Theologians who just won't die
Fear and Loathing in Las Vagueness
- Mike Reeves was formerly UCCF's Head of Theology, and is now Theologian-at-Large at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. View all resources by Mike Reeves
Five hundred years ago, the church was in much the same state as today: in desperate, desperate need of reform. Then, in to the rescue galloped a posse of the most talented individuals of the day. They had among their number the very finest scholars, they shared a heartfelt passion for the renewing of the church – and they accomplished virtually nothing towards that goal. The rescue failed.
That was the sad story of the sixteenth-century humanists (nothing to do with later atheistic humanists!). But where did it all go wrong? They were absolutely sincere in wanting people to live whole-heartedly for Jesus; they were unstinting in their efforts. The problem was, they never thought they needed to bother with theology. They thought that more devotion would do the trick. And so they never questioned the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism. As a result they were doomed ever to remain prisoners of where the church was at, never able to achieve more than cosmetic changes.
It was only when Martin Luther dug into the theological foundations of the church that it was really reformed. And what a Reformation! When gospel-theology led the way, the church was renewed beyond all recognition.
The lesson for today seems rather obvious. And yet. Something happened on the road to today that has left us all as closet despisers of theology, like the humanists. And that was the almost total victory of Enlightenment rationalism in our culture. Its denial of divine revelation meant suddenly that theology could no longer be talking about real truth. And so theology became a titillating hobby for those who preferred books, an ivory-tower alternative to football. Today that is a cultural assumption that is extremely hard to get out of our heads. And, bluntly, the theologians often don’t help. Who can believe anything but that theology is irrelevant when they see the ‘Trust in God and keep your theology dry’ brigade?
It’s time to stop the madness. If we are content to watch the church go its own sweet way with just the occasional lick of devotional paint and the odd sponging-down of how we do things, then we can afford to leave theology alone. But if we want to see a true refreshing, a true renewal, a true Reformation of the church, then a deepening theology of the gospel is the only way forward.
Finding your inner Luther
So, how to awaken the Reformer within? How to become an agent of such refreshing? First, by being clear on what theology is. Theology is not a specialist science confined to an academic fringe; theo-logy is speaking or thinking (a logia) about God (theos). Theology is nothing less than knowing God, and nothing less than knowing God will shape the grain of our hearts. That is why it is not quick ‘how to’s’ that the church needs, but theology, for it is only a deeper knowledge of God and his gracious being that will speak to the very depths of our souls, so that we don’t just change our behaviour, but find our very selves renewed from the bottom-up. In fact, given that knowing God is a life and death issue, theology must have a life or death significance.
The word ‘theology’ also tells us something else about what theology is, for wrapped up in the word is the idea of the Logos, the word or speech of God. And so we know God as he has revealed himself through his word.
Standing up to polter-zeitgeists
Here’s where theology starts becoming revolutionary, not just for our hearts, but for the world. For everyone lives by trusting some word: the word of God, the word of a parent, the word of an authority. In every person, it is someone’s word that reigns supreme.
Christian theology is therefore the true ‘re-search’, for it is about searching the whole of reality afresh in the light of what God has revealed, so clearing out the junk in our minds accumulated through years of listening to the world around us, and replacing it with truth. It is putting on the mind of Christ, and so sifting out the lies in our culture that otherwise we would live on, and refusing to drift with the assumptions of our society.
For example, our culture is steeped in pragmatism. We feel that we don’t need to think hard about how and why and what we go about doing; we should just get on with doing things. Yet that mentality forgets that it is infested with unquestioned theological presuppositions, and thus that all its activity can simply be spent in travelling in the wrong direction. So, as Christians we are eager to do evangelism. But what evangel do we tell people? Only theological study, wrestling with the bible and the great doctrines that Christians have found there, can give us the answer.
The queen of the sciences
Clearly then, theology is not a subject like other subjects. Rather, because of the universal claims of Christ, it seeks to boldly go where no mere discipline would dare, and inform every other branch of knowledge. The university grew out of the theological faculty, and, if the gospel is to be believed, may never leave it. For, as Abraham Kuyper said, ‘there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”’ Thus in every aspect of our living and knowing we should seek to be informed by the word which is truth, and not to be led astray by any other words that falsely claim supremely authoritative knowledge. This is doing theology.
Theology therefore simply could not be more relevant to day-to-day living. If we see theology as irrelevant, we are calling God a liar by saying that his word does not describe reality.
The New Testament’s word for a disciple is mathetes, which literally means ‘learner’ (and from which we get our word ‘mathematician’). It picks up that profound truth that knowledge changes us, that we become what we know. That is why the New Testament’s word for repentance (metanoia) is a word all about knowing (from noein, ‘to know’). How transforming that is! It means that true repentance is about a renewing of our minds, and that means no real change without real theology.
Doing theology is all about change, growth and repentance. That is knowing the living God through his living word. What a tragedy it is that theology has become associated instead with stuffy irrelevance! But that can only come about when theology has truly lost its way, when the theologian has become more interested in his own little thoughts about God than he is in the living God himself. (The Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof said that the lowest reaches of hell are reserved for just such theologians!)
The dark temptation
Perhaps, though, underneath it all, there is a more sinister reason for our dislike of theology. Quite simply, we do not like to admit to ourselves that God has spoken to us, and spoken clearly. For then we would have to confess that we have not obeyed him. And so we fear and loathe gospel-theology, with its blunt talk of God and his ways. Instead we naturally prefer theological vagueness. There in the shadows, undisturbed by the harsh light of divine revelation, we are free to fashion our gods to our hearts’ content; we can make a religion that is no more than comforting experience, moralism, or whatever we choose.
And, we go on, doesn’t such doctrine-free Christianity give less for people to fight over? Doesn’t it help unite the church? This was exactly the argument used by Erasmus, the prince of the humanists. ‘The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity,’ he once said, ‘but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible’. But what, then, would people be uniting around?
As Erasmus showed, the temptation to sideline theology is subtle and strong. But the story of the humanists makes it quite clear: without theology, without the doctrines of the gospel, there can be no true unity, and no substantial reformation.
What Luther saw was that Christianity is a matter of theology first and foremost. God reveals his truth; we believe, confess and press in to know it. Only with that dynamic could reformation sweep through the church. May God make us all such theologians!