Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Why Good Theology Matters!

---By Joel Miller

Many American Christians don't give one hoot—let alone two—about theology. Go no further than your average Christian bookstore to judge this for yourself. What shelves there are warp under a heavy load of "inspirational fiction." Packed spine-tight are the "Christian living" shelves. "Current Concerns" and "Prophecy" are likewise jammed to the rafters. Even the kids area looks robust—especially when compared to "theology."

That anemic little section usually has a volume or two by Francis Schaeffer, the obligatory copy of Knowing God by J.I. Packer, some R.C. Sproul if you're lucky, and a few unimportant dispensational theologians explaining why all the great theologians of Christendom are bad. Note the thin layer of dust on the tops of the tomes. Note the sparse traffic to the section. Note the blank stare on the face of the clerk when you ask if he has anything by O. Palmer Robertson, Arthur C. Custance, Loraine Boettner, or Cornelius Van Til.

Asking modern day Christians to read theology is almost like asking high-school English students to read Shakespeare—sure they should, but, oh, how they hate the idea. It's, like, hard and all that. But it's also, like, necessary and all that, too.

Theology is simply our understanding of God. All of us have a theology—some good, some bad, some just plain pitiful. As Christians, though, we must strive to have great theology. It is just part of knowing God. If we claim to "know" somebody, say a prospective mate, and we hold all sorts of erroneous, offbeat, or fuzzy formulations about who this 'Sally' might be, how would that play?

You get her movie tickets when she loves books; you learn to waltz, though she loves swing; you show up to Starbucks to walk her home from the job only to find out she works at Washington Mutual. Better find a new prospect and hope you bolster your brain files on this next one or it's bachelor days for you, bub.

God's the same way. If we have a bad theology we may find we're courting the wrong deity. Our own pet ideas of who God is are not good enough. We need an informed and adequate understanding of the object of our worship, devotion, and faith. That's how we court the right God. Writes Charlie Peacock, "developing truthful and comprehensive theologies is a way of responding with love to God."[1] God is not pleased by vacuous ideas of himself coming from his people—or worse, self-flattering or ego-stroking ideas of who God is.

God wants us to think of him as he is. I am that I am. That's his name. That should also be our thought process—taking God for who he says he is. Mainly, that means reading and learning Scripture (something most do with pathetic irregularity and woeful inadequacy). Next, that means reading good theologians, guys who spend a lot of time training to understand the nuances of Scripture.

Some object that Scripture is all they need (which, if they actually read it, sounds almost plausible), but these people often go to church to hear preaching, one of the foremost methods God has chosen to spread the word about who he is and what he expects from his people. Books of theology are just sermons on a page. You won't get to hear James Montgomery Boice preach; he's dead. But you can read his books, and I recommend you do. Ditto for others: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and more.

Studying theology also helps to keep a leash on our understanding of Scripture. You can go back and read theological writings that are nearly as old as the church. While tradition doesn't trump Scripture, it does help us keep on target with our understanding of it. If a teaching is entirely novel, chances are good it's bunk, and bogus ideas about God are dangerous.[2]

The theme in Charles Williams' excellent novel, Descent into Hell, is narcissism so complete it eventually leads the cupidity-struck individual "beyond Gomorrah," into hell. In the story, rather than pursuing a real woman, the historian Lawrence Wentworth begins fabricating an imaginary one, his ideal mate. He rejects reality and truth and adopts instead a fanciful lie. Trouble of course is that this "ideal" is just a projection and reflection of himself.

Eventually, this narcissistic passion runs so flush, so full, it engulfs Wentworth in a sort of hell, a place where only he exists. "He had believed that there would be for him a companion at the bottom of the rope who would satisfy him for ever, and now he was at the bottom, and there was nothing but noises and visions which meant nothing ... and he was drawn, steadily, everlastingly, inward and down through the bottomless circle of the void."[3]

While overly dramatic perhaps, this is the end result of trading truth for untruth. Only by accepting things as God presents them, including himself, do we escape such a fate. Our knowledge of God is only as good as our theology is true. If our theology is incomplete or wrong, we may not indeed be worshipping and serving the God of Scripture and instead simply following a projection of ourselves, the God of our dreams, not reality.

Good theology is speaking and thinking honestly about God, and, as people who claim to love and follow him, our aim should be to please the Lord with minds that reflect the truth about who he his as faithfully as possible.

1. Charlie Peacock, At the Crossroads (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 75.

2. Thomas C. Oden, "On Not Whoring After the Spirit of the Age," No God But God, eds. Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 189-203. This is a fabulous essay on the importance of cohesive, consistent theology.
3. Charles Williams, Descent into Hell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, [1937] 1990), 220, 222.

1 comment:

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Good piece, Joel. Hope you visit our site: TheAmericanView.com and comment.