The world is a better place because very smart people study medicine. I am glad I am not one of them. Doctors need to be ever so educated in the mind-numbing details of human physiology just to diagnose a rash. But what is so fascinating about theology is that it dares to explore the grandest, deepest mystery of all, one that we know from the get-go lies light-years beyond the boundaries of mere human understanding. Think of an orangutan trying to noodle out a textbook on quantum mechanics.
Christian theology is the disciplined study of our beliefs about God and God’s doings with us. Those are shrouded in mystery and in unapproachable light. We can place a human cell under a microscope, poke it, prod it, and literally examine it to death. But God doesn’t exactly fit on a specimen slide, and that unapproachable light does not lend itself easily to spectral analysis. So we are privileged to ponder life’s grandest marvels through the lens of God’s self-revelation in nature and, most fully, through the Bible.
We confess that these sources of knowledge about our Source are completely reliable. What is far less reliable is our interpretation and understanding of what they reveal, as our thousands of conflicting opinions demonstrate. Unlike a Louise Penny novel, we never even come close to fully uncovering this mysterium tremendum. Here we behold a true mystery that allows us to always and forever make new and mind-boggling discoveries. This mystery is never solved.
That’s what makes theology intriguing: it helps us suss out how our limited understanding of the divine checks out with what God’s Word is actually telling us. To widen our scope, theologians are all in this together: Africans, South Americans, Asians, Europeans, and more, including those who have already joined the church triumphant but who have left us some amazing scribbles. Jesus himself promised his disciples that when the Spirit of truth comes, “he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). The “you” in that sentence is plural. Truth-knowing will come gradually and in community, and not even a Christian saint with a doctorate from Calvin Seminary has a corner on it.
There are many theological questions that are fun to ponder but not particularly useful:
- Did Adam have a belly button?
- Did the snake in Eden walk on legs before it deceived the first couple?
- Will we see Fido in heaven (presuming we end up there)?
- Can I listen in on what they are saying about me at my funeral?
More importantly, through the centuries, theologians have made amazing discoveries from Scripture that generously enrich our understanding. But we don’t have to buy all their teachings, because no respectable theologian ever fully agrees with any other. That would take the holy fun out of it. Permit me some examples.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine, a North African theologian from the fourth century, helps us gather from the Bible how deeply sin has ruined our relationship to God, each other, and the world. Our everyday sinning is symptomatic of a much deeper malady: our spoiled human nature that messes us up from the get-go. Augustine named it “original sin.” Happy thought, right? Unless God’s Spirit renews us, we’re spiritual train wrecks. Sobering, for sure, but realistic, no? It’s crucial to understand that so we’ll stop trying to pull ourselves up into heaven by our own spiritual bootstraps—a wasted effort for sure. And it warns us away from a Disney-esque trust in human nature and political utopianism. Essentially, Augustine says, “Dude! Nobody on earth will ever live “happily ever after” until Jesus returns—deal with it!” Augustine’s realism sternly points us to the only hope we have: Jesus. Original sin is like cancer: the one thing worse than knowing you have it is not knowing you have it.
Augustine also distilled from the Bible how human history and current events are all about the cosmic confrontation of God against Satan. To rebel against God’s righteous reign, the devil uses every dirty trick in every area of life, including whatever mayhem he can cause on Parliament Hill, in Congress, and in the Kremlin. Augustine identifies the deepest conflicts in the world as spiritual ones that play out in our homes, our schools, and the marketplace. Everywhere it’s “the Earthly City” vs. “the City of God.”
Augustine did overlook other bits of biblical wisdom. He thought it was OK for the authorities to coerce people into adopting orthodox Christian beliefs. It seemed to work pretty well. When the fiery tongs were given some play, heretics were quite eager to listen to “reason.” He somehow missed that part in Scripture where Paul warns us that spiritual arm-twisting doesn’t work and shouldn’t work: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12).
Let’s fast-forward to the Middle Ages and Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas was a 13th-century Italian scholar who observed that reason and faith are not enemies, but can work together nicely in helping us understand God, ourselves, and our world. Aquinas loved reading the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and he commended classic philosophy and the sciences as worthwhile tools for our understanding and betterment—which ultimately gave us manure spreaders, cellphones, and Romanesque cathedrals.
Aquinas saw creation split into two realms: nature and grace. (We’d say the secular and the sacred.) In the former, reason takes charge: humans can, just by natural reason, know tons of stuff about our world, each other, and how we should relate. Aquinas even dreamed up five “reasonable” ways that would lead any sane person to conclude that God must exist—even without reading the Bible.
These are fun to contemplate, so Google them:
- Everything is moved by something else. Trace that back to the beginning, and there must have been an Unmoved Mover that was not itself moved by anything else.
- Everything has a cause. A chain of cause-effect cannot be infinite, so there had to be a first cause for everything.
- There are beings that don’t necessarily exist and those that do. Those that don’t can’t have been around forever. So far enough back in time, beings that aren’t necessary would not have existed and there would have been nothing at all if there was no Necessary Being that existed and brought contingent beings into existence.
- Things/beings show various degrees of perfection, and we can judge which are closer to perfect and which are less so. The only way we can possibly do that is if there exists a Perfect Being to which we can compare them. (Methinks Mr. Aquinas borrowed this argument from Mr. Plato.)
- Everything has a destiny—an ultimate purpose. Because objects have no brains to guide them, and people have brains sufficiently messed up not to be able to guide them, there must be a super-intelligent Being that is heading everything in the right direction.
(To really mess with your mind, you might want to Google Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence. It’s a doozy, even if it doesn’t hold water, which maybe it does—sort of.)
