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A humble theology.

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The church I attend has a heavy intellectual streak. This paints the situation a bit too lightly though, because streak implies an exception rather than the norm.  And our obsession with mental rigor is hardly an outlier or some orbiting satellite, but rather the central disposition.  I have done little to reverse this layout; if anything, by default of my personality, I’ve done much to expand its reach.

There is much to be admired in these qualities, but lately I’ve found a certain blindness in its adherents (myself firmly included), an inability to entertain the possibility of theological imperfection.  I don’t know why this struck me so suddenly.  It’s absurdly obvious to everyone else.  Listen in on just about any conversation between two Christians discussing theology and you’ll find a near constant stream of such evidence.  It is easy to discern because it’s always prefaced with firm absolute statements, full of pious confidence; phrases like ‘the bible clearly says…’, or ‘what Paul is obviously saying here is…’

This sounds quite normal until the underlying assumption is made clear. As an exercise, take a moment and browse the list of Christianity’s most beloved and influential theologians.  Write their names down in one column.  Origen, Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, Calvin, etc.; those pious believers who’s brilliant and mighty shoulders we stand upon. It is difficult to imagine what our lives as Christians would look like without their influence.  Would we have the 27 books of the New Testament?  Would the divinity of Christ or the concept of the trinity stand as universally accepted truths within our faith?  Next to their names, list their top two or three biggest theological contributions.

Unfortunately the list of helpful contributions is not without embarrassing exceptions.  We must also add a column for each one of their bizarre and heretical beliefs.  Begin with the belief that all unbaptized infants go straight to hell, and next add the attempt to remove the book of James from the bible.  The first was Augustine, the latter, Martin Luther.  Referencing John Calvin, we should also jot down the practice of executing those who preach disagreeable theology.

There is really only one reasonable response to such a list.  Humility.  Are you really the first person in 1900 years of Christianity to perfectly thread theological tapestry?  Will future generations look at your theology and find nothing deemed insane and unbiblical?  Will your grand statements of bold and confident declarations withstand the scrutiny of the coming centuries.  I doubt it.  If the titans of our faith still erred in such ways, we can do little but assume you’ve done the same.

How should we respond?  Paul tells us we ought ready ourselves with an articulate defense of our faith. And with statements like “No one shall come to the Father except through me” Jesus made some issues dead obvious.  Therefore, concrete theological beliefs are a must.  But with each step that we move away from this undebatable core of doctrine, we must bring an increased humility to our convictions.  And rather than view this as weak or indecisive, we ought let it be a reminder of the great gulf between our minds and God’s.

Comments

Comment from Dean Britton
Time February 9, 2011 at 8:10 am

Paul told the Athenians he served “Agnos Deos”, their Unknown God. The one thing we (should) know for absolute sure is that we don’t know for absolute sure, and neither does anyone else. Throughout history, the one consistent response of man to an authentic interaction with the Almighty is a soul-shaking humility. Phariseeism is at least a great an error as apostosy.

Comment from Phillip Higley
Time July 26, 2011 at 11:40 am

I appreciated reading this post on theological humility, and thank you for it. Your overall point was a breath of fresh air, so to speak. The lack of theological humility is a major problem within the church, and from my own observations there are certain strands of theological hubris which are being masked in very unhealthy ways (I won’t go into details;-).

I also admit that I’m perplexed at how some followers of Jesus can hold certain secondary/debatable theological views along side dogmas such as the Trinity, Dual Nature of Christ, Sola Gratia, etc. Of course many of these same people would not admit they are doing so, but their praxis and theological absolutism demonstrates it through and through. In addition to humility, we also need charity when we do theology, specifically Christian Theology. One way in which we can do this, I believe, is to consider various voices (I’m talking about heretical voices!), e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bonheoffer, Barth, Jonathan Edwards, Wesley, Spurgeon, etc. etc. These voices all have something to say regarding the person and work of Jesus in the history of redemption, and though I disagree in some ways here and there with each voice, I find each voice important nonetheless.

On another quick point, I think there’s a piece of the theological hubris that comes with baptizing certain voices over and against others, so as to make certain voices “THE” authority on certain matters. For example, Grudem, Piper & Carson (trinity chosen on purpose;-)… These are absolutely excellent voices, but there are others too…Keller, Sproul, McGrath, and certain dead guys like Barth and Bonheoffer and Tozer. My primary voice is Jonathan Edwards, whom I love and disagree with on multiple theological points. Anyhow, my overall point is that our sampling of the voices often times dictates our hermeneutic when it comes to valuing theology, and then making that theology our own. Again, we come back to your point of humility.

As for me, I’ve been studying theology for some time now, and have studied in formal academic institutions as well. Following my seminary experience I’ve had to step back and reassess my own conception of “bulletproof theology.” Why? Because plain and simple there is no “bulletproof theology.” Of course many people would never call theirs ‘bulletproof’ per se, but their actions typically demonstrate otherwise. There have been many times when discussing theology over a beer in a pub that I’ve been shocked to hear certain positions, and how strident those positions have been held, to the degree of my dialog partner accusing me of being heretical in the most cavalier sense. Rubbish!

To add something to your blog post, I’d like to recommend taking a look at a small work by Helmut Thielicke called “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.com/Little-Exercise-Young-Theologians/dp/0802811981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311708033&sr=8-1). I was assigned this book in one of my systematic theology classes. The reason I know now that I was out of line then (i.e., arrogant), was because when I read the title of the book I got sort of pissed off. “I’m not a young theologian!” I thought to myself. Well, actually, yes I am, I soon found out. Anyhow, I’ve got to get back to work but thanks for the blog because it got me thinking. Humility by the grace of God!

Comment from Phillip Higley
Time July 26, 2011 at 11:42 am

Haha, I meant to say (I’m NOT talking about heretical voices!)

Comment from jrmallory
Time July 26, 2011 at 11:49 am

Good points Phillip. I would write more, but I broke my arm on Saturday and have yet to perfect the art of left hand typing. Funny you mention the book by Helmut Thieckle; I’ve got it sitting on my shelf, but I’ve never read it. I’ll dust it off and give it a go!

Comment from Phillip Higley
Time July 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Nice! Not your broken arm but having the book;-)

Later!

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