How to Screw Up Your Theology
Do you treat the Bible like a tunnel, or do you treat it like a cave?
When a person stands at the mouth of a tunnel, it is entirely possible for them to receive messages from the other side. If a person stands at the other end, they can speak loudly and the words will travel down the tunnel to meet the ears of another. In this way, a message can be easily sent from one person to another through a tunnel.
But a cave doesn’t work like that. A cave, because it has only one opening, isn’t much good for sending messages. If someone hears a message come out of a cave, it was likely not sent from another person. Rather, it is probably just an echo, a person’s own voice reverberating back to them after bouncing off the back of the cave wall.
When you read the Bible, who’s voice are you hearing? Is it God’s? Or is it your own?
A Significant Discovery
My theology has changed a lot over the past 10 years because it was increasingly revealed to me that I was using the Bible like a cave. I thought I was hearing God’s voice, but in reality I was hearing my own. I think that all Christians struggle with this to varying degrees. The scary thing is that almost no one is aware of it until it dawns on them much later. One day God opens our eyes to see the truth as it really is, and we are forced to either change our theology or continue to recreate God in our own image.
I have said before that one of the marks of a growing Christian is that they have gone to war with the Bible and come out on the losing end. What I mean is that they held a particular view at one point, became increasingly confronted by Scripture that their view was false, struggled mightily with giving up their cherished opinion, only to eventually tap out and adopt a new view. I have had this struggle several times on several different issues, and it is not a pleasant experience. When everything you thought you knew to be true becomes exposed as false, it’s terrifying!
Getting it Right
It is absolutely paramount that we adopt the following approach: we move from Bible to theology, not from theology to Bible. What I mean is that we must not force the Bible to say what we think it should say. We should not jam our views into the pages of Scripture so that the Bible becomes a friend to the doctrine we already hold. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to do so. I’ve done it. And I’m sure in some respects I still do it. But I try really hard to avoid this approach and let the Bible speak for itself, and you should too.
It became clear to me that I was not letting the Bible speak for itself on a number of issues when I found myself continually squirming my way around certain passages in the Bible. I would read something from Scripture that challenged my beliefs, or hear it being preached on, and found that I would immediately go to other verses in my head and say, “well what about what this verse says?” I discovered that there were certain portions of the Bible that I simply wanted nothing to do with because they were an affront to my theology. They didn’t fit nicely into my current doctrine, and so I made every effort to explain them away.
I would hear Paul say something so clearly in 1 Corinthians, but immediately jump over to Galatians in order to escape the obvious meaning. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that the Bible is a unit and that some degree of synthesis between passages should be sought after. But that’s not what I was doing. I was not going for synthesis. I was going for avoidance. I know this is the case because I would not take the time to figure out what was being said in 1 Corinthians, but only determine what was not being said. As long as the passage in Galatians could balance the one in 1 Corinthians enough to make it not say something that was contrary to my theology, I was content. It didn’t matter to me what 1 Corinthians said, so long as it didn’t say what I thought it shouldn’t be saying.
In this way I was largely ignoring the parts of the Bible that didn’t fit my beliefs. I would come across a particular passage that undermined what I thought to be true, and rather than grapple with it, I would essentially skip past it. Many statements in the Bible I began to view as my enemy, not my friend. I would hear someone quote a particular verse that went against my beliefs and, rather than rejoice in Scripture, I would begin refuting it in my mind. Certainly I believed that the verse was inspired Scripture, but never would I want to use it in my systematic theology!
Perhaps you have experienced some of the things I’ve detailed here. It is important to be self-aware about our prejudices when reading the Bible, especially because we are all so prone to protect them. But if we are to be serious about knowing God as he has revealed himself, we must be diligent to fight off the desire to make the Bible say what we want it to say.
Here are a few signs we might not be doing this very well:
- You have never changed your doctrine on a significant point. Perhaps you were taught really well and so require very little change in your doctrine as you mature as a believer, but for many this is not the case. A lot of Christians believe what they believe because they have been told for a long time that it is true. But my feeling is that we all need some course-correcting as we grow, and so if you have never gone to war with the Bible and come out on the losing end, it could be because you don’t really want to change.
- You avoid parts of the Bible. Like me, you believe that the whole Bible is the Word of God. But, like me, you treat the Bible as if some parts are really the Word of God and others snuck in there somehow by mistake. If you find yourself constantly pushing back certain passages of the Bible, or simply avoiding them by jumping to other texts that are more comfortable, perhaps you are censoring the Bible from saying what it really says to you.
- You can’t tolerate mystery. Serious students of the Word like to approach the Bible as if it were a mountain to be conquered. We think that with enough study and rigorous systematizing, we can fit together a complete theology of the Bible with no holes or question marks. Ha! What a foolish idea to have. A great deal of theology will be stamped with a gigantic question mark, because the reality is that God has not revealed everything there is to know about himself. Some he keeps hidden, and some he reveals (Deut. 29:29). This means that there will be parts of Christian doctrine that are unexplainable. We should not be so quick to slam the theology of another when it doesn’t make 100% sense to our finite, sinful brains.
- You don’t believe anything that’s hard to swallow. Let’s face it: some things about God are difficult to believe. The easiest example would be the existence of hell. Many Christians have a hard time believing in hell because it doesn’t sit well with us emotionally. Yet it takes some serious exegetical gymnastics to refute it from the Bible. We end up denying it because we don’t like it. If you don’t believe anything from the Bible that causes you at least a little bit of discomfort, you’re probably just hearing your own voice.
- You draw conclusions apart from the Bible. This might be the most tell-tale sign of all. A lot of theology is rejected because it does not fit with a person’s philosophy. We take a specific doctrine, think about the implications of it, decide we don’t like them, and therefore throw it all away. One common example would be election. Many verses teach that God chooses ahead of time those who will be saved. Someone who doesn’t like that idea then lifts it outside of the Bible, decides that it would mean that evangelism is pointless, and then discards it altogether. Yet this does not let the Bible speak for itself! Can the Bible not say that God elects people for salvation from eternity past and say that human evangelism is essential to people’s salvation? If you believe that those are contrary ideas, it is because you determined they are, not because the Bible did. You decided those two concepts cannot exist together in your theology. It is sad because so many of the same Christians who believe in the Trinity (a paradox of theology if there ever was one) are quick to reject other theological ideas that also contain paradoxes. Instead, we should let the Bible teach doctrine and the implications of that doctrine, whether they are what we thought they should be or not.
A Conscious Effort
It takes real work to put aside our own notions about what God should be like, what the Bible should say, and what does or doesn’t make sense. Our thinking is so sin-stained it should be fought off by every ounce of Spirit-guided self-control we can muster. We need to approach the Bible with wide open ears, alert minds, and humble hearts. We need to realize that God might not be who we expect him to be, that he may work in ways we don’t expect him to work, that his goals are not what we would expect them to be, and (gasp!) that he might not be nearly as much like us as we think he is.
My desire is to help raise up lovers of God and readers of the Bible. But not just any kind of lovers or any kind of readers. Lovers who love what they see from the throne and not from the mirror. And readers who hear what they hear from the tunnel and not from the cave. I desire to be, and to help others be, the kind of Christian who wants to reflect the image of God and not create the image of God. My plea is simple: open the Book, and let it speak! Set aside your immediate objections and, firstly, take time to just listen. Don’t be so quick to refute. Passionately desire what God has to say to you. Be jealous to hear his voice, and over time you are sure to be led by the Spirit into all truth.