It’s all happened to us. We have all been in that situation where you are sharing something– a story, an opinion, or maybe even just a thought. We are a few seconds into our story or whatever. And in the blink of an eye, someone with a brain much larger than ours, with more knowledge than ours, carrying more conviction than us, with more passion that we have, comes jumping off the top rope. They extend their intellectual fist, and they gives us the academic haymaker they have been loading up for a while now, waiting to tell us we are wrong. Everyone has been a situation where they were just trying to share and some jerk comes to slit their throat over a word, a concept, an idea, an opinion, etc. It’s a very common occurrence. It happens far too often.
Understandably so, especially in matters like Christianity that can very easily become simplistic, many people resort to a more shallow, less controversial version of their faith. When it comes to Christians versus culture, the battle will remain until the LORD returns. But when it comes to Christians versus Christians, it often results in one side being legalistic and one side being progressive and shallow. So, which one is right? Well, both are right, except neither are actually right, and that’s the issue at hand.
Myth: Theology, dogma, doctrine don’t matter as long as I just believe and love others.
Reality: That’s not really how this whole “Christian” thing works.
A few concessions
Now, some of the age-old responses to people who advocate for intellectual Christianity– which I am doing– go as follows.
- Plenty of atheists know more about the Bible you do. I’m not really sure why this is the go-to response for people. When you bring up scripture or something to another Christian, many will say this as if to suggest the use of scripture to make a point is purely a non-Christian thing to do. For starters, what argument does this solve? Secondly, this is the whole point– people who call themselves Christians should know as much about the Bible as possible.
- Theology and doctrine are man-made. Not so fast, cowboy. Many terms and things are man-made in the sense that they have been invented to explain biblical information. A classic example of this is the Trinity. The word “trinity” is not in the Bible. It was a word created to describe the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the case for many things. But the actual truth being purported in doctrines and terms are not man-made. Christians did not invent the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equal, yet unique (3 in 1 and 1 in 3). They came up with the word to describe it. If you want to toss out factual information on the basis that humans had to organize it into language… then what the heck is school for?
- You can know all of this stuff and still not be a Christian. That is very true. Plenty of non-believers are biblical scholars. But I would make the argument, which I will do more fully later, that this is a false dichotomy. Sure, knowing a lot doesn’t save you. But, in many matters, there’s no possible way knowing less is the answer. Simply choosing to skip parts of Christianity doesn’t make you more likely to be a believer on the basis that knowledge equals evil. That is absurd on its face.
- Theology and doctrine are boring and useless. Now, I will agree with this when it comes to things like arguing over eschatology or something. Yes, there are plenty of things we can all disagree on theologically and still be Christians. Some of the banter is useless. But it is a logical fallacy to suggest some is useless, therefore all is useless. Theology has a hierarchy. Believing that worship services must sing hymns is a fine opinion to have. But it’s not the difference in heaven or hell for the congregation. Claiming that Jesus was not fully God and fully man at the same time– something Martin Luther King, Jr., thought at some point— is called heresy. And that’s a massive deal.
Here’s not what I’m saying
Don’t hear what I didn’t say (I know, double negative…). I am by no means making the claim that Christianity is some deep field of study, designed only for people who want to become scholars. Much of Christianity is pretty simple, pretty easy, and pretty obvious. “Don’t murder.” Duh! “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a great idea. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Absolutely. My argument is not that each and every believer must ascribe to this lifestyle of deep theological study. This is not doable for most people nor is it always, generally, desired. The Christian life is not about writing a dissertation.
Here’s what I am saying.
Theology and doctrine are not salvation. Knowing the Five Solas does not mean that you responded to the Gospel. But there is an element– 5, actually– of knowing theological and doctrinal things that I do believe make the difference in Christianity.
