Note: This is the ninth of a series at articles on common contemporary viewpoints which are contrary to orthodox Christianity.
What and Why is Theology?
Theology is the science of God, just as geology is the science of the earth, sociology the science of society and biology the science of living organisms. It is strangely true that theology is regarded with contempt not only by irreligious and worldly people, but by large numbers of professing Christians and church members. This disparagement of theology may take the form of a frank rejection of theology, or it may take the form of brushing theology off with a little faint praise. When some person says: “Theology is important, of course, but…” what is usually meant is that theology is not important and need not be taken very seriously. Again, when someone says of a popular minister: “Of course his theology is not orthodox, but his messages are inspiring and helpful,” this is just another way of saying that it does not matter whether a minister’s sermons are based on truth or not; that is, that theology does not matter and need not be taken seriously.
It is sometimes said that “Ministers should not preach theology.” This is just another way of saying “Ministers should not preach the truth about God.” For theology is simply a matter of true and accurate knowledge about God. If ministers are not to preach theology, what are they to preach? If they are not to preach the truth about God, what message can they have beyond common sense advice on the human level? The reason why so much contemporary preaching misses the mark is because it is devoid, or nearly so, of theology, and therefore consists merely of endless exhortations to be good and do good. The Church’s real message is a message about God; that is, it is theology. And if the Church’s real message concerns God, surely it should be a true and accurate message about God; that is, it should be Scripturally sound theology.
A medical man once said in my hearing: “Theology and geology are about the same thing,” meaning that theology deals with matters as far removed from everyday human concerns and happiness as the fossils and rock strata of geology. Such prejudice against theology is not at all uncommon. Of course, even the science of geology is not unrelated to human life and welfare; even geology has its practical applications and uses. We are really quite indebted to geology for the coal and fuel oil that heat our homes, and the gasoline that powers our automobiles. But the doctor’s remark about theology revealed not only his contempt for theology, but his abysmal ignorance of what theology really is. Contempt for theology is inversely proportionate to a person’s knowledge of what theology really is; the less a person knows about theology, the more sure he is likely to be that theology is “the bunk.” In this article we shall consider some of the ways in which contempt for theology is manifested today.
Opposition to Creeds
One reason for the contempt of theology today is the quite prevalent spirit of opposition to creeds. This exists not only in “liberal” circles, but also quite commonly among people who believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. Among “liberals” it is a common saying that life is more important than belief. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as your life is right” is their platform. According to this idea we can have the Christian life, regardless of whether we believe the doctrines of Christianity or not. This divorcing of life from doctrine is of course entirely fallacious. Life depends upon faith. Where falsehood is believed instead of truth, the life will be affected accordingly. Only where Christian truth is believed can there really be Christian life.
In “Fundamentalist” circles disparagement of creeds is extremely common, and usually takes the form of a false antithesis between the Bible and the creeds of the Church. “We do not need Confessions of Faith, Catechisms and Testimonies,” such people say; “just give us the Bible and that will be all we need.” This opposition to creeds has been popularized by such slogans as “No book but the Bible;” “No creed but Christ;” “Christianity is not a doctrine but a Person.” Such slogans have a pious sound, but are really very foolish and harmful. To say “No creed but Christ” seems, at first sight, to be giving great honor and pre-eminence to Christ. But analyze the statement and its folly will be apparent. If it is to mean anything, we must immediately ask, what Christ? Do we mean a merely human Christ, or a divine Christ? The created Christ of Arianism, or the eternal Christ of orthodoxy? Did he suffer and die merely as a martyr and example, or as a substitute bearing the wrath and curse of God for sinners? Did he really rise from the dead, or does his body still lie in the dust of Palestine? As soon as we answer these and other questions about Christ, we have a creed and a theology—if not in written form, at least in our mind. To attempt to preach Christ without theology is to leave everything in meaningless vagueness; it is to deal in mere words instead of realities.
It is absurd to represent the Bible and the historic creeds as rivals or enemies of each other, as if we had to choose one and reject the other. The creed of a Church is simply a precise statement of what that Church believes to be the teaching of the Bible; it is precisely because of devotion to the Bible that creeds are necessary. The Bible presents not merely a collection of separate truths, but a system of truth. It is impossible to study the Bible intelligently without formulating some kind of theological system in the mind. Where large groups of Christian people have come to substantial agreement in their theological system, creeds have resulted. To despise creeds and theology is really to despise the Bible on which they are based, and the God whose revealed truth they summarize. (Of course we may legitimately oppose a particular creed on the ground that it teaches error. But what we have been discussing is not opposition to erroneous creeds, but contempt for creeds as such, the attitude of despising any and all creeds.)
Arrested Spiritual Development
In Hebrews 5:11–14 the inspired writer reproves the readers of the epistle because after having been Christians long enough to have become teachers of others, they were still “such as have need of milk” and unable to assimilate “strong meat” or solid food. In other words, in spite of having been Christians for a long time, these readers had made practically no progress in knowledge and had remained in a state of spiritual in fancy. Multitudes of Christian people of the present day are in the same condition of arrested spiritual development. Their meager little stock of religious knowledge consists of a few “fundamental” truths learned in childhood or when they were converted to Christ. Through the years they have added little or nothing to their knowledge of God’s truth; they have remained infants or children in knowledge, and even after years of Christian profession and church membership, they still have to be fed with carefully prepared “milk” because they have never learned to use solid food.
