Can You Love God and Hate Theology?

Debates over theology cause needless distractions and actually keep us from God

Can You Love God and Hate Theology?My theology is an enigma to most people. It’s an enigma to me, too, but I’m okay with that because I don’t much care about theology, at least not how most folks pursue it today.

People often want to engage me in theological discussions, but I’m only good for about ten seconds. Though I can talk about God, faith, and the Bible all day, don’t turn the conversation into an intangible abstraction. God is real, the Bible is alive, and faith is active. So let’s not bog down our discussions in theoretical constructs.

The reason people try to figure out my theological stance is understandable; it’s human nature to want to categorize people. They want to place me in a theological box. Once I’m in a box I’m easier to comprehend, and then they can choose to accept me or shun me. But I don’t fit into their neat packages, the ones that carry convenient labels.

As they ask probing questions, I can see their heads about explode because my answers transcend the various theological perspectives they seek to insert me into. They can’t figure me out or how to catalog my beliefs. Do I align with their views? Or am I one of those other people? You see, I don’t fit nicely into any theological camp; I bounce around a lot.

Consider some of their common questions and my impertinent but seriously sincere answers:

Q: What’s your view on baptism?
A: We should probably do it.

Q: Are you pre-trib or post-trib?
A: It doesn’t matter. What happens will happen.

Q: How do you understand the creation account in the Bible?
A: God made us. The details aren’t relevant to the fact that I’m here.

Q: Do we have free will or are we predestined?
A: Yes.

Q: Are you Reformed, Arminian, Calvinist, Baptist…?
A: Isn’t Jesus the point?

Q: Well, are you Mainline, Evangelical, or Charismatic?
A: I’m a little bit of each.

Q: What’s the best translation of the Bible?
A: The one that we actually read.

Q: What are the essential elements of your faith, the non-negotiables?
A: Just one: follow Jesus.

Q: But what about _______ ?
A: It doesn’t matter.I don’t study theologians. I study God. Click To Tweet

I don’t study theologians. I study God, which is the most basic definition of theology anyway. But I don’t study God to stuff my brain with facts and theories. I seek God so that I can better know him, more fully follow him, and live in community with him. Perhaps that’s my theology.

[This is from the January issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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What is Your Spiritual Litmus Test?

Most Christians carry unexamined criteria that others must agree with before they’re accepted

What is Your Spiritual Litmus Test?I was once interviewed for a volunteer position at my church. The pair of interviewers cranked through a series of pre-assigned theological questions to determine my supposed worthiness to lead.

For some queries the answers were straightforward; others, not so much. On these tougher questions, instead of responding with simplistic answers, I shared a more complex perspective, one packed with more questions but backed by biblical support. I answered with shades of gray, but my inquisitors wanted black and white responses. I knew what they wanted to hear, but instead I was honest. I suppose that in a sense I should have responded with the religious equivalent of political correctness.

For my candor I earned a one-on-one meeting with the senior pastor. He had five areas where he sought clarification. We worked through the first four without issue; he accepted my grayscale answers.

Though I don’t remember what it was, the fifth area was problematic. As he drilled down I realized I was at a tipping point. If I gave the pat answer he wanted to hear I was in. If I vacillated, I was out.

I wanted to serve my church in this capacity and, more importantly, I felt God had called me to do so – more succinctly, he told me to. With only a tinge of guilt I gave the easy answer that would assure my acceptance. Pastor smiled and shook my hand. I was in. I passed his spiritual litmus test.

We all have spiritual litmus tests. Though I try not to, I know I do. So do you. Of a larger concern, churches have their litmus tests, too. These litmus tests are why our world is saddled with 43,000 Protestant denominations. After all, if we agreed on everything there would be no reason to take the unbiblical step of separating from one another, of dividing the church that Jesus prayed would experience unity.Jesus wants us to be one. That’s what matters most. Unity is more important than theology. Click To Tweet

While most everyone draws a spiritual line in the sands of theology that cannot be crossed, none of this should matter. Whether it’s disagreeing about baptism, communion, which version of the Bible is best, the song selection, pews or chairs, the color of the lobby, or even if men need to wear ties to church, Jesus wants us to be one. Unity is more important than theology (and personal preference). That’s what matters most.

Why I Love God But Hate Theology

God wants us to know him and be in a relationship, not to study him or try to explain him

Why I Love God But Hate TheologyWhen people learn of my deep interest in studying the Bible and my passion for God, they often ask me a theological question. I groan when they do. While a few may have a genuine interest in knowing my answer, for most their query is a test of sorts to see if my views align with theirs. If we agree, they accept me; if we disagree, they dismiss me.

Regardless of the question, it usually involves a big theological word or two, a label so they can more easily judge my philosophical perspective and ascertain whether we are kindred believers. It doesn’t matter if I know the meaning of their five-syllable abstraction or not, I usually shrug and say, “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t matter.”

I need a better response because this irritates people. They assume I’m being dismissive. But I’m not; I’m serious. Totally.

