Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

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.

Devastating Pain

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.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

“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.

Idolatry

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.

Christian doctrine is the teaching about God that comes from the proper study 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.

Good Theology

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?

Bad Theology

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.

 

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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11 Replies

  1. Salli

    Thank you sir, for a relavent post. I hope you don’t mind, I’d like to share this article with our Sunday school class. We are currently studying “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman; and are at the place where we are examining ways to show the Gospel to people who are suffering. I felt this article was an excellent example of what a conversation like that would look like. Also, you explain well your reasoning. Is it okay if I print it out for the class?

    1. You’re most welcome to use the article in your Sunday School class. Peace and Blessings!

      1. Salli

        A belated thanks. Everybody got the point. (I think.)

  2. Well said. A solid theology… that is knowing why God said what He said and how He said it… will be the ground level support of all the storms that will try to pull us away from true safety. We are all prone to be sliding into idolatry… you can be chosen and divided you know… just ask Jacob. 🙂 Can’t wait to get a at least four coffee sessions with you when I’m in town my brother. Blessings.

  3. I AM NOT AN EDUCATED MAN. MY THINKING IS SO SIMPLE
    BELIEVE IN GOD IN JESUS CHRIST AND THE HOLY SPIRIT
    I GET MY KNOWLEDGE OF GOD FROM THE BIBLE AND OTHER PEOPLE
    WHO I FEEL LOVE GOD. I SEE GOD IN OTHER PEOPLE THROUGH THE
    WAY THEY LIVE THEIR LIVES AND THE HUMILITY THEY SHOW.
    IF WE DON’T TRY TO DRAW GOD TO ACCOUNT FOR WHAT WE FEEL
    IS AN UNANSWERED PRAYER. IF WE JUST GO ON TRUSTING GOD WE CAN ACCEPT THAT GOD HAS AN OTHER PLAN FOR US. TO BELIEVE TO
    TRUST AND TO LOVE GOD IS ALL WE HAVE TO DO IF YOU LET HIM HE
    WILL COMFORT YOU.

  4. Elizabeth

    I also was (and still am, sometimes) under the impression that God is annoyed or angry with me about my sin. It is difficult to feel the full weight of his love and grace when I feel like God is totally against me. This is my biggest struggle as an overarching theme.

    And as you stated, “…he may have something more important than your happiness or standard for success in mind?”
    This is another point of bad theology I’m learning to undo. My happiness is not God’s ultimate goal.

    Excellent post, pastor. Praising God for His work on the hearts of His children.

  5. Mark Kagan

    As someone new to the Christian life, I come from the prospective of one who has awoken from a dream that was the sum total of my old life into a world that looks like the old, but feels brand new. I simply invited God into my heart through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit got a hold of me. This is the greatest success in my life so far and it was a gift of the Lord. My future success, I believe will be measured by my proximity to the way God intended man to be, which is in the image of Jesus Christ. I think of theology as a manual and a guide on this spiritual journey. Thank you for this excellent article on a very important topic!

  6. Bill

    Sound doctrine always depends on sound theology. As George MacDonald observed, other than the fundamental doctrines, the rest are ultimately man made. Hence, first one must believe that God’s word is the source of all truth and be committed to sola scripture; then develop one’s theology and doctrine. If we all operated that way, we wouldn’t have divisive positions on either theology or doctrine. Sounds easy but it ain’t — we’re a bunch of fallen sinners saved by grace.

  7. Gilead Rose

    This is most excellent, and so important to understand as early as possible. It completely changes our attitudes while going through trials. My family went through something quite similar to your friend’s, but we knew God was working everything together for our good, and we have continued to see more and more of the good that came from a terrible family situation in our lives.

    A bad Theology that I can mention took hold with me for some time was that of my having a part in my salvation. My thought process for years growing up was “I still had to accept the gift of God, right?” This was still ok in my mind because I wasn’t claiming to have saving power, but it took several years of being under right teaching and searching the scriptures to realize that I didn’t believe this because the scriptures teach it as much as I believed it because it made God fit into the “morale box” I had conceived for him (that was based on principles that apply to sinners, not a perfect God), and because of my own pride.

  8. Matt

    I grew up with the mindset that God was waiting to crush me every time I sinned. I constantly have to remind myself of 1 John 1:9 and other verses about God’s love.

  9. Brother Scott, excellent look at the practicality of theology in every day Christian living. I am encouraged! Thank you!