Such people will often object to the simplest, most elementary doctrinal preaching and teaching on the ground that it is “too deep.” No matter how simply it is presented, no matter how carefully all technical language and obscure problems are avoided, no matter how small the quantities in which it is served up—if it is instruction in the biblical system of truth instead of mere “inspiration” and exhortation, some church members will say it is “too deep” and will dispose of it by calling it “theology.”
If those who object to the simplest theology as “too deep” were new converts from heathenism, their attitude would perhaps be understandable and excusable. But usually they are people who have been church members for years. It is a tragedy and a shame that there should be church members of the type described in Hebrews 5:11–14.
Many adult Church members are grossly ignorant not only of the biblical system of doctrine, but even of the most elementary facts of Bible history. Some cannot give the date of Abraham within a thousand years; cannot tell which lived first Elijah or Moses; which prophesied first, Ezekiel or Isaiah; cannot tell even approximately when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, and when by the Romans. When people are thus ignorant of the basic facts of Bible history, their knowledge of the Bible system of doctrine will be even more vague and sketchy. What such people need is precisely theology; not a little bit once in a while, but a steady diet of it; first “milk” and then more and more “strong meat” or solid food, until they become religiously “of full age.” The tragedy is that the very people who need theology the most, are the least able and willing to receive it. The very people whose religious life is dwarfed and stunted by lack of the solid food of Scripture truth, are prevented from getting what they need by a foolish prejudice against theology which inhibits them from acquiring any systematic doctrinal knowledge.
The Shorter Catechism
In 1648 the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly was adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland “to be a directory for catechizing such as are of weaker capacity.” It was intended to be a doctrinal primer for beginners, while the Larger Catechism and Confession of Faith were intended for “such as have made some proficiency in the knowledge and grounds of religion.” For its intended purpose, the Shorter Catechism has never been surpassed. Millions of God’s people have been guided toward a clear understanding of the Scriptures by its accurate statements and precise definitions. But after all, the Shorter Catechism was intended as a primer for beginners. It provides only a bare outline of the most important truths of the Reformed Faith; it never goes into details, and it passes by many important truths entirely. In 300 years the Presbyterian Churches of the world have lost so much ground that today the little Shorter Catechism is commonly regarded as the ultimate in “strong meat.” If a minister quotes it often in his preaching, his sermons are said to be extremely theological. It has even been said that a candidate well versed in the Shorter Catechism can easily pass any presbytery’s examination in theology! So this primer for beginners and children has come to be regarded as a textbook for experts. Church members of today may have progressed beyond their forefathers of 300 years ago in many matters, but hardly in knowledge of the Scripture system of truth.
Some people show their contempt for theology by referring to any exact discussion of doctrinal truth as “theological hair-splitting.” This phrase has become a bogey-man to many people. There is such a thing as “theological hair-splitting,” but it is extremely rare at the present day. Very few Church members have ever in their lives come in contact with it. To discuss how many angels could sit or dance on the point of a needle, or to argue about whether faith is an active passivity or a passive activity, is theological hairsplitting. On the other hand, the classic example of alleged hair-splitting is the controversy in the ancient Church about the words homo-ousios and homoi-ousios. This has been ridiculed as a dispute about a mere trifle, just the single letter “i”, the narrowest letter of the alphabet! But of all religious controversies in the history of the Church, that one was the farthest removed from hair-splitting. What was at stake was precisely the deity of Jesus Christ. That little “i” in the Greek word made the difference between saying that Christ is of the same substance with God the Father, and saying that Christ is of a similar substance to God the Father; in other words, whether Christ is God, or merely resembles God.
When a minister or lecturer is accused of theological hair-splitting, the probability is that he has simply been trying to indoctrinate the people in the great truths of the Christian faith. A person with a pain in the abdomen wants his doctor to find out definitely whether he has appendicitis or mere indigestion. No one would scoff at such a distinction as “medical hair-splitting.” A city’s board of health employs technicians to test public supplies of water, milk, etc., for the presence of organisms that can cause disease. These men must be accurate in their work, and they must have a great fund of scientific knowledge to perform their tasks aright. No one ridicules their tests as “biological hair-splitting.” We do not brush off accurate knowledge, exact definitions and thorough investigations in any other sphere than theology. But in theology all serious effort is faced with a tremendous prejudice against accurate statement and precise distinctions. Only in religion is a foggy vagueness preferred to a discriminating and valid knowledge; only in religion is an atmosphere of low visibility preferred to the daylight of clear understanding, straight thinking and accurate formulation.
The contempt of theology is a sign of the ebb tide of biblical Christianity today. If and when real revival comes, it will be accompanied and followed by a new hunger and thirst for the truth of God, a new appreciation of theology, a new eagerness to grow in knowledge of the Scriptural system of doctrine. Thomas Acquinas spoke beautifully and truly when he said that theology a Deo docetur, Deum docet, ad Deum ducit (“Theology is taught by God, teaches about God, and leads to God”).