At its most basic level, theology is the study of God. I love God, but the idea of turning him into an academic construct with philosophical underpinnings sickens me. I refuse to go there.

I don’t think God wants me to study him; I think he wants me to know him. There’s a difference. I see no value in being able to articulate a systematic theology because God desires a relationship, not a dissertation.

Think of a significant person in your life. For me, that would be my wife. What if I told her, “I’m going to devote the rest of my life to studying you from afar, and then I’ll write a book explaining you in highly philosophical terms to everyone else?” Would that win her heart?

No. She wants me to spend time with her. She desires me to know her. To attempt to turn our relationship into a theoretical abstraction dishonors her – and would make her mad. Rightly so.God doesn’t want me to study him; he wants me to know him. Click To Tweet

The same is true with God. He wants me to spend time with him. He wants me to know him, not on an intellectual basis but on a personal one. To truly know him means to experience him in relationship, not as an academic pursuit.

As I read the Bible and write about the Bible, it’s not to add to the towering mountain of theology about God, it’s so that I can spend time with him and know him through relationship. Anything else dishonors him, and likely makes him mad.

Just as my wife is a mystery I will never fully understand, so is God. And it’s a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Read the Bible as Literature

Studying scripture teaches us about classic literature and writing to inform our literary perspective

Read the Bible as LiteratureMy post “13 Reasons Why I Love the Bible” started out as a top ten list, but I couldn’t stop at a round number. I kept going and couldn’t pare my list down to just ten reasons. And if I had kept thinking about it, I would likely have come up with more.

A related topic is considering the Bible as literature, the classic of classics. So much of what we read today has allusions, though sometimes subtle, to scripture. We see biblical themes repeated in TV and movies.

Knowing the Bible helps us to more fully understand God but also to better appreciate literature and entertainment. Consider what the Bible has to offer:

  1. Variety of Genres: The Bible contains different styles of writing. Much of it is history, with some biography and even autobiography. There are several poetry portions (albeit without rhyming and meter), which reveal ancient poetic styles and can inform modern day poets. The books of prophecy reveal the future, some of which has already come to pass and other portions, not. Books of wisdom give as wise advice. Other sections reveal God, serving as the first theology text. The Bible also contains letters from teachers to their students. There are epic dreams documented for us to ponder. And two books, Job and Song of Solomon, read much like the modern-day screenplay.The Bible contains: history, bios, poetry, prophecy, theology, letters, dreams, & screenplay. Click To Tweet
  2. Multiple Viewpoints: The Bible contains four biographies of Jesus (gospels). The four respective authors reveal different aspects of Jesus based on their personal perception and target audience. Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s writing contain the most similarities; John is the most different. Similarly, 1 and 2 Chronicles provides a counterpoint to the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. Last, some of the prophets provide additional historical accounts to round out what we learn from the prior six books of history (1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings)
  3. Different Perspectives: Much of the Bible is written in the third person point of view, while some passages are in first person. I especially enjoy these first person accounts as it places me in the middle of the action, as if I am there, living it with the speaker.
  4. Multiple Levels: Reading the Bible is analogous to peeling an onion. Each time we unwrap one layer, we find another that gives us additional insight and added meaning. There are many tiers, virtually unlimited. We will never know all of what the Bible says, but we do strive to learn more of what it reveals. With each successive read we are able to connect different passages together and glean deeper insight into its stories, lessons, and writers – as well as the God who inspired it.

The Bible has much to offer, not only from a spiritual perspective, but also from a literary one. Reading the Bible as literature will increase our appreciation of other things we read, what we write, and the world in which we live.

What is your favorite genre of the Bible? How does reading the Bible as literature inform your perspective. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s May newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Why We Shouldn’t Argue Over Theology

When Paul writes to his protégé Timothy, he instructs Timothy to warn the people not to quarrel over words. Isn’t that what most theological debate is, people arguing about words? People who claim to follow Jesus end up arguing about the meaning of certain words. They build their own theology around their understanding of these words and then reject everyone who thinks otherwise. This is the primary reason why the world has 42,000 protestant denominations. People who should know better quarrel over words and then storm off in a huff to form a new denomination of people who think just like they do.

Why We Shouldn’t Argue Over TheologyDon’t they read what Paul wrote? He says quarreling over words “is of no value” and “only ruins those who listen” (2 Timothy 2:14).

Later on he says to not “have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments,” which only “produce quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:23).

This isn’t the first time Paul tells this to Timothy. In Paul’s first letter of instruction he talks about false teachers and their “unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words.” The result is “envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions” (1 Timothy 6:4).

So we must stop fighting over words. The Bible says to. Nothing good ever comes of it.

Isn’t quarreling about words the source of our theological debates and divisions? We need to stop arguing about theology and instead unite to tell the world about Jesus.

Can you think of a theological debate that wasn’t a quarrel over words? How should we treat those we disagree with? The Bible says we must stop fighting over words, that is, our theology. Click To Tweet

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Be Careful What We Sing at Church

The tempo was upbeat and the song was inviting. Though new to me, I picked it up quickly. On the third time through the chorus, I started really contemplating the words – and I stopped singing.

