Reflections on Theology 20 Years In

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After twenty years of diligent study, including getting a Master’s Degree in Exegetical Theology, I finally feel I have worthwhile insights to share. I stopped blogging precisely because I felt there were so many other voices people should hear instead of my own. I still believe that, but I also believe the insights below will be helpful to those who feel a call to teaching ministry and those who are interested in theology in general.

Ultimately Studying Theology is About Love for God and His Church

With the proliferation of Christian denominations and the invention of the motorized vehicle, churches have become almost consumer products. We have twenty options and we pick one based on our personal preferences. Even if we are uneasy with that concept, it is what it is. Successful churches, defined here in the worldly terms of attendance and budget, are typically those that have attractive services, charismatic speakers, and dynamic children’s ministries. Notice here that Biblically faithful teaching, a leadership that shepherds the flock, and the like, aren’t part of the equation. Of course, successful churches may be Biblically faithful but worldly success and faithfulness aren’t directly correlated. With the budgets of so many churches stretched thin, these “successful” churches are often the only ones that can afford to pay those who are hoping to minister as a vocation.

Another challenge for those that study theology is that existing leaders tend to believe they are right. Few churches are going to be excited about your teaching unless you agree with what they already think. For pragmatic ministers, the most expedient path is to learn a particular church’s beliefs and parrot them. Theological study will get in the way, as it may well lead you away from what your church believes.

This sounds negative. I don’t mean it to be; I just want you to go into theological study with your eyes wide open. You are doing this out of love for God and for the good of the church. Stay grounded in these and all the hard work will be worth it in the end.

Leaders Need To Work Way More on Communication

Based on the section above, you may think I view success negatively. Not at all. Success is wonderful. Numbers mean people, and people matter, which is why this section immediately follows the previous one. Theology takes hard work over years. There is always more to learn. Because of this, many of the Church’s best thinkers never get around to communicating that knowledge to others. Recently, I came across a quote on the importance of communication by the Greek statesman Pericles – “one who forms a judgment on any point, but cannot explain himself clearly to the people, might as well have never thought at all on the subject.” Oh, that I had read this when I was 20. I have some knowledge now, but I struggle to communicate it well, either through speaking or writing. I should have studied the latter without neglecting the former.

It’s striking how many of the greatest Fathers of the church studied rhetoric intensely, meaning hours a day, before becoming leaders. For example, I am currently reading On God and Christ by Gregory of Nazianzus, who was known in the early Church simply as “the Theologian.” The introduction describes Gregory’s early training as follows, “he…studied assiduously the arts of public speaking and poetry, and would have wished to stay had he not been called back, now baptized and aged a mature 28, to the duties of family and Church. It had been a long training in skills comparable with for complexity and surpassing in range, those of a modern opera singer” (p. 10). To be blunt, people aren’t likely to pay attention to you unless you are an exceptional communicator (I’m speaking to myself here as well). Thankfully, that is a skill that can be developed. Be sure to include rhetoric among your studies.

The Science of Theology is Thousands of Years Along

I grew up in a Biblicist tradition that wasn’t connected to the historic Church. I didn’t realize until I went to seminary that most of the questions I had about God and the Bible already had answers. At that time, I thought all I needed were the Bible and the Holy Spirit to know the truth. But, as the saying goes, no man is an island, and that especially applies in the Church. God has intentionally spread talents around so that we must receive from others; we can’t go it alone. Just as you wouldn’t try to rediscover mathematics, but instead use textbooks to teach you, don’t try to rediscover theology yourself.

And whatever you do, please don’t try to innovate until you’ve learned the basics. I say again, learn the basics before you explore new ground.

The Two Healthy Paths to True Beliefs

Here is a helpful quote on developing correct beliefs by Ray Dalio, “None of us is born knowing what is true; we either have to discover what’s true for ourselves or believe and follow others.”

