I am pleased to feature in this print issue the winners of our college writing contest (p. 32). We received 46 essay entries from across the United States and Canada. I was delighted to see so many young Christians writing about why Christianity, in their opinion, still matters.
In those essays, I read that Christianity still matters because God is still at work in this world and calls us to join him in this work. I read that Christianity still matters when the church obeys that calling to join God’s work in restoring all areas of life. I read that only Christianity provides a narrative framework that gives healing, hope, and meaning to the suffering in our lives. Above all, I read that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are central to all of this. These young writers were doing theology.
November 2018 also marks the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort, which produced the Canons of Dort, one of the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church. (Look for our commemorative article in January 2019.) I have had occasions to discuss the Canons with university students. Many wonder if the Canons are still relevant. Most could not get into what they regard as “theological hairsplitting.”
My response has been that, at their heart, the Canons are about salvation as entirely of God’s grace, from beginning to end. Not human free will or human choice or anything else can take away God’s grace as the beginning and end of our salvation. In a nutshell, I believe that is what the Canons were trying to protect, preserve, and propagate. That’s something I can stand behind, even if Christians might argue about the Canons’ technical points.
But I understand most young people’s impatience with the theological disputes that produced the Canons of Dort. For them, such theological debates seem a lot like the “quarreling about words” the apostle Paul warned against (2 Tim. 2:14). Most of them prefer to see faith as making a tangible difference to the world and to people’s lives. Intuitively, they know that good theology is ultimately about serving God and people.
In their book Redeeming How We Talk, Ken Wytsma and A.J. Swoboda distinguish two types of theology: “With one, knowledge of Scripture and theology is used as a way to serve Jesus, people, and the church. The other, however, becomes a kind of tool for power and authority. For one, knowledge is a gift from God as a way to serve and love others. For the other, knowledge becomes about control, power, and authority. The first is sacred theology. The second is demonic theology” (p. 131). Good theology is not simply about faithfulness and accuracy to God’s Word but must include a wise and loving use of God’s Word.
Alas, I have encountered too many Christians, even pastors, who fail to recognize that truth. Their arrogance in “being right” often harms God’s kingdom more than furthers it. Theology, for some, becomes not a kneeling bench that humbles them before God but a stepping stool to elevate themselves over others. They use theological knowledge to win arguments and show off their intellectual prowess, to control others and get their way. This use of theology turns many young people off―and rightly so. Rather, good theology should inspire faith in Christ, hope in God’s mission, and love for God and others.
As we commemorate the Canons of Dort, let us also repent from abusing theology and let us follow our young people’s lead in pursuing good theology.