Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology – Part 2

As we continue our journey through David F. Well’s No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, it is important to understand where Wells is coming from.  Without question, Wells is clearly concerned by the ongoing degradation of theology in many evangelical churches.   But at the same time, he also believes that everyone possesses a theology of sorts.  Let’s begin by taking a look at a critical opening remark:

“Let us not think … that we have a choice between having a theology and not having one.  We all have our theologies, for we all have a way of putting things together in our own minds … The question at issue, then, is not whether we have a theology but whether it will be a good theology or bad one.”[1]

So, the first thing we must note is that, in Wells’s view, theology can never be reduced to a hobby or a practice of the elitists in the church.  While people may not realize it, everyone has a theology of sorts, which is just another way of saying that everyone has a way of putting ideas about God together in their mind.  And the only real question, according to Wells, is whether your means of categorizing these ideas are faithful to the biblical text or not.

Let’s return to a practical example.  In the first post in this series, I cited an earlier comment made by a man identifying himself as “Bob.”[2]

“You over complicate and analyze things. Its fine if you are into theology, and have your own views, but the Bible is no textbook, and I don’t believe that Christianity is as complicated as you make it. Its a relationship with Christ that matters.”

Now if you look at this statement, it would appear that “Bob” prioritizes a “relationship” with the Christ.  But the question any logical person would have to ask is: how can I have a “relationship” with a man who was executed by the Roman Empire two thousand years ago?

Can you see where this is going?  As soon as I pose this question to “Bob,” he is likely to respond that Jesus was not only killed, but also raised from the dead, which makes the “relationship” possible.  So now, we see that the “relationship” is prioritized, but it’s built on a theological belief that Jesus entered this world, died, was resurrected, and now lives in such a way as to make a “relationship” with Him even possible.

But the trail does not stop there.  Why does a relationship with Jesus matter?  Why don’t I need a “relationship” with Paul, or even Moses?  Presumably, when faced with this question, “Bob” (if he is like most evangelicals) would likely say something regarding the Christ’s unique status as the “Son of God” and His role as a mediator between God and man.  And this is all fine and good, except for one thing.  It raises new questions.  Why does mankind need a mediator between itself and God?  Or, why is mediation even needed?  Has something gone wrong?  And if so, how do we know what has gone wrong, and how do we know that the work of the Christ can fix it?

At this point, you can probably begin to see the fallacy behind “Bob’s” thinking.  “Bob” wanted to suggest that the pursuit of theology was “fine” and that we could each have our “own views,” so long as we prioritized a “relationship” with the Christ.  But even a simple statement regarding the need to have a “relationship” with Jesus is loaded with theological meaning.  When “Bob” makes a statement such as that, he is presuming at least this much:

  • There is a God.
  • Something has gone wrong between man and God.
  • Christ, and only Christ, can mediate between man and God.
  • Christ is alive, contrary to the testimony that He died on the cross.
  • Christ is somehow supernatural and capable of overcoming the “natural” processes of this world.
  • The Bible, which is the primary source of this theology, must somehow be the revelation of God.

As you can see, Wells is correct.  There is no choice to be made “between having a theology and not having one.” But let’s push this a little further by returning to our hypothetical discussion with “Bob.”  For the sake of argument, let us suggest that in his reading of the Old Testament, “Bob” has come to believe that YHWH – that is to say, God the Father – is a cruel and unjust monster.[3]

If “Bob” does indeed see God in this fashion, would it not stand to reason that he sees the mediation of the Christ in a vastly different way than someone who sees the character of God as loving and merciful?  If God the Father is, in fact, a being somewhat akin to the Joker – a being that merely wants to “watch the world burn”[4] – than he is nothing more than an vicious and abusive parent. And if that is the case, than how would someone like “Bob” see the Christ?

From what we know of abused children, they often tend to cling to the non-abusive parent as a mediator between themselves and the tyrant.  But what psychology also tells us is that this clinging is rarely motivated by love.  In fact, this clinging is motivated by a pragmatism that is deeply rooted in the human instinct for survival.  The abused child sees the non-abusive parent as complicit in their torture because the non-abusive parent fails to stop the abusive nightmare.  And so, the mediator is not seen as a “savior,” but as a means to an end.

How many Christians view the Christ in that very way?  Because they fail to understand the continuity between the Old and the New Testament, they see a God that is schizophrenic (at best!) and their view of Christ is corrupted.  This is just one minor example of how a seemingly inconsequential doctrine on the character and nature of God can have a profound impact on what “Bob” believes to be central.

And this is why Wells ultimately concludes his opening thesis by saying:

“The question at issue, then, is not whether we have a theology but whether it will be a good theology or bad one.”[5]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Related articles:

Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology – Part 1

[1] Wells, David.  No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?  (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), 3.

[2] From this point forward, I will be using “Bob’s” comments to unpack common evangelical beliefs.  Please understand, however, that I do not know “Bob,” nor do I know the details of his theology.  Thus, everything that follows is hypothetical conjecture that is based on common evangelical belief systems.