Most education is believing what authorities tell you. I’m speaking of education in general, not just in the Church. For example, students are expected to accept what their physics teacher tells them. It is a rare student who demands to read all the relevant studies and recreate the experiments themselves. In the same way, Christians should start with learning what the best Christian teachers have taught. Find a good catechism and memorize it. I recommend either the Westminster Shorter or Heidelberg Catechisms along with the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. After that you can start to discover the depths of Christian thought for yourself.

Only Read The Best Books

Developing a deep understanding of theology yourself takes a tremendous amount of time. That is in large part because our understanding of God and creation is the foundation of all our other beliefs. Theology touches everything. Therefore, there isn’t time to muck about. Something like ten thousand Christian books are published every year. Don’t get stuck in what’s fashionable at the moment. Instead, spend your time reading the best books, those by the best Christian thinkers that have stood the test of time, or modern books by trustworthy teachers that transmit the best of Christian truth.

Develop Your Filter As Soon As Possible, Certainly Before Picking a Seminary

In my twenties, I read hundreds of books on theology. The trouble was that I had no way of knowing which were good and which were bad. I had no filter to remove the material that wasn’t worth my time. My pastors, devout men though they were, didn’t have adequate theological training and therefore couldn’t guide me. The only option then was to churn through material as I gradually grew in discernment, to develop my own filter so to speak. Seminary was a huge help in this regard. It connected me to theology proper. To use my analogy above, it’s as if while I was trying to rediscover math myself, someone gave me a set of math textbooks.   

I don’t want you to go through the same struggles. Once you know the creeds and a good catechism, you’ll be better able to tell if the speaker or writer knows what they are talking about.

Suggested Reading Before Starting Seminary

Since I praised seminary above – I went to Covenant Theological Seminary by the way – I want to offer guidance on how to discern the good from the bad at a given seminary. Modern theology is not like other subjects, say math, to keep the comparison going. With math, there is no disagreement over the basics. One university is going to teach calculus pretty much like another. Not so with seminaries. Nearly every subject will be covered differently from seminary to seminary. In the section on belief above, I said your options are to believe others or learn for yourself. Seminary is supposed to give you the tools to learn for yourself as well as teach you what others have said. But are the tools they teach sound? Are they teaching the best of Christian thought?

Most students don’t know enough to weigh what is said. Therefore, I want to recommend some resources to prepare those attending seminary. Beyond the creeds and confessions mentioned above, I suggest you read Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig Carter and The Last Superstition by Edward Feser. Carter’s book will teach you how the Bible has been interpreted for most of Christian history, which is important because so much of current Biblical interpretation methods are grounded in, or at least strongly influenced by, atheist conceptions of the Bible. Feser’s book will introduce you to metaphysics, the rational study of reality, contrasting the main historical Christian approach with the latest secular approaches.

These aren’t necessarily easy reading. Take your time and look up the words you don’t know.  

Learn the History of Thought

Reading the books above will introduce you to the history of ideas. The philosophical study of reality isn’t taught in schools anymore, so you’re probably not familiar with the subject, but you need to get familiar with it. The result shapes how you think about the world. Fish don’t study the water they swim in, they may not even be aware of it, but if it’s poisoned, they get sick. In the same way, we aren’t necessarily aware of the ideas that shape how we think. But the ideas have become poisoned. The way out of this is to go back to the basics and rebuild from the ground up.

There was a time when the Christian understanding of reality was what the smart, cool kids believed, in fact this lasted for well over a thousand years. Things started to go wrong in the thirteenth century when thinkers began to reject the idea of universals. This spread until it dominated the universities of Europe. Then came the seventeenth century – Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza. Even though the first two identified as Christians, their understanding of reality unraveled the rational, Christian system of thought. I don’t say they refuted the Christian system because they didn’t. Regardless, their ideas took over. We got modernism, romanticism, nihilism, existentialism, and post-modernism. All of these are wrong, but they are what so called rational, educated people believe these days.

It was unsettling learning in seminary that my thoughts were shaped by some French philosopher in the ‘60s. Ideas trickle down through influential progressive professors at universities to their students, who then become teachers and politicians and others who shape our culture.

