The Problem with Theology
Theology and its close cousin, doctrine, have raised havoc in the church for more than 2,000 years.
These antagonists have severed relationships between friends and families, have been catalysts for countless wars throughout history, and will indubitably be the primer for more conflict in the future.
You would think enough is enough!
There are many who would like to see the church stop preaching doctrine, stop arguing about theology, and just love God and love others the way Jesus said to.
Aside from such a premise itself being theologically qualitative, a recent conversation I had with a friend highlights the reason theology is necessary—and likewise, very practical—for cultivating a robust faith and a fruitful life.
“At least you two are still together after more than twenty years,” she said. “See, you even read the Bible together as a family. Your kids have some spiritual influence into their lives.”
Normally, those words would have been a compliment. And I’m sure they were meant to be to some degree. But mostly, it was the toxic ejaculation of a wounded heart.
My friend went through a bitter divorce a few years back and was, as you might expect, deeply wounded by the experience. She and her husband were high school sweethearts. They were both successful in their respective careers. They had a beautiful family that was by all indications faithfully committed to Christ.
After almost twenty years of marriage her husband cheated, and then walked out. She made a valiant effort to restore the marriage. She prayed. She fasted. She loved him on purpose. She extended forgiveness when it wasn’t easy and he didn’t want it.
Unfortunately, he was as committed to ending the relationship as she was to saving it. He abandoned her, his children, and any faith in Christ he previously confessed. It was devastating!
“I’m jaded!” she said. “I know I am. But I can’t help it. I’m pissed at God.”
“I understand,” I said.
“I did everything I was supposed to do, and God let my cheating, narcissist ex-husband rob me of my youth; he let him rob my kids of their one and only childhood. None of them even have a heart for God, now. They’re jaded too. God completely let us down!”
“I’m sorry for what happened to you; I can’t imagine how painful it was and is,” I said. “But do you really think God let you down?”
“Well, here I am, mid-point in my life. I’m starting over and have nothing to show for the last twenty years!” she said.
“I wanted a successful marriage. I fought for it. I wanted to grow old together with a man who loved me and our kids—I wanted a man my kids’ kids would want to call grandpa. Now, what do I have to look forward to?
I’m not getting any younger and every eligible man I’ve met about my age is a train wreck. And sorry, no offense, but men are all liars!
I don’t pray anymore. It’s useless. It’s a waste of time. God doesn’t answer any of my prayers! I may be saved; but I guess I don’t deserve to succeed in this life.”
What Success Looks Like
“What does success look like?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” She furrowed her eyebrows.
“I mean you obviously have an image of what success looks like to you. What do you think that standard looks like to God? How does he gauge success in the lives of his children?” I asked.
“Like you two,” she said implying my wife and me. “I mean I realize you guys aren’t perfect, and I’m sure you’ve had your struggles. But you stuck it out. Isn’t the ideal picture of Christ’s love for the church supposed to be shown through the husband and wife relationship?”
“Paul certainly draws a parallel between the two. So, is that your idea of success?” I asked.
“I guess… Something like that… For the most part…” She said.
“You were talking about Ephesians five just now. Would it be okay if we looked at another passage?” I asked.
“Sure. That’s fine.” She said.
“Let’s look at Romans 8:28-29 for a moment.” I turned to the passage in my Bible.
“I know the passage,” she said. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying God’s standard for our success is not necessarily the success of our marriage—although a healthy marriage is a gift and blessing; and it’s important and not to be minimized—and it’s not in the size of our bank account, or the career path we choose, or the cars we drive, or the amount of suffering we can successfully mitigate in this life,” I said.
“Success is God’s work of conforming us to the image of Christ. He never fails at that work. You know you can’t control the decisions other people make, even when they hurt you deeply. But God is the master of using our trials and adversity as tools to bring about our sanctification—our being conformed to the image of Christ. That’s the good all things work together for.
In other words, sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to because he is working out the greater purpose of shaping us into Christ’s image. God didn’t make your husband leave you; he did that on his own. But God is using your circumstance to work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure–which is his children conformed to the image of Christ (Philippians 2:12-13).”
Who is God, Really?
“The question then becomes: can you pray knowing God is good, that he loves you, and that he may have something more important than your happiness or standard for success in mind? Can you trust God knowing his ultimate goal for you is to be conformed to the image of Jesus and not necessarily your own goals of an ideal life or marriage?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I guess I have been praying to a God I thought I knew. The more he reveals himself like you’re describing, I guess I need to figure out whether I can trust God for who he really is.”
And that, my friend, is why we need good theology.
And I share this conversation with you, not to exploit my friend in any way, and not to judge her for her struggle—God only knows how I might respond given similar circumstances—but to highlight a too-frequent problem among believers.
Calvin said our hearts are idol making factories. He was right. Idolatry doesn’t require a graven image. Idolatry is simply fashioning God out of our own imagination.
Theology confronts idolatry. It helps us speak truthfully of God.
Unless we know who God is as he revealed himself to us, and not who he is in our best estimation, we cannot rightly worship God. We cannot rightly praise God. We cannot confess or testify accurately of God.
And, we cannot confidently pray to God in times of pain and adversity!
As much as people complain about learning doctrine via good theology, it’s necessary and beneficial.
Theology comes from the words Theos and logia. Theos means God. Logia is word, discourse, logic, or study. Thus theology is the discourse on or study of God.
Doctrine comes from the Latin word, doctrina. It is translated from the Greek διδασκαλία (didaskalia) and means the content of what is taught.
Therefore, we could say Christian doctrine is the teaching about God that comes from the proper study of God.
Theologians aren’t just talking heads in the university who philosophize about God. We are all theologians. Some are just better theologians than others.
Maybe you’re already deeply committed to learning of God so you can speak of, relate to, and praise him, accurately. That’s great. For everyone else, what do you say we get our theology on?
Perhaps you would like to share in the comments some bad theology you had to unlearn or repent of.
Here, I’ll even go first.
After I first became a Christian, I thought Jesus was the king of Heaven and Satan was the king of Hell. I thought the whole Christian enterprise was about us being caught in the middle of their kingdom war. While there is a tinge of truth to that, I eventually realized that while Satan may be the god of this world for a time, he is the king of absolutely nothing! Strange as it may sound, that was a giant paradigm shift for me.
And here’s another:
I also thought I could live anyway I wanted and then just before I died, if I could say a prayer of repentance quickly enough, I would get to go to heaven. I lived that way awhile; and it was a huge error in theology, with huge consequences!
Okay, now it’s you turn.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.