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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Yes Theology Matters (and So Does the Mind)

Jul 31, 2014

We live in an age when we have to go back to basics and re-explain things and re-present certain key truths. And I refer here to contemporary Christians as well. Throughout the Western world we have been deliberately dumbed down, so that we are largely ignorant of all sorts of things.

We don’t know our history, we don’t know why some cultures are in fact better than others, and we don’t even know why truth matters. We do not know how to think carefully, to assess and critically evaluate things, and to use basic logic.

Theology 1And the same goes for the church. We know hardly anything about our own faith, our own beliefs, and our own distinctives. We know very little about church history – our history – and we know little about basic Christian doctrine and elementary theology.

And again, this is often deliberate. We have many folks in the pulpits telling us that theology is unimportant, or is a waste of time, or is divisive, or is just man-made. Some churches and denominations actually even relish in anti-intellectualism, and take pride in being theology-free – as if that were possible.

But such folks are simply kidding themselves. Any deprecation or minimisation of the mind, of the intellect, and of reason, flies in the face of Scripture. Indeed, it is a direct violation of the most important commandment of all: the commandment given by Jesus to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

This command is found in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-8). As a result it is simply bizarre that any believer would make fun of or ridicule the use of the mind. Not to engage with God by means of our mental faculties is to disobey the express command of Christ.

And of course the call for adhering to sound teaching, to proper doctrine, and to basic biblical theology is also found throughout the Bible. Time and time again these matters are emphasised. Yet Christians continue to take an unbiblical stance here, and continue to spurn theology and to show contempt for the Christian intellect.

We see this all the time sadly. As but one example of this, a poster making the rounds in the social media and elsewhere says this: “The apostles did not have a theology or seminary degree. Another one of Satans tricks to get people to follow man’s word instead of Gods word.”

Leaving aside the obvious grammatical mistakes here (which is telling in itself), there are in fact more important theological and logical mistakes to be found here. The logic here is of course non-existent. By this skewed reasoning, not one believer today should go to high school, attend college, take any professional courses, or commit to any serious study of any kind, since the apostles did not do this.

But why stop there? We also should not use computers, drive cars, use the social media, fly in planes, use mobile phones, or attend Christian conventions (to name but a few things) since the early disciples did not do these things.
Duh.

But this is wrong theologically and biblically as well. As I said, we are commanded time and time again to affirm and teach sound doctrine and promote correct teaching. And theology of course is simply – as the words imply in Greek – the study of God.

Are these people really suggesting that it is wrong to study God? And the Bible is of course full of theology – even systematic theology. One of the greatest examples of such systematic teaching is found in the book of Romans. While it is an occasional letter written to believers, it is also a carefully crafted and tightly argued theological treatise.

Plenty of hardcore theology is also found in books like Galatians or the epistle to the Hebrews, etc. Theology is everywhere assumed to be important, and God gives us teachers to properly teach the flock of God basic Christian doctrine.

Under the poster I mentioned above was a Bible passage, John 14:26, which reads: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

Again, we have some cloudy thinking here in appealing to this verse. Does the Holy Spirit guide us and lead us in truth? Absolutely. But that does not mean we can short-circuit or bypass the brain, which God also gave us to use for his glory.

It is the Holy Spirit-enlightened mind that God works through. He expects us to think, to reason, to read, to study, and to train our minds in a disciplined fashion. If we think we can just sit there, never reading or studying, and the Holy Spirit will just zap us with all knowledge and all wisdom, we are just kidding ourselves.

And again, if these people took this viewpoint to its logical conclusion, they would never go to any school to learn anything – whether to learn how to be a doctor, a dentist, an airline pilot, a chef, an engineer, a teacher, a bus driver, or a plumber. Who needs education, when the Holy Spirit will just infuse into your mind all that you need to know?

