What is your Theology?
What is your Theology?
Orthodoxy in Christian theology has been measured by many different things. Volumes have been written to fill libraries and debates that have fractured whole nations have been a part of holding to and clarifying these basic ideas. Much of the controversy is justified. Theology is important. What we believe determines how we behave. Yet, it is a sad and unfortunate reality that many Christians will create untold strife and discord over matters that are of secondary theological importance. We love to make mountains out of mole-hills when it comes to theology.
At the school of evangelism we place great value upon The Apostle Paul teachings to “keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace”, to “esteem others better than yourselves”, as well as to “above all have fervent love between one another”. These verses and many similar ones, should temper our theological studies and how we communicate and discuss them, particularly with our brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree. After all, the practice of our Christianity is of just as great importance as our affirmation of a particular creed or theological position. In the words of 19th century evangelist Charles Finney, “the church is mighty sticklish about correct doctrine, but awfully loose about correct practice.” He went on to describe how many would not allow someone behind their pulpit who didn’t subscribe to the Trinity or denied the resurrection, yet we readily fill our pulpits with men who are clearly eaten up with pride, vanity, cowardice and many other blatantly ungodly characteristics, which are in many ways an even greater denial of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul, when describing the qualifications of elders or deacons in the pastoral epistles of Timothy and Titus does not mention any theological litmus test (though, I think we can reasonably assume that there was a creed of which one being considered for such office would have already given assent to) and says little about theological commitments, but rather lists in detail everything to do with character and integrity of practice. How is their behavior? Is their character tested and proven to be solid? Will they give in to the temptations of lust, drink, greed, self-glory, etc. that shipwreck the leadership of so many of our churches. Unfortunately today those qualifications are some of the last things dealt with in our Bible colleges and seminaries, and rarely sought after amongst congregations seeking leaders. So long as the proper theological boxes are checked administrative skills, speaking ability, and business sense have replaced much of Paul’s “qualifications”. Surely it is no surprise that we see American Christianity plagued with it’s current distresses. Doctrine, to Paul, is as much about our character and our othropraxy as it is about our theology.
Now, it is true that what you believe will determine how you live, and thus theology, one’s beliefs about God, is extremely important. But men can fake it, what they say they believe is not always what they actually believe. If Joe says he believes x,y,z yet his behavior is consistently the opposite of x,y,z then Joe probably doesn’t believe x,y,z, no matter how much he may say he believes x,y,z. Looking at one’s practice is thus just as important as looking at what one professes to believe.
So what do you believe?
I want to stress again that a humble disposition is vital to one’s theological undertakings. The more one studies theology the more one realizes they have a lot to learn and that there are many, many nuances and complexities to serious theological study. This becomes especially clear as we step outside our own denominational framework and scan the 2000 year global history of the work God has done in His people in various times and places.
We should not be quick to label others heretics or divide over theological differences. All of that being said, we believe that there are at least essential doctrines which are necessary in defining Christianity over and against other belief systems and religions. The divinity of Christ, for example, has been a clear dividing line for all Christians in all places throughout history. There was much debate and sifting through ideas to arrive at the precise nature of that divinity and Christ’s relationship to the Godhead, but there was never debate about the divinity of Christ. What came out of the council of Nicea in 325 A.D. thanks primarily to the Alexandrian bishops, Alexander and Athanasius, was the doctrine of the hypostatic union. This understanding continued to be refined and debated for another two centuries sparking numerous church councils. The conclusions of these councils are important. God used brilliant and godly leaders in His Church to refine these ideas. And the conclusions that were wrought are essential to defining Christianity. We affirm the Nicean creed, along with the Apostles creed as essentials.
If we are going to talk about our God then we must have, as much as is humanly possible, a correct perception of God’s nature and character, particularly as has been revealed to us in Holy Scripture by God Himself. There are several basic attributes and qualities that the Bible ascribes to Him, which distinguish our understanding of our Creator from many of the idols that have been concocted in the imaginations of men throughout the centuries. Things like, God’s holiness, His love, and His rationality are important characteristics to understanding our Creator. There are also things like His being all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and ever-present (omnipresence), that would go into a proper understanding of God’s nature. We would also include the Incarnation of Christ, God becoming man and God’s Trinitarian nature. These are complex matters and although one certainly doesn’t need to have a perfect or complete knowledge of these things to be a Christian, to be redeemed and to have a place in heaven, they are vitally important in properly defining Christianity.
And so here is another distinction that needs to be made. Stating what is essential to defining Christianity is not the same thing as stating what is essential to being a Christian. Not all Christians understand these essential doctrines. Especially while young in the faith, new converts come to the saving knowledge and mercy of the gospel of Christ yet have almost no knowledge of the atonement of Christ, the doctrine of justification, the precise nature’s of Christ or the Trinity, etc. So when we talk about the essentials of salvation this is a different theological category. Here our focus is on what must one believe to be a Christian?
How We Attain Right Relationship with God
Christian theologians can be divided into two major camps, those who place some degree of works as necessary to compliment Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and those who see Christ’s atoning death on the cross as wholly sufficient to justify man in God’s sight. We believe that ascribing certain “good works” as a necessary part of how one attains God’s forgiveness, be it baptism, sacraments, feeding the poor, giving to the church, catechism, confirmation, or any other thing is heresy.
Martin Luther helped to spark the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century when he trumpeted the Apostle Paul’s simple words, “the just shall live by faith”. From this came the phrase “justification by faith alone”, or Sola Fide. This simply means that what Christ did on the cross is sufficient in atoning for our sins, completely. If we come to God in repentance and faith, He can forgive us, without us having to do anything but simply bow our hearts to Him and believe. There is nothing meritorious on our part. “Not by works of righteousness that we have done but according to His mercy He saved us.” Titus 3:5. For those who are the recipients of God’s mercy, good works will follow. AS Paul says, “he who began a good work in you will complete it.” God’s Spirit will work in our hearts to sanctify us. Christ is not just our Savior but our Lord. As we increase in our love and gratefulness toward Him we will have a greater desire and ability to obey His commandments.
Can someone be a Christian who doesn’t quite understand this idea of justification by faith and not works? Yes. It is precisely because I believe in justification by faith alone, and understand God’s great mercy that I know He can save those still confused or embracing bad theology in these areas, even while he begins to work on their theology.
Becoming a Christian is as simple as calling upon the name of the Lord out of a repentant and believing heart. (Rom.10:13, John 3:16). Growing as a Christian is a process of sanctification, understanding, and growth in knowledge.
We should not be quick to divide with others, nor should we be unnecessarily harsh or excessively quarrelsome while discussing and even debating doctrine and theology. But there are lines to draw in the sand. Balance here is crucial as is distinguishing essential doctrines from non-essential and maintaining a spirit of gracious and charitableness, even in our disagreements.