The thing to do is learn what Christians used to think about the world before they became “enlightened.” This doesn’t mean you must reject science or anything like that. In simply means you must reject being shaped by the rejection of God and all the beliefs that proceed from that.

Theology Peaked In the 17th Century

Because of the preceding section – the rejection of God by intellectual culture – theological study began to decline in the seventeenth century. The best theologians came out of the best universities, but what do you think happened when those same universities taught Descartes and Spinoza instead of Aquinas and Calvin?

As far as I can tell, theological development in the church went something like this…The first several centuries featured various theological giants – Origen, the Cappadocian fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and others who worked out the basics of Christian doctrine. There were other theological developments along the way, until Catholic doctrine peaked with Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. A couple of centuries later, the Reformers corrected most of the major errors of the Catholic church and then their successors filled in the details, peaking in the seventeenth century, at which point the Enlightenment took over popular thought.

After this point, intellectual inquiry shifted from learning to live a wise life to learning to manipulate nature to our advantage. I’m pro-science and technology; technology brings people out of starvation and gives us cool stuff. But I am anti-neglect of the study of deeper reality. Since education has become “practical,” the tools we need to understand reality well are out of our grasp. We may not even be aware of them. Who studies metaphysics, logic and epistemology these days?

All this to say, theological knowledge has massively declined since modernity took over. The best resources were written by the heirs of the Reformers. While there are many excellent teachers in the Church today, a lot of popular works just aren’t very good, largely for the reasons above. Focus on works written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for your basic theological study.

Many of the Great Works Are Locked Away In Latin

A serious complication is that theological works were written in Latin in those days and most of it hasn’t been translated into English. Unless you are fluent in Latin, you can’t read it. Look up Gisbertus Voetius, one of the greats, in the Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL). They have 196 of his works. If you go onto Amazon.com you can find one of these, Spiritual Discernment, available in English. PRDL has 30 works by Petrus van Mastricht, who according to Jonathan Edwards, produced the greatest theological work in history. One of these thirty has been translated into English, and only this year.

Guys are doing PhD dissertations on the meaning of a certain preposition in a single verse of Romans. I intended to complete something similar when I first entered seminary. Now, I question the wisdom of this. The modern Western church has incredible riches at her disposal to aid in understanding a given Biblical text. Yet many Evangelicals don’t have even a basic understanding of the doctrine of God (Mark Jones’ God Is is a great place to start). It’s my contention that our best and brightest should focus on recovering our theological heritage. It would be worthwhile to fund the translation of our Protestant heritage into English. Then efforts can be made to communicate the insights of the past for the benefit of the average Christian.

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The Benedict Option – Well, Duh

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The Benedict Option is one of the highest selling Christian books of the year and also one of the most controversial. Likely hundreds of reviews have been written, famously whether the reviewer has read the book or not. Given the amount of noise and misunderstanding surrounding the book, it is worth adding my own brief review to spell out what Dreher says in the book having (actually) read it a couple of times.

Dreher writes in ways that are both inviting and off putting. He can be humble, for example, the subtitle “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” implying there might be other strategies than his own. He can also be dogmatic, repeatedly stating the Benedict Option, or some variant, is necessary for Christianity to survive in the West. Clearly, writing in such a way does not endear the book to those who have their doubts about the Option.

First of all, what the Benedict Option is not. From what I can tell, the primary stumbling block is his call to Christian community, by which some assume Dreher means a retreat from society into communes in the woods. The difficulty is that Dreher never spells out precisely what he believes Christian community should look like. For himself practically, increasing community meant moving his family closer to his congregation – they were 45 minutes away – so they can participate more fully in the life of the church, particularly in regards to prayer. Hardly a retreat into a commune in Idaho. In an interview on the Mere Fidelity podcast, Dreher said he didn’t spell out the practical details of community because he doesn’t know exactly what it should look like in every case and didn’t want to write a How To guide. Fair enough. To dispel the idea that Dreher is suggesting a full withdrawal from society here is a quote on evangelical presence to the wider world from his chapter on Christian community,

‘Ultimately, I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society…We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.’ (p. 134)