[3] This view is not uncommon among evangelicals.  For further reading on the subject, please see: Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Caananite Genocide.

[4] This quote is taken from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

[5] Wells, 3.

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7 Responses to Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology – Part 2

  1. Ryan M. Mahoney says:

    I understand why the average lay person in an Evangelical church does not even realize these questions are present, let alone important. For the first 36 years of my life I had no idea. Unfortunately, I had to spend countless hours and about $20,000 on a MA in theology from Wheaton (Go Crusaders!) to come to this rather simple realization. Everyone is doing theology and it matters deeply. Moreover, it makes no sense that I do this alone when so many people for thousands of years have been wrestling with my questions and questions I have not even thought of yet.

    But what gets my blood boiling is the the “professional” pastors that have been through the training and still feed the sheep sand instead of wine and bread. In an attempt to reach the lowest common denominator in our culture the average church bends so far down that it comes untethered from the global and historic church. Don’t fool yourself; its quantity over quality. Just take a look at the Barna studies about the megachurch trend in America. The market gave us Walmart and Saddleback Church.

    Look, we consult Consumer Reports before buying a car. We use real-estate agents when selling a house, and we use a lawyer when it comes time to write a contract and perform a closing. We seek out investment specialists for our retirement. We ask teachers to educate, and in some instances help raise, our children. However, when it comes to the most important issue in the life of a follower of Christ we reduce it to me, my small group and a guy up on stage I have never even had dinner with to decide what God’s word means. That is insane.

    Irenaus, Tertullian, Justin, Polycarp, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, John of Damascus, Origen, Gregory the Great, Luther, Calvin, Melancthon, Knox, Bucer, Zwingli, Edwards (sorry I know that hacks you off), Owen, Cranmer, Wesley, Barth, Pannenberg, von Balthasar, Gutierrez, Mbiti, Bolaji Idowu, Kwame Bediako, Wright, Wright, McCormick, Vanhoozer, Carson, Treier, Osborne, Horton, and Owen Williams have nothing to contribute to understanding a document written by numerous other authors thousands and thousands of years ago. Gimme a break.

  2. Pingback: What’s Gettin’ Under My Skin Today « Christus Victor

  3. lamehousewife says:

    I think it is great that you are trying to find the authentic Christ, the non-fantasy…But, my questions for you are how do you know you have found a good theology? Which teachers do you trust? How do you know if you are the one who will be able to see the difference between good theology and the wrong sort? Does it just ring true? Or is it something else? I have seen apologetics on Islam, on Buddhism, on Hinduism, on Judaism (Sadducees, Pharisees, Scribes), and even on Atheism. They all have their reasons for why their theology is good and right. I am not trying to be a pain in the arse, so I will try to get to the point.
    Many Catholics attend the Catholic Church, but don’t believe in its theology–at least, that is what their actions and words speak. Some even believe in the prosperity Gospel type theology. Is it ignorance? It could be. Is it because they are afraid of the contradictions it will cause within or because they are afraid to change? Maybe. But there is another theory I have. Everyone sees the Gospel according to the depth of their sincerity and their courage to see it purely, so those who want to believe that God is granting them prosperity because He loves them more will only hear the parts of the Gospel that help them live this out–they are blind to the other parts unless grace intervenes. This blindness, in part, is due to the American mentality to make religion in your own image like a whole bunch of king Henries. There are those who want to define theology according to themselves and will do everything to make that happen, and those who want authentic theology to define them and will allow grace to make that happen. In short, some will see the Gospel according to the sin they do not want to get rid of.
    I think it is absolutely wonderful that you are trying to weed through it all. It is a healthy sign that the Holy Spirit is drawing you and that you are willing to cooperate with what He wants to reveal to you.
    I will keep you in my prayers…

    • Hello Lame Housewife … Why is it that I feel guilty every time I type your name? I feel like I’m inadvertently putting you down every time I address you. 🙂

      In your opening remarks, I think you asked a great question – one that is worth answering here.

      But, my questions for you are how do you know you have found a good theology? Which teachers do you trust? How do you know if you are the one who will be able to see the difference between good theology and the wrong sort? Does it just ring true? Or is it something else?

      If you are talking about discerning truth from amongst a host of world religions, you’re entering in the realm of epistemology and apologetics. And that is a whole conversation in an of itself. But if you take a look at the question from within the boundaries of Christian theology, I suspect that the true answer is found in what I will call “classical Reformed theology” or “historical Catholic theology.” That is to say, I believe that the best theology is done in community with respect for the historic witness of the church universal. This is the great testimony of Nicea and Chalcedon. Unfortunately, it would appear that both of our respective traditions have veered off the course when it comes to this issue. While the Catholic Church tends to overemphasize the role of Papal authority and Tradition, the evangelical church tends to overemphasize the virtue of personal autonomy.

      In this sense, I tend to think the Eastern Orthodox church got it right when they went with a college of co-equal bishops.

      What do you think? How do you know when you’ve found good theology? Or a teacher for that matter?

