Sunday, June 17, 2012

"I Don't Think, Theologically ..."

I was at a church gathering yesterday that brought me into contact with a couple of brothers, and a brief and interesting exchange in regards to theology, and thinking theologically. I was discussing with one of the brothers, in ear-shot of the other, about theology; and in particular, German theology (since the brother I was talking to is a missionary in Germany). Who else but Karl Barth came up. And so the one brother I was talking to (who teaches at one of our current church's denomination's Bible Colleges) mentioned straightaway, that he had studied with a guy who had studied Barth for years; this particular brother I was talking with mentioned that he had studied Barth, amongst other "German theologians," and that (reading between the lines) he had come to the conclusion that Barth was simply a Neo-Orthodox theologian (which is akin to calling someone a semi-Pelagian, or it is really a negative caricature used to marginalize someone like Barth as a 'Liberal', just as using semi-Pelagian is used to marginalize someone, say, who is Arminian in orientation). Anyway, I develop the setting a bit, in this way, just to set up what, in conversation, happened next with the other brother in ear-shot of my current mini-discussion (by the way, I questioned whether placing Barth in the Neo-Orthodox camp was legitimate, which the brother I was speaking with seemed to disagree with me on). Somehow, in the midst of all of this, it came up that I had a book that just came out; and that I was a theologian (which was news to the brother I was talking with). Well, the other brother, in ear-shot, asserted something that I want to make the topic of the rest of this post. He said, "he doesn't do theology, and that this is his solution to having to think about such things" (like Karl Barth, etc.). I really didn't respond to this brother's comment in that context, it wasn't fitting at that moment.

Nevertheless, I bring this up, because this represents something else that I would like to address further at the blog here; in the days to come, that is. I want to evaluate, deconstruct and then constructively engage the ethos & pathos, church-culturally, that could prompt a statement like my brother made; i.e. that he basically avoids theology. I am an American Evangelical, and I live smack dab in the middle of American Evangelicalism sub-culturally. The sentiment voiced by my brother is ubiquitous and pervasive within this sub-culture; an anti-intellectual (but what I will be calling an 'anti-theo-logical') perspective. I want to deal with the socio-cultural and theological factors that have led American Evangelicals to this rather blighted state. I mean I have already started down that road with that post I once wrote entitled A Critique of the What Would Jesus Do? Society. But I would like to take a longer look at this problem, because it is one that plagues my own theological existence and Christian walk on a day to day basis, really.

I will hopefully be digging a bit further into American Pietism, American Christian Fundamentalism, and also looking at some forms of Medieval Mysticism. And trying to do some landscaping that will help give a better lay of the land in a way that would help explain why a brother of mine at church (representative of thousands and thousands of American Evangelicals) would voice his perception about theology in the way that he did. There is a radical anti-theo-logicalism at work in the higher rankings of leadership in the denomination we are a part of, and this, unfortunately has bled down into their schools of education (ironically), thus affecting many folk's own perception of "doing theology" in our current denominational affiliation (a perception given voice towards me by my brother from church).

So where does this perception of theology come from? The one that would motivate my brother's voice towards it? It comes from, I think, in general, a perception that experience with God involves an unmediated encounter; such that spirituality is contingent upon mystical encounter with a God who is solely apophatic in orientation. It comes from the simple belief that theology, in general, attempts to sequester God, and contain God in human ways; that in the process we lose God, and thus genuine experience of God, and instead replace worship of God with worship of men (like my picture of Calvin here at the blog might suggest to some). The irony of this, though, is that this perception fails to recognize (because even the recognition itself would require the kind of sequestering self-critical postulating that this perception believes is cutting real encounter with God off in the first place) that God has already accommodated himself in gracious movement towards us (which is commonly known as Grace), with the result that God has actually contained and sequestered humanity in himself, for himself, in Christ. So encounter with God is highly kataphatic, highly concrete, and highly particularized (and demystified, by the way) as we move through the mediating humanity of Jesus Christ to God. This is obviously the kind of theology that I advocate for, that we advocate for as Evangelical Calvinists; that is, a 'Christ-conditioned' Trinitarian theology. Encounter with God is what we should all be seeking, but encounter with God cannot be manufactured out of thin-air-experiences; instead they must be grounded in the encounter that God has already freely chosen for himself to have with us in the humanity of Christ.

In the end. There are only two alternatives. Either we try to do 'good theology', or we don't try, and we end up doing bad theology (worse, we end up worshiping ourselves, and the projections of ourselves overlaid onto an un-revealed revelation of God that we think is Jesus Christ pace Feuerbach). At this point, I am afraid that my brother is only doing bad theology, if he has chosen not do theology at all.

PS. A few quick responses to the quip that "one has chosen not to do or think theology" might be:

  1. Do you read your Bible, believing that God speaks there? Then, you are affirming a theological tradition that asserts the belief that God speaks in and through the witness of Scripture.
  2. Do you affirm or believe in the doctrine of the Trinity? Then, you are affirming theological grammar (that is 'extra-biblical') that was developed post Apostolic Witness. So you 'do theology then'.
  3. Do you affirm the full humanity and full deity in the person of Jesus Christ? Then ...
The moral: As a Christian, you either do good or bad theology; so try to do good theology.