The other stumbling block is his take on the urgency of the Christian situation in Western culture. Dreher pulls no punches; he believes Christianity will be more or less wiped from Western civilization if Christians don’t make radical changes to our thinking and practice. In the first chapter, he gives some statistics about the decline of Christian beliefs and church attendance, noting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism now serves as its replacement, and then, in chapter 2, gives an intellectual history from the 14th century to the present detailing how the decline occurred. Dreher certainly could have spent more time supporting his case. However, I don’t think this was necessary. He has spent years presenting objective evidence for the decline of Christian practice in the West on his blog at The American Conservative. In the last Presidential election I saw concerned reports of anti-religious legislation and political rhetoric denigrated as fear mongering by Christians of a different political persuasion. From this I learned a lesson – people will not easily believe facts that don’t match their core life narratives. I don’t doubt this applies as well to me as it does to everyone else by the way. Dreher can present data and stories all day long, but people will not easily accept that information if it does not match their narrative of what is supposed to be happening.

What is the Benedict Option? Dreher doesn’t provide a statement spelling it out. However, the practices that constitute the Benedict Option are clear enough from the book:

  • Prayer, corporate and individual, must be the center of our lives
  • The teachings of our forefathers in the faith must be rediscovered
  • Some form of liturgical worship – Word and Sacrament – should be implemented instead of entertainment driven services
  • Spiritual practices – asceticism – must be incorporated into our daily lives
  • Church discipline must be implemented against church members who chose to live in sin
  • Believers must be actively involved in the life of their local congregation
  • Hospitality must become the norm
  • Classical Christian education should be reintroduced where possible
  • Parents should pay attention to the influence their children’s friends have on them
  • Parents should catechize their kids
  • Pastors and parents must educate the next generation about healthy sexuality
  • Parents must keep watch over their children’s use of the internet and entertainment in general

If Dreher is right and much of the Church in the West has become secularized, than one would expect a widespread, and total, rejection of The Benedict Option by popular Christian leaders. Check. For me the most upsetting aspect of reading the book was being aware of the wholly negative reviews by evangelical Christian leaders. Much of the book is a call to revive historic Christian practices. If you are a Christian that doesn’t see any value in Dreher’s recommendations than you’ve gone off…full stop. That doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreement in certain areas, for example, there is plenty of room for discussion concerning his suggestions on education and work, but a wholesale rejection is not OK. I’ve titled this post “The Benedict Option – Well, Duh” because so much of the book consists of obvious suggestions for improving Christian practice. I say this, not to denigrate the book – we need basic guides to healthy Christian living – but to express shock at those who entirely reject it. Live in fellowship with other Christians. Pray. Fast. Teach Christian doctrines to your children and guard them. Reconnect with the historic Church. Duh.

Faith and Healing – A Response to Thomas Schreiner

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I was glad to see that the Gospel Coalition published an article this week addressing Jesus’ teaching on faith in the Gospels. When scholars talk about faith, they almost always mean faith as presented in Paul’s letters, not as taught by Jesus. For example, out of the approximately twenty-four pages Bultmann spends on the New Testament in his article on faith in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the majority of the Synoptic Gospel references are found in a single paragraph. Ceslas Spicq in his entry on faith in the Theological Lexicon of the New Testament gives no coverage of at all. The top study that gives space to faith in the Gospels is Der Glaube im Neuen Testament by Schlatter from 1885, which has never been translated into English.

With the explosion of the Prosperity Gospel globally, scholarly work on faith is essential.  Too often mainline Evangelicals simply dismiss Prosperity Gospel teaching without addressing the interpretations that give rise to it. Unfortunately, Schreiner’s latest article doesn’t help either those wanting to dialogue with the Prosperity Gospel camp or those wanting to understand Jesus’ teaching.

There are two key issues with Schreiner’s article: his interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on faith and his discussion of healing in the Bible. On the first point, Schreiner writes, 

In the stories recounted in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples long for more faith. Then they could do great things for God. Then they could cast out demons and forgive a brother or sister who’s especially annoying. Jesus tells them they don’t need great faith; they need just a little faith.