Really, I did – right in midsentence. The words were wrong.

Though it’s technically illegal for me to quote song lyrics (and I don’t want to out an accomplished songwriter), the gist was that when things go bad, God will immediately rescue us.

I don’t see that happen very often in the Bible. Usually God waits. I don’t often experience instant resolutions in my own life, either. Usually he says to be patient. Yes, God provides, and he does answer my prayers, but he does it in his own way and in his own time. Seldom are the heavy things resolved immediately.

The song paints the expectation of instant gratification. Though appealing to modern society, it’s a bad way to understand God. The song should have said that when things go bad, we need to be patient; in the end, God will come through. That’s good teaching.

My concern is for people who base their understanding on God from the songs we sing in church. If they believe he will always immediately rescue them, as the song says, will their faith suffer a crisis when their experience is different? When God tarries, as he sometimes does, will they give up on God and walk away?

I hope not, but I fear so.

Systematic Theology Sucks

Two weeks ago, in my post Don’t Make God Boring, I mentioned my dislike for an area of study called systematic theology. Systematic theology is a theological discipline that attempts to present God and Christian faith in an organized and logical structure. Some people have dedicated their entire adult lives to the pursuit of delineating a comprehensive systematic theology of God. I think they’re missing the point. Here’s why:

It’s Not in the Bible: If having a systematic theology was important, don’t you think God would have included it in the Bible, all in one place? Paul would have been an ideal person to do this, but he didn’t. Instead, he addressed practical matters of faith and life.

It’s a Product of Modernism: The modern era pushed spirituality aside, relegating it to Sunday morning. Modernity espoused logic and reason, embracing objective truth and only accepting the quantifiable. Out of this mindset, sprang the pursuit of a systematic theology: let’s organize God.

It’s Boring: In college, the most irrelevant class I took was Systematic Theology. Even though they simplified it for non-theologians, it was largely incomprehensible and completely boring. The God they alluded to was not the God I follow or read about in the Bible.

It’s Impersonal: Systematic theology reduces God to a sterile intellectual pursuit. However, my faith is anything but that: I pray directly to my Father in Heaven, follow the person of Jesus, and move to the specific promptings of the Holy Spirit. These are all intimate interactions, not theoretical musings; these are personal actions, not conceptual constructs.

While some people may embrace God as a comprehensive, systematic theology, I pursue him as living, accessible, and personal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Do You Live in a Theological Silo?

In farming, a silo is a tower used to store grain.

The business world, however, turned silo into a metaphor, such as information silos or organizational silos, symbolizing assimilation and isolation. These business silos function as a repository of information or power – hoarded and not shared, either by plan or by practice. With silos, there’s an inner circle, with everyone else kept at a safe distance.

Most organizations, including churches, have silos. Many churches also have theological silos. A theological silo, usually the product of a homogenous faith community, holds to a certain set of beliefs as sacred and non-negotiable. These may include explicit baptism beliefs, how someone becomes a Christian, a certain understanding of the end times, the role of the Holy Spirit today, a particular stance on a societal issue, and even which version of the Bible to use. (One historical silo occurred over the requirement for men to wear neckties to church.)

Those who agree with the beliefs of the silo are invited in (usually only after they prove themselves worthy), whereas all others are kept at a distance or even shunned. Historically, denominations formed around theological silos and then later became silos themselves, often exclusive, closed-minded, and dogmatic to a fault.

Jesus desired unity; he prayed we would be as one. Let’s tear down our silos and embrace one another – especially those who are different – just like Jesus did.

What is Church?

On a blog I follow there was a drawing for a free book. I’m all about books and it’s even better when they’re free. To enter, I needed to share “what the theological vision for your church is in two sentences or less.”

Now the word “theological” repels me, even though theology is simply “the study of God” — and God captivates me.

Pushing that aside for a chance at a free book, here’s what I posted:

“Church isn’t about message or music; those are often distractions or settling for less than the best. True church is about community, where we are all priests, with each one giving and receiving, mutually edifying and encouraging one another on our faith journey.”

There was more, but I had to shorten it to two sentences. I like what I wrote; it resonates with me and communicates my deepest passion.

What I penned was a greater reward than the book I won.

What is church to you?

Job’s Conclusion

A common lament of Job throughout the story bearing his name is his begging God to answer his pleas. However, it seems that Job (and his friends) are too busy talking to give God a chance. When God does respond, Job’s friends are rebuffed and Job’s righteousness is affirmed.

Job’s brief reply to God’s discourse is humble and contrite. After acknowledging God’s complete knowledge (omniscience) and total power (omnipotence), Job unabashedly admits:

“I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”

With all of our knowledge and assumed understanding of God and his ways, I think that Job’s words are more often an appropriate and accurate posture then for us to assuredly spout our religious opinions (theology) as if they were fact.

[Job 42:7 and Job 42:3]