The Bible tells us to “study to show yourself approved” (2 Timothy 2:15). If you want to be a nurse, a computer technician, or even just a good auto mechanic, you must study, take courses, attend schools, get some training, and so on. Such knowledge does not just pop into our heads by osmosis.

The same is true about being a good Christian who is also handling the word of God skilfully and correctly. We must read, study, and sit under godly teachers, whether in a church, or a Sunday school, or a conference, or in a Bible college, or a seminary.

That’s how we learn, and that is how God intends for us to learn. Sure, not everyone is called to go to university or seminary. Not everyone is called to get higher degrees, or become great academics. But we are all called to use our minds fully for the glory of God.

Can education and learning be misused? Sure, happens all the time. It is easy to become full of knowledge and learning, yet be spiritually dead at the same time. We can have learned theologians who are lacking basic Christian character and devoid of the Spirit. That of course must be resisted.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “The devil always tempts us to become academic or theoretical. This is one of the greatest dangers confronting any Christian, but particularly those who are more intelligent. It applies to all areas of our lives, including our study of theology. We can be interested in a doctrine in a purely theoretical manner and almost forget that we are dealing with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and these great doctrines of salvation. We can be handling them as if we were studying science or any other secular subject – and that is a terrible thing. We must never forget the spirit.”

But there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It is not a question of being Spirit-filled or having great theological knowledge. Why not both? Why not be an intelligent, well-read, well-studied and doctrinally sound believer who is also led and filled by the Spirit?

And the answer to bad theology is not no theology, but good theology. As C.S. Lewis put it, “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you will have a lot of wrong ones.”

John Piper also emphasised these truths: “Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.”

Or as John Stott reminded us, “Knowledge is indispensable to Christian life and service. If we do not use the mind that God has given us, we condemn ourselves to spiritual superficiality and cut ourselves off from many of the riches of God’s grace.”

But let me conclude with more thoughts from Lewis: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of being a Christian, I warn you: you are embarking on something that is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself. That is why an uneducated believer like Bunyan was able to write a book [The Pilgrim’s Progress] that has astonished the whole world.”

[1491 words]

9 Responses to Yes Theology Matters (and So Does the Mind)

  • Bill,
    I believe that one principal culprit for this malaise is the slogan, repeated as a mantra, “No creed but Christ; no doctrine but the Bible!”

    While I would not sheet this home entirely to that idea, it has become one of the several shibboleths of modern evangelicalism. It has even found its way into the official position of several denominations. It has caused much mischief in the Christian Church as a whole, and I would venture to observe that the people who urge that notion know neither their doctrine, not for that matter their Bible. They certainly do not know, or if they do they do not care about, the history of doctrine, or the place of creeds and confessions. The simplistic dismissal that such statements are merely human compositions underscores this basic ignorance.

    One need only observe that “No creed but Christ” is itself a doctrine – which one will find nowhere in the Bible! It is nothing but a mindless mantra, which, when one thinks it through, relegates the Bible’s theology to the bin.
    Furthermore, doctrines are in all sorts of places in Scripture:
    Deut.6:4; John 20:31; 1 Cor.15:1-8, 20-26; Gal.1:7-8, 2:15-16 et passim.

  • It’s always discouraging to learn how few people in some good Bible-believing churches actually read good Christian literature. Many of those who read are content to read simple books which tell them how to cope with various problems. There may or may not be good advice in such books, and they may be worth reading, especially in times of trouble, but they are no substitute for solid biographies, expositions of books of the Bible, perusal of confessions of faith and so on. Not everyone can handle Jonathan Edwards, but most would find great value in D M Lloyd-Jones, to take just two examples of authors. If only all members of our churches would at least read Bill Muehlenberg!

