is not an intellectual exercise.

  12. I hate theology when it discounts the mystery of faith. That’s why most Evangelical theology (such as it is) sucks.

  13. “Christ didn’t call theologians, he called disciples.”

    I love that. I love his entire essay.

  14. Oddly enough, the statement, “I hate theology” is kind of a theology in and of itself. It’s like churches that say “no creed but the Bible”. That statement is itself a creed.

    Perhaps what we hate isn’t so much theology, but the realization that the Enlightenment was at its core wrong about the idea the humans are rational beings. Just because we have an understanding of why we should or shouldn’t do something, it doesn’t often change our actions. Theology is like anything else we do – if our hearts not in it, we won’t find it fulfilling.