Biblically, “a little faith” is exactly what they don’t need as that is precisely the deficiency Jesus accuses the disciples of in the passage Schreiner cites. This phrase “little faith” is tricky because it sounds quantitative but is used qualitatively in the Gospels. To have little faith is to have some doubt mixed in with your faith, which renders faith inoperative. Schreiner is correct that the size of one’s faith isn’t important, but to leave out discussion of doubt when talking about faith is to leave the topic only half covered. See my Master’s thesis on this subject for details.

Later in the article Schreiner says, “Faith isn’t abstract; we put our faith in the promises of God, in the truth he’s revealed. Scripture never promises believers they will be healthy or wealthy.” This sort of statement is typical in Evangelical discussions on healing but not helpful. Why not? Because the Bible sure seems to promise healing. To cite a few examples,

Exodus 23:25 “You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you.”

Psalm 103:2-3 “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…”

James 5:14-15 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.

The problem we have when talking about healing and suffering is that there is a dissonance in the Bible that no one knows how to resolve. Instead of acknowledging this dissonance, people camp out one side or the other, either exclusively teaching the healing passages and never the ones on suffering or vice versa.

Evangelicals need to put themselves in others’ shoes. Imagine someone said to you, “the Bible never says we are justified by faith.” After you showed them where the Bible does indeed say that, what would your response be if they replied, “it doesn’t mean that?” You probably wouldn’t take them too seriously. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect those in the Prosperity Gospel camp to take us seriously if we aren’t willing to deal with the passages they are preaching on. Evangelicals must teach both health and suffering passages faithfully.

The Neglected Bits of Church Life – Prayer, Deacons, and Discipline

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How many churches have deacons these days? How many have regular prayer meetings? How many discipline members who are living in sin? Carl Robbins, a by-the-book sort of pastor (I mean that as a compliment), provides practical instructions on how to wisely implement these Biblical, yet neglected practices in your church.

I rarely post on this blog as there is so much good content on the web. However, these sermons are exceptional, and their content rare, so I want to share them with as many people as I can.

Instruction on Leading Prayer In Your Church – Being a charismatic for nearly twenty years, I’ve been in my fair share of prayer meetings and have listened to tens of messages on prayer. The unique thing about Robbins’ message is that he finds a balance between teaching the Church how to pray – usually people just start praying without being taught how – and getting the entire church to actually pray.

Instruction on How To Wisely Exercise Church Discipline – The classic Protestant marks of the true church are that it preaches the word faithfully, administers the sacraments rightly, and exercises church discipline. The last bit is hard and is offensive to our cultural sensibilities, so it gets neglected. Still faithful leaders exercise discipline. Robbins tells us how.

Why The Church Needs Deacons, What They Do, and How to Pick Them – Biblical church government includes elders and deacons. Without deacons, the elders will have to be the deacons and won’t have time to be great pastors. Robbins offers us a good primer.

A note about being “by-the-book”: Many non-denominational types improvise church life based on what’s popular in their circles and what seems best to them. Think about what it takes to improvise well in life. For example, for a jazz musician to be able to improvise a solo in concert they first need to know musical scales. If they tried to skip the hard work of learning scales and ear training their solos would be disconnected, random notes, not beautiful melodies. Learning the basics of leading a church – including prayer, deacons and discipline – is important before you start to innovate. It’s very unlikely that your spontaneous ideas will be an improvement on the combined wisdom of the church through the ages. First, learn what the Bible says and how the Church has applied it. Then you will know enough to adjust these concepts for your local setting.

How to Do Theology: Lessons from the Recent Trinity Debate

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In case you are unaware, there has been a somewhat heated debate in the blogosphere over the last few weeks regarding the Trinity and gender relations. Plenty of posts have been written about this debate, but recent ones by Grudem, Trueman, and Jones are too instructive not to share.

