John Adams, the second President of the United States, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, once considered a career in theology. Before it ever got launched, he abandoned the idea. Of it he said, “I perceived very clearly, as I thought, that the study of theology, and the pursuit of it as a profession, would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow man” (John Adams Autobiography, quote taken from Norman Cousins book In God We Trust, p. 77).
Adams had a point: what good does the study of theology do anyone? Has theology made the world a better place? I see little evidence that it has.
Of course a lot depends on how you define “theology.” Theology has been called “faith seeking understanding.” It can also be defined as “the study of” or “reasoned discourse about” God. There is formal theology, and informal theology. Formal theology, like the study of medicine, is divided up into a myriad of specialties. Each is a world unto itself. The findings and fulminations of formal theology rarely filter down to ordinary church members. Rather, theological discussions take place in the rarified atmosphere of Academia where high-domed theologians throw esoteric jargon at each other until one side buries the other in obscure polysyllables.
We need our scholars
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that such esoteric discussions should not take place; they should. The study of God is a fascinating, gripping, vitally important one. There is no more important study on the planet. The more we know about God, the better we understand the universe of which we are a part. The Christian Church should celebrate, encourage and support its scholars. They play a vital role in helping the rest of us to comprehend what it means to be a Christian in our time – or any time for that matter.
Having said that, I must hearken back to what John Adams said: “…would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable…” Adams was right. That is the nature of theology. That is the nature of denominationalism. From the death of Jesus’ original apostles to the present time, the Church has been embroiled in internecine controversies, many of which have proven fatal to the participants. We see, even within the Churches of God Pod, “endless altercations.” Participating in them can only make one miserable.
Levels of understanding
As I’ve written in earlier columns, theology takes place at three levels: the academic, the pastoral and the level of ordinary church members. These are three different thought worlds, with three different sets of interests. Ordinary church members cannot be expected to hack their way through the dense thicket of theological machinations in a daunting effort to find the pearl of great price. It’s simply overwhelming. For the most part, church members rely on their pastors to clue them in as to “The Truth.” Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
The net result is that every Christian has, admit or not, his or her own personal theology. It cannot be otherwise. One would have to be terminally stupid to simply sign on the dotted line of any given denominational or cultic doctrinal package. That would be irresponsible in the extreme, especially in light of Paul’s admonition: “Test everything. Hold on to the good…” (I Thessalonians 5:21). It is a mistake to approach doctrine, or theology, uncritically. Too much is at stake if we adopt a counterfeit, heretical, or erroneous theology.
Theology by osmosis
When we come to God in the first place, we are often blank slates, theologically speaking. We know little or nothing about God. Most of our feelings and opinions about him are subjective, or simply inherited from relatives and friends. Of any given denominational affiliation we may say, in effect, “If it was good enough for my parents, it’s good enough for me.” This mentality often results in “theology by osmosis.”
Had the truth of God been perfectly preserved without complication from the first century to the present that might be an acceptable way to go. Regrettably, it’s not that simple. To a great extent, the truth as Jesus’ original apostles understood it has been bastardized. Because of a myriad of factors involving ecclesiastical power, money and influence, truth isn’t what it used to be. Today, we have to work much harder to find it. The documents of the original Church were written nearly 2000 years ago, in another language. To apprehend the truth held by the first believers in Yeshua, we must build a bridge of scholarship from that time to our own. That process, regrettably for some, often involves theologians and scholars.
I realize that some take exception to the idea that theologians are even needed. Didn’t Jesus teach that all that is necessary to understand the truth is the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-13)? Why then do we need scholars, exegetes, and hermeneutical rules (rules of interpretation)?
Of course many of the people who sincerely believe that “all they need” is the Holy Spirit arrive at differing conclusions about the same issues. Why is that? Does the Spirit of God lead us in multiple, contradictory directions? Does it cause us to draw competing and contradictory conclusions? How do we know which “authority” is truly led by the Holy Spirit?
