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Theology is Only Good If It's Living
In pursuit of sound or "healthy" doctrine
For women and men of faith, there can be a love/hate relationship with theology.
We love theology because it provides an ordered, systematic, storied picture of the sixty-six books of the Bible. Theology packages the Bible—which can itself feel daunting—into a more digestible, less intimidating, easier to understand, cohesive whole.
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Theology gives us an interpretive lens from which to more clearly see God, the world, our neighbor, and ourselves. It anchors us and forms our most deeply held convictions. It give us greater certainty about things that are true and things that are not; about things that should be treated as lovely and things that should be treated as repulsive; about things that are healthy and that enhance life and things that are harmful and that diminish life. On the whole, and when handled with humility and care, theology can be a tremendous asset to our existence.
But if handled poorly, theology can bring out the worst in us. As Paul was quick to warn the Corinthian saints, we can fathom all mysteries, but if we don’t have love, we have and we gain nothing. James says the same thing, perhaps even more bluntly, when he says that having the most sound, water-tight, correct system of doctrine *by itself* puts us in the same category as the devil of hell. “Even the demons believe,” James says, “and they shudder.”
We can memorize the whole Bible and affirm and believe and even preach every word of it, and still not be even remotely submitted to it. To the degree that this is true of us, we, like the demons, ought to shudder. Then we should run to Jesus immediately.
My predecessor at Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Church, Dr. Charles McGowan, once shared a metaphor with me that I found both humorous and helpful. He said, and I paraphrase:
"Scott, I believe that in the life of a Christian, theology should function like a skeleton. The skeleton is, of course, absolutely necessary for providing structure and strength to the rest of the body. But, like a skeleton with a body, if our theology is the only thing or even the main thing about our spirituality that is visible to others, it means that we are either spiritually sick or spiritually dead."
And so on point.
In his skeleton metaphor, Charles was in a way explaining why some people think of seminary, the place where many aspiring ministers go to become sound in their theology, as a “cemetery.” Those who think of seminary in this way are concerned the study of Scripture become so much of an academic exercise, that the pursuit of God wanes into a dull, lifeless, and in many ways useless endeavor.
Positively, these are also people who haven't forgotten that the first and greatest commandment is to *love* the Lord our God with our whole selves, and to *love* our neighbor as ourselves.
The skeleton metaphor is especially relevant for those of us who come from a Reformed Presbyterian tradition. You see, we Reformed folks are known for emphasizing sound doctrine. Most of us would say that sound doctrine—that is, a biblically-grounded, accurate theology—is the greatest strength of our tradition. Indeed, this may be true. But when we fail to prioritize the life of the heart as a logical and necessary fruit of the life of the mind—manifest through things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control—we risk of missing the whole point. Deep knowledge of Scripture as the *sword* of the Spirit, and the sound doctrine that flows from it, must always lead to manifestations of the *fruit* of the Spirit.
So, should we cease to *study* the Scriptures and engage with theology, for fear of our faith landing in the cemetery? Should we so fear a knowledge that “puffs up” that we downplay theology altogether? Shall we assume the popular stance that says, “Don’t give me doctrine, just give me Jesus,” forgetting that “give me Jesus” is itself loaded with doctrine?
Rather than relegate the pursuit of sound doctrine to the cemetery, I believe that we must instead redeem and restore the term to its original intent: “Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2).
Wherever Scripture talks about sound doctrine, the Greek word that is translated “sound” was a common medical term meaning “healthy.” The skeleton is by no means an enemy to health, but is a friend to and supporter of it.
When I was a first-year student at Covenant Theological Seminary, Dr. Dan Doriani taught us that the academic pursuit of God does *not* have to lead us to the proverbial “cemetery.” Rather, to the degree that we come to love the Lord our God *with our minds,* we will be rightly equipped to healthily and rightly love Him with our hearts, souls and strength also. To love God fully, we must first hear from him clearly—not from culture or the latest religious trends or our feelings, but from him—precisely how it is that he wishes to be loved. Can a husband really love his wife if he fails to study her—what she loves, what makes her *feel* loved, what makes her tick? Similarly, we limit our knowledge of God, when we limit our pursuit of theology and sound doctrine, we likewise limit our ability to love him rightly.
What we are talking about, then, is not the ceasing of all things doctrinal, but of all things doctrinaire. The New Testament Pharisees are our our portrait of this. To be doctrinaire is to be puffed up, prideful, spiritually bloated, and relationally intimidating and non-accessible. To be doctrinaire is to read our Bibles every day and be in three weekly Bible studies, while serving and actively loving no one. It is to think to highly of ourselves and too lowly of our neighbor, perhaps even thanking God “that we are not like other men” as the Pharisee in Luke 18.
For pastors, a richly developed, studied, sound, scripturally grounded, robust and *healthy* doctrine is therefore essential. As the pastor’s health (or lack thereof) goes, so goes the community that this same pastor serves. A puffed up pastor will attract and affirm a puffed up congregation. Similarly, a theologically shallow pastor will attract and affirm an un-rooted congregation. We cannot be sure exactly which is worse. While the first will be experienced as distant and cold, the second will be experienced as squishy, and is at any given susceptible to being “tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine.” In either case there will be zeal, but the zeal will be misguided and not healthy because it is not according to knowledge.
So, a chief reason why a commitment to sound doctrine should be preserved is that without it, we risk becoming disciples of (doctrinaire or doctrine-less) culture instead of Jesus. Staying rooted in Scripture-based, sound doctrine keeps us wise. That is, it keeps us rooted in God’s ways, which are higher than our ways, and in God’s thoughts, which are higher than our thoughts. Culture will shift, and human opinion will shift. But truth will not.
This is what makes the Bible, and healthy theology that proceeds from it, so relevant: THE BIBLE SHOWS NO INTEREST IN BEING RELEVANT. Instead, it scrutinizes our human systems and philosophies and theological constructs—affirming that which is good and true and rebuking that which is not.
A second and chief reason why sound doctrine is important for ministers is that, as McCheyne once said, the most important thing that a minister can give to his people is his own holiness. We pastors can only lead our people as far as we ourselves have gone with God. We see this in the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “That which l first received from the Lord, I then delivered to you…” We also see it in the twelve disciples, who had become like Jesus as a result of being with Jesus, taking upon themselves his easy yoke and light burden of grace, learning from him, and through this finding rest for their souls. Then, and only then, were they prepared to carry his grace and truth to the world, plant and pastor churches, and do many good works in his name.
There is also a ripple effect when truth and theology get into us to such a degree that it catches fire in us. As Spurgeon famously said of the Puritan, John Bunyan, "If you cut him, he'd bleed Scripture!" And when we bleed Scripture, that is, when our demeanors show that we get into the truth because the truth has gotten so into us, it has a way of becoming infectious and contagious. For us and for the people that we lead, the virtues of the Kingdom—of love and the fruit of the Spirit—are caught and not achieved.
As was the case with Bunyan as well as Spurgeon, may our skeletons be covered with muscle that gives life not only to our bodies, but also our souls.