  • Indeed “we are all called to use our minds fully for the glory of God.”(Matt.22.34-40; Mk 12.28-34; Lk.10.25-28). Indisputable!!!
    Yet consider:
    1. The law gives wisdom to the simple: Ps.19.7 ie Christianity & Biblical knowledge is itself a sound education…;
    2. The Devil “knows it all”, yet does NOT use ALL this knowledge to SERVE God – but rather to oppose God’s revealed will.
    Q.E.D.
    The theological disputes that historically have challenged Christian believers are realities that deserve the serious exercise of our minds in order that “we may agree in the Truth of God’s Word and live in Unity and Godly Love”. The ravages of “denominationalism” are therefore an unfortunate but real corollary.
    Thus even our most cherished personal theological convictions are therefore to be taken seriously if we are to Love and serve God “with all our mind” (loc.cit.).
    And so, as we diligently invoke the Holy Spirit to guide our minds aright and “search the Scriptures” for revealed wisdom, we trust that ,in humility, God’s Will be manifested to us – not only in theory, but fruitfully in good works which glorify His Holy Name. We will then bask in his mercy and “that peace which surpasses all understanding”, and be thereby equipped to “worship in Spirit and truth” and so be led into that “Unity and godly
    love” for which we earnestly pray.
    “The fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding.!”
    AMDG!

  • I’ve visited a few churches recently where the pastor doesn’t care whether people bring their Bibles to church or not. I also work where people say they believe in Jesus, but that reading the Bible is a crutch. It’s not difficult to see where they are going astray because of a failure to understand and hear from the LORD by reading His Word on a daily basis, but as for the pastors who don’t teach this – duh?

  • I heard a preacher once say: ‘We don’t worship God with our mind but with our heart,’ while proceeding to read 1 Peter 1 which includes ‘gird up the loins of your mind’ (verse 13). I pointed out that he wasn’t using his mind in what he was saying.
    Apart from Murray Adamthwaite’s perceptive diagnosis above, another culprit on this issue of mindlessness is this slogan: ‘By all means witness for Christ everywhere – if necessary use words!’ – as if our life or works can preach the Gospel. The Biblical position is that our godliness adorns the Gospel, which is propositional: ‘How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? How shall they hear without a preacher?…..So faith comes by hearing, & hearing by the word of God’ (Romans 10:14,17).
    Your reference to 2 Timothy 2:15 needs clarification. The Greek word translated ‘study’ (spoudason) is much better translated ‘strive’ see any modern translation. Spero Katos

  • There are a few misunderstandings by the people BM and Dr Adamthwaite are critiquing.

    The appeal to the consistent church teaching, systematic theology books, and commentaries is not a denial of Sola Scriptura, but a humble recognition that we are not the first to have ever read the Bible let alone studied it deeply. This is not at all like the Pharisees who elevated their man-made tradition above Scripture which ended up contradicting it (cf. “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” Mark 7).

    Some may argue, ‘Isn’t the Bible all we need? Don’t you realize that interpreters can err?’ Indeed, the correct view must be obtained from the Bible alone. But then, modern exegetes are not the first who have known about the original languages and cultures of the Bible. The onus is on those proposing a novel interpretation to prove their case.

  • A bit off track here, but…

    Wow, look what I found. An ABC article about christian persecution and why this sort of thing is rarely published.

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-08-01/moore-why-dont-we-hear-about-persecuted-christians/5641390

  • Oddly enough, those who use John 14:26 as a biblical injunction against theological training have drawn, I believe the wrong conclusion from the verse. Doesn’t it say that the Holy Spirit will “remind them of Jesus’s teaching?” The disciples spent 3 years being taught by Jesus without which the Holy Spirit had nothing to draw upon, nothing to remind them of according to that verse.
    As you already pointed out, there are many instructions to study and show ourselves approved. If they were really serious about solo scriptura, they would know that not only to study, but to add knowledge to our faith 1 Peter 1 and to meditate on the law of God Psalm 1 is part of the instruction the bible gives us. To meditate is to ruminate, to digest until the nourishment of the word becomes part of our spirit, like the nourishment of food becomes part of our physical cells and supports their continuous life.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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