Before citing the posts, it’s worth revisiting something I wrote last year, “It sounds strange, but knowing God isn’t considered terribly important in evangelical churches. Look up the top scholars on the doctrine of God and you won’t find any Protestants on the list [now that John Webster is no longer with us]. Of course, we talk about knowing God, but by that we typically mean an emotional connection with a being we have at least partially made after our own image.”

In some ways this Trinity debate is a great microcosm of the present state of the Trinity in Evangelical thought as it pits Wayne Grudem, one of the main teachers of the Evangelical Church through his hugely influential Systematic Theology, against various theologians who are more connected to historical Christianity (in my opinion). The accusation is that Grudem, and others such as Bruce Ware, are teaching an unorthodox view of the relationship between the Father and the Son and using that to support their views on gender relations.

Yesterday, Grudem posted this (we are several weeks into the debate at this point). Mark Jones responded with this analysis of Grudem’s citations . This morning Carl Trueman posted his final (apparently) reply.

Trueman’s post is a big picture response, while Jones’s gets more into the details. I’ve spent a half hour trying to summarize the lessons to glean from these posts. After reflection, I’ll simply encourage you to read their responses to learn how to think and talk about God well.

Instant Gratification and Staying Steady for Millennia

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With thoughts of a former pastor being removed from office and the questionable direction of the modern Christian conference circuit going through my mind this morning, I came across John Haldane’s article “A Tale of Two Cities – And of Two Churches.” Haldane, who is descended from Scottish Presbyterians, contrasts the compromise and decline of the Church of Scotland with the steadiness of the Catholic Church over millennia. He quotes Lord Macaulay’s 1840 review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes:

The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. . . . She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

I’m not going to become Catholic, God-willing, but it is hard not to be impressed by the longevity of the Catholic Church. The seminary I graduated from still plays bagpipes at graduation so I’m descended from the faltering side in this case. The thing about conservative evangelicalism is that it’s not geared for the long run. It’s an assortment of individuals, churches and groups trying to grow a little bit or simply stay in existence. Of course, there are many noble men and women involved so I’m not trying to belittle anyone. I’m simply pointing out that our current approach isn’t sustainable long term.

In light of our current shortsightedness, here are some suggestions to help us become more stable for the long run:

  1. Don’t become enamored with parachurch ministries, and especially not with gifted individuals. Focus on your local church and the Church at large, not with the few uber-impressive guys who sell all the books and conference tickets. I’ve seen this in both Charismatic and broadly evangelical circles. There are those few stars that run the show, so to speak, until it’s found out they are practicing homosexuals or cheating on their wife or stealing money from the church or fill in the blank. I’m not speaking of all individuals with large ministries, of course, many are wonderful human beings no doubt. However, people are not meant to be idols. The apostles were special, but they were also the dregs of the earth. We’ve inverted that pattern. A global platform without suffering is a dangerous thing.
  2. Become as solid as you can, both in your understanding and your character, for the sake of the church. If you want to become a pastor, know that, in general, this will not help you get a position. It’s as likely that theological knowledge and piety will be regarded by churches as a hindrance to ministry as an asset. Go for depth and maturity anyway, and try to take others with you.
  3. Emphasize Church unity – a great way to avoid self-focus is to focus on people outside yourself and your group. Receive from others. You will learn more, love more, and the world will know that we are Christians by our love for one another.
  4. Avoid power as long as possible. We all want influence, but it’s easy to confuse the fallen desire for dominance with the godly desire to improve things. I wonder how many of us can tell the difference in our own hearts.

The Arrogance and Ignorance of the “Well-Educated”

Scott Masson shared The Arrogant Ignorance of the “Well-Educated” on Facebook today, and it is so good I wanted to share it with you.

Here’s a sample:

The problem is that her education is not as good as she thinks it is. If she was educated in our secular system, she would have learned nothing whatsoever about theology, presuming that, if there is a God, he, or probably she, agrees with us. If he or she does not agree with us, he or she can go to hell. And, of course, we can tell God to go to hell because he or she is made in our image (we are not made in his/hers) and we can do what we like with him or her. In short, we can treat God with the same arrogance and superciliousness with which we treat our neighbor: “What God calls sin, we call being well-educated.”