- Some theology and doctrine is literally the difference between Heaven and Hell. There is a cool concept called the hypostatic union. The idea is basically that Jesus was fully God and fully man at the exact same time. It’s a bit of a mystery because none of us have the mental capacities to empathize with this. Knowing the term is not that important. But if this idea is not known and believed, then the Gospel is fruitless. If Jesus was fully God, but not fully man, his sacrifice paid for no one’s sins because he did not take on our brokenness in order to fix it. If Jesus was fully man but not fully God, his sacrifice was not sufficient because he would have been imperfect. Either way you slice that cake, it’s inedible. Jesus has to be fully God and fully man for the Gospel to be true. This is theological. This is important. Many things are similar to this. It’s not necessary that people know these terms and things to a “t.” However, to reject theology wholesale is to reject truth that is necessary for salvation. How can you respond to a Gospel you don’t know?
- Theology and doctrine grow the faith of the believer. Whether or not we realize it, learning theology and doctrine is actively growing us into Christ-likeness and growing our faith. This same fundamental concept is true in every other area of life. The more I learned about the game of football, the better player I became and the more fun I had. We do this with hobbies, music artists, teams, etc. The more you know, the more you enjoy, the more you understand. Jesus fully knew God because he was God. The more we study the Bible– a book all about Jesus– the more we can know God.
- Theology and doctrine are, in some sense, components of the Great Commission. Jesus told his followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20a). A Christian cannot make a disciple if they do not know what a disciple is. A Christian cannot baptize rightly if they do not know what baptism means. A Christian cannot teach things they have not learned themselves. Nor can one fully understand the text of scripture on a first-pass read. Many things are easy and obvious. Plenty of things aren’t. It’s not our job to decide what someone should or shouldn’t care about when it comes to the Gospel. It’s up to us to be “ready and able to give a defense for the reason for the hope that we have,” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Theology and doctrine separate Christianity from the world. Loving people, helping the poor, and caring for widows and orphans are great and awesome things. Islam practices those, too. Remaining loyal to a local ministry is a great idea. Mormons do that. Giving money and resources to causes that are moral and just is totally cool. Bill Gates does that, as well. The reason why Christians do, say, think, and believe the things they do is called doctrine. Doctrine is rooted in theology. It’s not enough to be a moral person and hug people. The reason why Christians believe in and do these things completely separates us from the world. Without a proper understanding of this, we are just like everyone else. We love because Christ first loved us. That love us unique only to Christ. We serve a holy, righteous, and perfect God. No other religion claims the same one we do. It’s categorically impossible. So, if Christians refuse to embrace that, they are no different than the world.
- The entire Christian experience is covered in theology. If we want to understand our own practical, Christian experiences, this takes a serious look at theology and doctrine, church history, and all sorts of things. You cannot escape some intellectual Christianity even if you want to. It’s near impossible to separate the true faith from learning more about it. We cannot all become– nor should we– Augustine of Hippo. But to reject the idea that anyone has ever said anything both smart and helpful about Christianity is totally bonkers. Truth and knowledge are merely reflections of the creator. They constant pursuit of this knowledge has been the mindset of the Christian church for centuries. The shift away from learning toward feeling is completely antithetical to the actual nature of the universal Church.
The call of the believe is not necessarily to be a scholar. The call of the believer is to be faithful. One of the components of this faithfulness, though, is growing in and pursuing Christ. At a certain point, amorphous ideas about love and being nice won’t cut it. If we are going to be serious about growing in our faith, combatting culture, and discipling people, we have to know things. And if we are going to share the Gospel, we have to know what that Gospel is. Jesus was a real person who was killed, was dead, and then bodily rose from the dead. This is history, and this is academic in nature. It’s also the foundation of my salvation. If certain things of this faith I claim are not true, I am not saved, and I have no hope. Don’t reject the academic nature of knowing Christianity and its truth. Life is a test, and we should be constantly studying for it. Yes, Christianity has an experiential and social element to it, where we must love others, we must serve, we must submit ourselves, we must worship. But we also must seek to learn, to explore, to question, and to search for the answers.
If I want to know God, I talk to him, read about him, study him, explore him.
What do you call that?
You call that theology.