Is Theology Good or Bad for Our Faith? (September 18, 2019)
Dear VICC family,
The apostle Paul once wrote, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1b). What he meant was, knowledge can make us prideful. It can “puff us up.” But love, on the other hand, builds people up. When we focus on how much we know, or how right we think we are, the focus is all on ourselves. It doesn’t do anybody any good. On the other hand, love is necessarily outward focused, directed at whoever we are loving. Love always brings about good in one way or another, even if we don’t see the results immediately. This is timeless truth for all of us.
Having said that, I think it would be foolish to go on and say we shouldn’t value Christian knowledge at all. That would be like saying, “Knives cut people and forks are pointy, so I only have spoons in my kitchen.” Just because something requires a little wisdom and precaution to be handled safely, it doesn’t mean we should avoid it altogether. If we do, we significantly reduce what we can accomplish.
I was reminded of the value of Christian knowledge just last night at Alpha. This week’s video and discussion were on the topic, “Who is Jesus?” Everyone in our group had church experience and professed some sort of faith in Jesus, but one of the participants was Mormon, a Latter Day Saint. He was a very kind man, and very knowledgeable in his Mormon faith. Understandably, he wanted to push back on some of what was said in the video and to present Mormon doctrine as a better alternative. That’s the kind of thing that can happen at Alpha, so he wasn’t breaking any of the rules. But as things progressed, I felt the conversation was becoming muddled. This was not necessarily the Mormon man’s fault. It was, from my perspective, the way the more established Christians sought to respond to him. There was a clear desire to only stick with biblical language, but the problem was that Mormonism uses the exact same language. At issue is that Mormonism interprets that language differently. No Mormon is going to disagree that “Jesus is the Son of God,” or with the words of John 3:16. They just believe those statements have a different meaning than Christians do. The Mormon man was willing to use his religion’s theology, and the result was he was making a better case, in the short term at least, than his Christian conversation partners. (Obviously, if we had an hour or two to unpack the whole New Testament together, it would have turned out differently.)
In a desire to move things along, I temporarily stepped out of my role as conversation-facilitator to explain in broad strokes the Christian understanding of Jesus. The conversation stabilized itself and we moved on. I don’t know that the group needed me to do that, and I’m not saying I handled the issue any better than the group eventually would have. But by being able to say, “The historic, Christian understanding of Jesus is this, and that is the understanding of Jesus underlying the video,” it provided clarity and moved the conversation forward.
Sometimes Christians distrust theology because it goes beyond merely quoting the Bible. The most famous example of this would be the complaint, “You don’t see the word ‘trinity’ anywhere in the Bible!” But for anyone who has soaked deeply in the Gospel of John or the letters of Paul, you start to see after a while that the only way to make sense of the divine reality we see in those pages is to say something along the lines of the doctrine of the Trinity:
The Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God
Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father
There is still only one God
Therefore, there must be one God in three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To say anything less than this is to diminish the glory of God and deny the historic Christian understanding of God. Jehovah’s Witnesses do this by agreeing there is one God but denying that Jesus or the Holy Spirit are God. Mormons agree that the Father, Son, and Spirit are gods, but deny there is only one God and instead say that there are many gods (but every planet has its own god). Obviously, the Christian understanding of God is based upon the Bible, and if it cannot be established by means of the Bible it should not be believed. But once we know what the Bible says, and we know how to summarize the teachings of the Bible into compact theological statements (Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, God is a trinity of three persons while remaining one God, the death of Jesus Christ pays our debt of sin, etc.), we should not be afraid to use such statements, knowing that what we are saying bears the full weight of biblical authority behind it.
Your partner on the journey,