Such intriguing deliberations aside, Thomas admitted that to function properly in the realm of the spiritual and to really get to know God, we need grace. God’s Spirit must give us faith, and we need Scripture to clue us in. Reason by itself can’t hit home runs in Spiritual Field.
By pointing us to creation’s revelation, Aquinas hands us an additional lens through which we can examine our world and communicate effectively with those whose beliefs about God are different from ours. That’s a lot more civilized and effective than Augustine’s bully tactics. But us Reformed types part company with Aquinas in dividing the world into those separate compartments of “nature” and “grace.” We have several gripes:
- Sin has made our human reason unreliable on its own. We need the glasses of Scripture and Spirit (à la Calvin) to see and think clearly even in this earthly realm. So instead of positing a nature and grace dualism, we think of the violent, take-no-prisoners opposition of sin and grace instead.
- We can’t separate the everyday world from the sacred. All of life is sacred: our Mondays belong to God just as much as our Sundays.
- Aquinas’ view that church tradition is right up there with the Bible as a source of knowledge of God and spiritual truth is naive at best, as any good church historian of the Roman Catholic or Christian Reformed churches will gleefully point out.
The Reformed Theologians
Fast-forward again to the 16th century, when Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and many others protested (hence “Protestants”) some practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic church of the time. Their beefs can be partially summarized by five solas (Latin for “only”). Two of those (the first two below) the Reformers actually coined themselves. A third was added later by others. The last two in this list were tacked on in the 20th century to summarize other Reformation insights. Where the church of Rome wanted to create some wiggle room to bolster its own power, the Reformers demurred.
- Sola gratia (only by grace): Salvation is by grace alone and not by works—our good works are not the cause of our salvation but the inevitable effect of it.
- Sola fide (only by faith): We are justified before God not by our own deeds (or lack thereof), but only by our faith in Christ, whose righteousness is imputed to us.
- Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone): this addition to the list summarizes accurately the Reformation principle that God gives us saving revelation only through the 66 books of the Bible and not through church tradition, CRC synods, or megachurch pastors—even if they are really dynamic.
- Solo Christo (through Christ alone): Jesus is our only mediator and, while those superstar priests and pastors on a good day can lead us to him, Christ alone actually forgives our sins and grants us life everlasting.
- Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone): Though we might admire the saints of old and learn from them, we Protestants do not worship them or pray to them. We recognize they are/were just “sinner-saints” like the rest of us, though pretty amazing nevertheless. So we’re not shy in admitting that Luther was an anti-Semite and Calvin brewed such bad beer that his neighbors begged him to desist because of the mind-numbing stench it emitted.
So Many Others Deserving Honorable Mention
The cloud of theological witnesses continues well beyond the Reformation. Where to start or stop? They fleshed out more clearly many treasures from Scripture.
- Abraham Kuyper firmly placed Reformed theology back on track after it had skittered off into full-blown liberalism. He realized the radical implications of the Lordship of Christ over all of life. Like Augustine, he recognized how universally good and evil were at work in our daily lives, homes, schools, and society. He called it the “antithesis” and showed how, even though it runs through every human heart and soul, God has provided sufficient “common grace” to “arrest the dry rot of sin.” Through God’s Spirit, Christ-followers can truly disciple the nations as per Jesus’ parting words. Great stuff, but don’t get me started on Kuyper’s racist perspectives or his interminable theological meanderings that make my brain unable to absorb what my attention span cannot endure.
- Herman Ridderbos left us a marvelous blow-by-blow description from the gospels of how Jesus inaugurated his already/not yet kingdom. Ridderbos called systematic theologians back from their often wild and wooly, grandiose ideas to careful, blood-and-guts scholarship that starts with and sticks to Scripture itself—tracing major themes from the Bible without turning them into systematic hamburgers.
- Desmond Tutu, a South African Anglican theologian made us see both the gospel’s condemnation of racism as well as the divinely gracious, biblical means of healing for both perpetrators and victims.
- Our own CRC giants, who stood/stand on the backs of those earlier giants, continue to bless us with theological insight: Louis Berkhof, John Stek, Anthony Hoekema, and more. Most were men. That’s changing rapidly—for the better, says I. The wider the community of theologians, the better our chances of getting it right. Honorable mention goes to those who crafted Report 44 on “The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority” (find it at crcna.org). That synodical report pulls together many major insights of Christian and Reformed theology into a way to read the Bible obediently and with deep integrity.
An ‘Altar Call’
So why do I bend your ear like this? To seriously encourage you to ditch that clicker or gaming controller now and again and read some good, solid theology. Such a shame that in our tech-filled world we do so little sustained reading, reflecting, and pondering anymore! It’s tons more useful to chew on some of the classics than to read repetitive online rants or get grossed out with social media posts about your cousin’s rash.
Reading theology should never, ever elbow out your personal or communal reading of Scripture itself. But digging in allows you to benefit greatly from the voices of that great “cloud of witnesses” that has come before. When you do, keep your eyes wide open and your spiritual antennae finely tuned: theology and biblical interpretation is, as mentioned, far from infallible. So be smart about whom and what you read, but discover for yourself that Jesus meant it when he promised to lead us into all the truth. It’s taken two centuries and, if Jesus tarries, might take at least two—or 200—more. But when you’re having such holy fun, what’s the rush? Humbly, faithfully enjoy!
- Who are your favorite theologians? Why do you like them?
- Do you think Christians today are reading theology more, less, or the same amount than before? Why?
- What might be the benefits from reading widely from Christian theology?
- What might be the potential pitfalls from theology that we should avoid?