Leaders: Give Your People Opportunities to Mess Up

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Imagine a multi-generational church with many mature leaders. The church will run smoothest if the skilled men and women do the work. They have the experience and can pass on their wisdom to the next generations. Sermons will be better if the preacher has hundreds of sermons under his belt. Classes will go be better if the teacher has taught for decades. But this approach only works for a time. People get older and eventually others have to take their place. The church won’t be prepared for the next generation if her leaders took the easy route of doing everything themselves. And now the chance to mentor that generation is gone.

Good leaders raise up other leaders. This means giving the people under them opportunities to try things. Since excellence takes experience, these early efforts will almost certainly be poor, much worse than if the leader had done it himself. This is very much like parenting if you think about it. At first, it was much easier for my wife Aja to clean the bathrooms than to have my son Owen clean. She had to spend time showing him, and then come after him and fix his mistakes. However, eventually Owen learned how to clean the bathroom and Aja is freed to do other things. Also, Owen now has a skill that will serve him well as an adult. I imagine this is part of the reason pastors must manage their households well (1 Tim 3:4-5).

Of course, leaders can’t just throw people out there. Pastors need to set them up for success, giving them the training they need and encouraging them at every opportunity. That is good leadership.

The Place of Tradition in Biblical Interpretation

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*** This topic is critical, more so than it may appear

Since I was a good Protestant growing up, unlike those confused Catholics, I believed I would understand the truth if I faithfully read Scripture. I didn’t need tradition to help me, no creeds or teachers from ancient times. I was wrong. Why? Because I was putting myself in the place of authority.

There are (at least) two kinds of authority in Christian thought – revelatory and interpretive. The item with revelatory authority has authority because it contains revelation from God. The person or group with interpretive authority has authority because they interpret revelation to determine how we think and live.

Below are the approaches of three major groups to these authorities. These are put in historical order starting around the time of the Reformation:

Catholic Church
Revelatory Authority – Scripture and tradition
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

The Reformers
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

Some Modern Evangelicals
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the individual

I want to make two points in this article. One is that Luther and the other reformers of that day agreed with the Catholic Church on interpretative authority, but disagreed that the Catholic church had moved that authority to the level of ultimate authority alongside Scripture. Luther went against the Catholic church of his day, not because he thought everything they said was wrong – he agreed with much of it – but because he believed some of the things they said were wrong. He got into trouble because the Catholics gradually came to a position over the centuries that the pronouncements they made were revelation from God, and therefore could not be opposed. Luther rightly pointed out that their councils and the Church fathers disagreed with each other and therefore couldn’t all be true. For saying this, Luther was branded a heretic. For orthodox Protestants, the church and the rule of faith have authority, but their authority is subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture.

The other point I want to make is that interpretive authority lies with the entire church, not us as individuals. What matters more to how we think and live our lives: the words of Scripture or how we understand those words? Unfortunately, it’s how we understand those words. I say unfortunately, but really there is no way around this. When we read the Bible we don’t get audible commentary from God saying “this is what that verse means.” No, we have to interpret the verse. What’s the safest way? Well, the interesting thing about us humans is that our reason isn’t rational when left to itself. Instead, our reason serves to promote our preconceived notions (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for this concept). Typically, we only become rational in the context of sympathetic dialogue. How is this relevant to interpretive authority? It means that often when we read the Bible by ourselves we are simply confirming what we already believe. We’re never going to get anywhere with that approach. It is by Christians wrestling with one another for centuries that the truth is discovered. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13). This doesn’t mean Christians individually; believers can be way off and still be genuine. No, it is the whole church together that the Holy Spirit is leading into all truth. Don’t go alone. Connecting yourself to the Church brings big rewards.

For more on this topic, see Keith A. Mathison’s excellent Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes. Some suggestions to get you started learning from the Church: read the early creeds – the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These are quite short and so don’t take much time. Then read the Heidelberg Catechism. From these you’ll get a solid doctrinal foundation.