Nearly 2000 years has passed since the last books of what we erroneously call “The New Testament” were written. We now have some 5400 extant fragments of these of these documents, all of them copies. They fall within four families: Alexandrian, Caesarean, Western and Byzantine. Scholars must compare these thousands of manuscript copies and fragments to determine the “original” text. Most of the documents were written centuries after the fact. There is also good evidence that some fiddling with texts has taken place to accommodate emerging doctrine (see The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart D. Ehrman). Prof. Ehrman explains the purpose of his book in the opening paragraph of the Introduction: “This is a book about texts and their transmission, about the words of the emerging New Testament, and how they came to be changed by scribes of the early Christian centuries. My thesis can be stated simply: scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views (p. xi).
We need scholars to help us understand which copies of texts are indeed accurate and complete. We need them to help us translate those texts from their original languages into our own, and every act of translation is an act of interpretation. The apostle Paul believed that we need to study to gain God’s approval (II Timothy 2:15). The word “study” here is translated from the Greek spoudazo meaning to “be zealous or eager, take pains, make every effort” (BAG, p. 763). Learning the truth is not just a matter of sitting back and waiting for the Holy Spirit to drop understanding into our heads. We must also work at it. Even the mighty prophet Daniel “understood by books” how to calculate times (Daniel 9:2). He may have been referring to Jeremiah’s writings here.
Study: The highest form of worship
In Judaism, study was often viewed as the highest form of worship, not something to be discounted and denigrated. Great Torah scholars, like Jesus himself, were to be admired and respected. Professor David Flusser, an Orthodox Jew, wrote of Jesus, “One should view Jesus against his Jewish background, the world of the Sages, to recognize and appreciate his great influence on those around him. Only thus shall we be able to understand how Christianity was formed. Jesus was part and parcel of the world the Jewish Sages. He was no ignorant peasant, and his acquaintance with the Written and Oral Law was considerable” (Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, pp. 18-19).
Jesus, like other Jewish Sages, taught his talmidim – his students or disciples, well. Just as Paul had studied at the feet of the great Sage, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the apostles had studied at the feet of an even greater than Gamaliel: Yeshua himself. Their time with Jesus was clearly reflected in their ability to boldly articulate the Gospel in the face of high-powered opposition (Acts 4:13). Those who heard them could tell that “they had been with Jesus” simply because it was clear that though they were not members of the scholarly class they, like Jesus, had an uncanny ability to set forth God’s redemptive plan. Not only were they filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8), but they had been personally taught by Jesus.
Before we move on, let’s explore a couple of the Greek words used in Acts 4:13. The first is translated in the KJV “unlearned.” In Greek the word is agrammatos. According to the most authoritative Greek lexicon (BAG)*, in this context, the word means “lacking in expertise concerning the law.” The word can mean, “Unable to write, illiterate.” In other words, it was clear that Peter and John were not scribes or “doctors of the law,” yet they were by no means ignorant. Both wrote their own books, none of which are badly written.
The second word is translated “ignorant.” It is from the Greek idiotes. This word means “laymen, amateur in contrast to experts or specialists. An untrained man.” (BAG, p. 37c).
The fact that Jesus’ disciples came from the Galilee is no proof of their ignorance. Professor David Flusser writes: “Contrary to popular notions today, the inhabitants of this district [Galilee] were not rude back woodsmen” (Jesus, p. 46)
Between then and now
As Christians, we can and should learn from Jesus himself (Acts 28:20), and from his apostles (Acts 2:42). Yet, between their teachings and our understanding, there is a vast army of “Church Fathers,” creeds, scholars, preachers, denominational leaders and fellow Christians, dead and alive. Hundreds of thousands of books have been written, published and duly filed in theological and church libraries around the world. Truth claims are myriad and confusing. Somehow, each one of us must sift through the mountain of doctrines, dogmas, creeds, understandings, arguments, claims, catechisms, denominational statements of belief, church constitutions, and interdenominational bickering, and somehow determine what “the Truth” is. A complete study would involve the comparison of a small library of translations as well.