PPS. I want my tone on this to be understood; it is one of concern, and not one of holier-than-thou or smarter-than-thou thinking. I think the LORD has so much for us, and that we can only stop and participate in this (him) as we self-consciously and intentionally stop and think and speak about him in honoring, critical, reflective, and devotional ways. I also think that 'right-doctrine' leads to 'right-practice' (and vice-versa).


  1. I think there is great peer pressure in some / many circles to theologically 'think' within a certain prescribed contextual framework to remain orthodox. If you break the mold, then labels are assigned in a manner that effectively says keep within these bounds and we wont insult you and let loose the attack dogs.


    1. Hi Craig,

      I think you're absolutely right. An illustration of this in my own current denominational affiliation they do have "sanctioned" theologians that they follow, but outside of them, anyone else (I would think me included) borders on heresy or almost being 'outside of the faith'.

  2. Hi Bobby:

    I can understand your brother's plight in disparaging "theology" because what you described as his description (boxing and quartering) can happen. It just isn't necessarily the case. However, you're right, we all do some sort of "theology" and usually when you are not conscious of it (like your friend), you'll articulate things that aren't in the Bible but you don't know that. The argument goes back to "I'm just reading Scripture, you're adding", which just because it's different doesn't mean you're trying to doctor things up for a system.

    I lean biblicist, but an uninformed biblicism is a blind one. And that's what happens when you don't realize everyone does theology.

    In other words: Good post! :)

    1. Hi Cal,

      Thanks. In short, I think leaning biblicist, of necessity, means we are leaning theologically; because the Bible witnesses to God in Christ through the spiration of the Holy Spirit. So again, theology and theological exegesis is inescapable for the Christian. Even dispensationalists engage in a theological exegesis of scripture, even through their 'literal interrpretation' (so called). They just do so through a positivistic understanding of language, and a neo-Platonic division of history etc.

      Thanks :-).

  3. You wouldn't happen to be involved in the CCM again, would you? ;-)

  4. You wouldn't happen to be involved in the CCM again, would you? ;-)

  5. Hi, Thank you for all your posts. Be encouraged I find your material really great

    Would love to get your book.

    Can you tell me how?



    1. Hi Roger,

      Thank you, I appreciate your encouragement. Yes, just email me at, and I will do the discounted price for you ... but you are one of the last ones I am going to do this for, except for family :-). You can always order directly from the publisher, just follow the link I have in my sidebar; or you can order through amazon in a few weeks. But if you want the deal I have offered to friends of the blog, then please email me by tomorrow; I'm going to be placing the order hopefully tomorrow. Thanks Roger.

  6. Hi Bobby,

    Good thoughts. A friend of mine uses this approach:

    Interlocutor: We don't need theology, just the Bible?
    Friend: What's the Bible?

    Any answer, of course, will be theological!

  7. Sadly, Bobby, to too many Christians, "doing theology" equals "arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin." And that is the fault of preachers and teachers who did just that when they should have been doing theology.

    1. Michael,

      Yeah, I think this is part of the problem; there is a perception of theology based upon its rationalist expression---which is not what theology should be!

  8. This reminds me of some folks who left my denomination over theological changes springing from Barth and Torrance. One told me, speaking of their new church: "We use the Bible, not writings," as if anyone's understanding in the 21st century is not influenced by "writings." The verse that always comes to my mind when I hear things like this is Malachi 3:16: "Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other (spake OFTEN one to another - KJV), and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name." The Lord LOVES it when we think on Him and communicate with one another about Him (writings,theology). He loves it SO much that He can't help but write it down in His diary!

    1. Hi Jerome,

      I love that passage too, thanks for sharing it! He does love it when we think and talk about him, and of course live through him and in him. The Bible says that Christ has given his Church teachers. I think that is important to remember for some folk.

  9. "As a Christian, you either do good or bad theology; so try to do good theology." If you are a Christian you already did the best theology you could ever do, what more is there? Everything after becoming a christian is party membership. I know you will say Good theology leads to maturity and spiritual growth, I kind of doubt this these days. I think maturity and growth come by walking with a person named Jesus and being obedient to the spirits leading. Obviously this is theology, but probably less of the standard which you would set for thinking theologically.

    1. Kenny,

      Your comment comes off as if you're just trying to be contrarian; and I say that because I know that you read theology, that you have studied theology (I did that with you for awhile) etc.

      I think good theology is growing in the knowledge of who Jesus is by encountering him and walking with him. That's it. No, the standard I'm thinking of is exactly what you have mentioned. But of course we have to try and understand who Jesus is, based on his Self-revelation, which he believed that his coming was all about (Jn 1:18; 5:39 etc.).

      My concern is really what Michael Jones was getting at in his comment. That good Christian folk have been turned off to thinking theologically (i.e. about who Jesus is as the Son of the Father etc), because they have been victims of bad theology; theology that indeed, has quenched who Jesus is. That's my concern.


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