      • lamehousewife says:

        Okay, smart alec:) Oh, before I get started, you can call me LH if that helps;)
        I realize that we are both coming from two different traditions here, as you pointed out. Papal authority and Tradition were both things I had to learn about when I came back to the Church 11 years ago. I had to ask the question, why? for sure. For one thing, even though I grew up in a “Catholic” household, I never even knew about the Pope until he came to Denver in 1993. We didn’t attend church much, so I had no education about the whole thing. In fact, the only education about the Church I received (since it was not discussed at home) was very hostile to, derogatory about, or whatever to the Church. So, when I came back into the Church, I knew NOTHING as far as that and as far as theology.
        Now, when I came back because of my sheer ignorance and my completely weak spirit, I was easy prey for falling and falling quickly. My first assumption when I came back, when I was filled with zeal for the Spirit and everything that came with Him, was that I knew how to interpret what He was saying to me in Scripture. Without any education in Scripture, which needs to be seen in a hermeneutical(sp?) way, one can tend to get on a roller coaster with the verses she reads. One day, it can be hate your mother and father, the next day, if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself and you pray, then you, well, you know the rest… So my first problem in trying to find the good theology, which, yes a TREMENDOUS part of it is found in Scripture, is that I assumed in my pride that I would be able to “get it” at first read. So, the first thing God had to teach me is–I can’t trust myself. To do that, He had to let me fall into a vacuum because I was coming back to Him with a whole lotta pride!
        The next thing He had to teach me was that there are false teachers and there are authentic teachers, there are people that are trying to help me to get to heaven, and there are people who don’t really care if I make it, and by their indifference to the matter will walk me right into Hell. After I learned that I can’t trust myself, my own fragile abilities, he had to teach me that I can’t trust every single person that I talk to about theology. How did He do this? He let me start walking away when I found a false teacher, someone who was living his own version of theology. Where did I end up? Back in the vacuum. ‘Ah me’…I am sure God was thinking, ‘I hope she gets it soon.’ I had to learn about discernment because I can’t trust all people who call themselves theologians or those who think they know what Scripture means.
        Number one, I had to stop trusting myself. Number two, I had to stop trusting others. Number three, I had to start trusting Jesus. When He said that He would not leave us orphans, when He said that He would not let the netherworld prevail, when He commissioned the Apostles…with the laying on of hands, with the Sacraments, with the people who have shown heroic love–the Saints by following this theology of the Church. This theology is Him is what I did not trust when I first started following Jesus, but this is what He has taught me to trust fervently. This is how I had to learn–vacuum falls–but God does different things with different people.
        I realized after I posted that comment that those are really tough questions. Perhaps, it is because we are being called to know why we believe what we believe more than ever. These kinds of questions I still don’t know how to answer when an atheist asks me, but I would like to learn. I find that both you and Christus Victor value the moral component of theology, which is so important to finding good theology; that you both hunger and love Truth because you guys ask thoughtful questions, are willing to go out into the deep, are willing to set out on the journey, all of which will get you going in the right direction; and that you both are drawn to literature that hearkens to Catholic theology…Eastern Orthodox theology’s similarity, its “communion” with the Roman Catholic Church, is “so profound ‘that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.'” (CCC 838)
        I asked my son last night how he would explain a quality of good theology, and the one word he came up with was “endures.” It endures.
        So I’ll leave you with this thought: Good theology is that which can endure the scrupulous concern of love for God and neighbor as self.
        “The whole concern of Catholic doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never ends. Whether something is proposed for belief, for hope or for action, the love of our Lord must always be made accessible, so that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective that to arrive at love” (CCC 25).
        God bless you, brother. You have an amazing way of building up the Christian faith! Oh, and if you have any questions about Papal authority, I have some Scripture passages and theologians who have helped me…Just let me know.

  4. popesicle says:

    There’s an obvious, initial flaw in what “Bob” has said: sure, we should prioritize our relationship with Christ, but without theology, we have no understanding of what that relationship is.

    However, I’m not sure if Bob is expressing his position completely clearly. It seems to me that Bob might simply being trying to express how, in the end, we simply need to be devoted to Christ and not get caught up in stuffy intellectual topics–which is, to a degree, a position I support. What I think Bob might misunderstand is that it is through theology, the exploration of God’s mind and his plans for us, that we come to have a better understanding of the Father and a closer connection to the Son. God calls us to love him with all of our mind as well as with all of our heart. A relationship with Christ and the study of theology are not wholly seperate; instead, I think the battle lies in making sure that one’s study of theology does not get in the way of one’s relationship with Christ.

    As for the issue in general of Christians being less doctrinated… I think it’s part of the human condition, and certainly the American condition. Our tendency is to gravitate towards things that are easy, feel good, and require little thought. Doctrine is hard, often painful, and certainly requires lots of thought. It’s inevitable that many Evangelicals fall into pop Christianity, but I think it’s our duty to make sure those around us are as grounded in the Bible as possible, whether through the pulpit, day to day conversations, or blogs such as this.

    • Popesicle … Generally speaking, I tend to agree with much of what you wrote; and I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said: “A relationship with Christ and the study of theology are not wholly separate.”

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