Good luck! You’ve got your work cut out for you. So far, in nearly two millennia of Christianity, no one has successfully accomplished this Herculean task. Ultimately, all of us who try wind up with a personal theology that is the distilled essence of all of our studying, praying, comparing, sifting, weighing, reading, thinking, and wrestling. Many years ago, my friend and mentor, Jon Hill, used to say to me in the midst of all of the internal chaos that characterized the old WCG, “Brian, there are three things that I know: God exists, the Bible is His Word, and this is his church.”
Later, he revised that down to the first two tenets. As I’ve written before, I don’t believe “the true Church” can be identified denominationally or organizationally. But truth itself can be detected wherever it resides and flourishes. The key to recognizing it is to become intimately familiar with the teachings of Jesus and his original apostles. The more we study them against the Jewish background in which they lived and functioned, the better we’ll understand their legacy – and the more valid our personal theologies will become.
Certainly, we must draw on the leading of the Holy Spirit to direct our studies and the conclusions we draw from them. When we enter into Spirit-led study, we are, in fact, worshiping God. We are “mainlining” the words, thoughts, ideas and commandments of God. We are communing with the Deity.
As much as we’d like to cop out and buy into someone else’s theological “package,” we are faced with the need to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). We will be accountable to the Lord for what we have chosen to incorporate into our personal theologies, and how that has affected our behavior.
As an exercise in clarification, ask yourself this: What do I know for sure? Upon which doctrinal hills am I willing to die? What beliefs and practices would I go to the wall for? What’s real and what’s not? What have I proven, and what do I merely suspect to be true? What’s worth clinging to in the face of persecution? What things are non-negotiable? What things will I take to the grave with me?
Remember John Adam’s caveats about the pursuit of theology: If it makes you miserable or others miserable, something’s wrong. Truth shouldn’t make us miserable, it should set us free (John 8:32). If it leads only to endless altercations and theological arguments with others, it’s not worth pursuing. Paul made it clear that we should not waste our time on “doubtful disputations” (Romans 14:1). He recognized that Christians within the same congregation might have disparate personal theologies: “…for one believes…another [believes]…” etc. etc. (Romans 14:2). Sooner or later, the Lord will bring us all together in perfect doctrinal harmony. In the meantime, we are responsible to Him for our spiritual journey through life.
Then think about John Adam’s other thought about theology: “…without any prospect of doing good to my fellow man.” It is far more important to do good than merely to go around knowing things. As Paul said,“Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (I Corinthians 8:1b). Ezra the scribe set us a sterling example: “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgment.” (Ezra 7:10). The word “seek” in this verse is the Hebrew darash which means to “seek with application, study, follow, or practice” (BDB* p. 205 c6).
Ezra provides the pattern: to learn, to do, to teach – in that order. This negates the old saw, “Them that can’t do, teach.” If we learn merely to lord it over others with our knowledge, we will not have done any good. If, on the other hand, we can set people free from some ignorance, some bondage, with our learning, we have benefited someone; we have done some good.
If through our studying, we have become better Christians, more loving, kinder, gentler, more compassionate and empathetic, more giving and forgiving, then we have produced “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” in our own lives, and in others.
Everything life throws at us is a test. The more we arm ourselves with the knowledge of God, the better we’ll be able to pass those tests, and to help others to pass them. As we grow, our personal theologies grow with us. If we are wise, we will progressively jettison those things that turn out to be erroneous or harmful. Ideas have consequences. We should be zealous, not reluctant, to expel bad ideas as rapidly as possible. Why cling to theological detritus?
John Adams, our second President, was describing the theological life as it is often practiced, not as it should ideally be conducted. If it makes us miserable, leads to endless altercations, and does no good; it’s not cool, kosher or legit. It’s bogus.
Let’s close this discussion with the wise words of Jesus’ half-brother, James: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:13-18, NIV).
*Note: The best Greek lexicon for the New Testament is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich. It is usually referred to as “BAG.”
The best Hebrew lexicon for the Old Testament (TaNaKh) is The Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver & Briggs. It is commonly referred to as “BDB.”
The word definitions in this article are taken from these lexicons.