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

Saying No To Bumper Sticker Theology

Dec 13, 2016

Theology is the study of God. All Christians who claim to love God should therefore love studying about God – they should love theology in other words. And because there is no greater subject in the universe – indeed, God made and transcends the universe – the study of God is the most profound, complex and detailed study one can ever undertake.

In fact, because God is infinite, all proper study about God would have to be infinite in nature. Mere finite and fallen man can never begin to scratch the surface of who God is and what he is like. But thankfully God has revealed himself to us, and given us the right amount of information about himself for us to have a proper relationship with him.

And of course he gives us the Holy Spirit to help guide us in the truth about who he is and what he expects of us. So we need not despair here. While we will never fully fathom who God is, we have plenty of revealed truth about who he is to last us a lifetime – indeed, many lifetimes!

bumper-stickerThose who think theology and doctrine do not matter, and claim that we can just “love God” are sadly kidding themselves. Simply making this claim is actually far deeper and nuanced than what these folks imagine: What does it mean to “love” God? And just who is this “God” you say we must love?

Millions of Christians think we can talk about God and love God without the slightest bit of theology. Well, one can, but the danger of a simplistic understanding of God is a simplistic faith. Scripture everywhere commands us to be mature both in the way we live and in our understanding of biblical truth.

We are not to be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, but to have a mature faith which includes having a mature understanding of basic biblical truth. We are to grow in our understanding of who God is and what his Word teaches. That is a basic aspect of growing in Christ.

When Jesus said we should have the faith of a child he did not mean we should be childish and immature. He meant in part that the follower of Christ should be humble, open, in awe, and honest as a child often can be, not proud, cocksure and devoid of wonder.

So we must have a mature faith and a mature understanding of biblical truths. That is why theology is important. Yes we can get twisted into knots with some rather obtuse and theoretical theological questions. But the misuse of theology does not mean we should abandon the right use of theology.

My point is that a mature faith will have some amount of basic theological understanding. Taking pride in our ignorance and lack of understanding is no virtue. But I have often made the case for why theology is important, See here for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/26/in-defence-of-theology/

With all this in mind let me mention something I saw recently on another Internet location. A Christian had posted this on a social media site: “Let me ask a question. Is the anti-Christ God’s chosen?” Now that is an interesting and important question, and one that could certainly generate a lot of discussion.

I refrained from entering into it however, and for good reason. The truth is, there are so many theological issues one must first discuss before one can even begin to approach answering a question like this, that it was not worth even trying. Sadly the social media is one of the least useful places to carry out such a discussion.

Not that I mind the person asking the question – as I said, it is a fair question and a good question. So I am not picking on this person – the gal who posted it is a champ! But so much prior theological discussion must take place before one can properly answer that particular question that this is a much bigger ask than the questioner may have realised.

I can easily think of a few dozen hard-core theological issues which first must be discussed at least to some extent before we can even get to the original question. Here are just some of them:

-Is predestination biblical?
-Is election biblical?
-How are we to understand predestination?
-How are we to understand election?
-What does it mean when Scripture says God chooses someone or something?
-Is everything that happens the perfect will of God?
-Does God cause all things – even evil?
-Why does God allow evil?
-Can God use evil to achieve his purposes?
-How does God’s sovereignty fit in with human responsibility?
-Is everything that happens a part of God’s choice and divine sovereignty?
-How much influence does Satan have in God’s overall purposes and plans?
-Who or what is the Anti-Christ?
-Are there numerous Anti-Christs?

Those who are fairly theologically literate would realise that almost all of these topics have been discussed and debated for thousands of years, and entire libraries exist dealing with most of these questions. So before one can answer the question at hand, all these issues must be first addressed – at least in part.

But I get questions like this thrown at me all the time in the social media. Folks who like to pick a fight with me for example will toss out these hard-core and multifaceted questions, and expect me to offer a perfect reply in twenty words or less in a tiny comment box on Facebook.

Sorry, but that just ain’t gonna happen. It is exactly because I know how complex and detailed theological discussions can be that I certainly will not offer a useless short reply just to keep someone happy. Indeed, that is why I have nearly 4000 articles on my website.

These articles are the result of many years of rather intense thinking, reading, studying and praying about many issues, including plenty of theological issues. Yet some people will actually get mad at me when instead of giving them a brief bumper sticker response, I link to one or two of my articles.

They will demand of me an instant response, and preferably under a few dozen words, but that is simply out of the question. Complex questions and deep issues warrant something more than simplistic and trite answers. So I will not succumb to providing a bumper sticker response.

Now why am I saying all this? There are various reasons. The first is obviously this: theology matters. Those believers who think they can live a theology-free life are fooling themselves. We all have some theology, and if it is not good, biblical theology, then it will be bad, unbiblical theology.

Also, if people really want me or others to provide satisfactory answers to quite profound and difficult questions – be they theological or otherwise – then they better be prepared for somewhat lengthy and complex replies. I will not be dishing out mere clichés in reply to such questions.

And as always, there are two extremes to avoid here. If far too many Christians are theologically illiterate and are far too satisfied with a simplistic and dumbed-down Christianity, then there are also those of the other extreme who hyper-analyse and discuss everything to the nth degree.

The faith will suffer in both extremes. Exulting in doctrinal and theological ignorance is not something God is all that thrilled with. But neither is he thrilled with a hyper-intellectualised faith that may involve a head full of theology but a rather dead heart.

As usual we must get the biblical balance right. We must love God with all our heart and soul and strength – but we must love him with all our mind as well. That means doing the hard work of studying to show yourself approved unto God as Paul commands.

Getting some basic theological understanding under our belts is the very least we can do. But loving God means loving him with more than just our minds. We need a living, vibrant and Spirit-filled orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Nothing less will suffice.

Oh, and getting back to the original question posed above. The ideal, if this person lived close to me, would be for me to invite her out for a leisurely cup of coffee or two, and take at least a half hour to try to cover some of the basic issues involved, and then try to come up with some sort of answer based on that previous theological discussion.

Not only would that be more pleasurable, at least to me – especially if it was good coffee – but it would save me from writing yet more 2000-word articles! But I believe the person who asked this question lives on the other side of the globe, so such a coffee and theology chat may have to be put on hold for now!

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8 Responses to Saying No To Bumper Sticker Theology

  • 1 John 2:12-13; Hebrews 8:11-12; Jeremiah 31:34. Knowing God by His forgiveness makes us His children. The Queen of the sciences, delights to trace out the grace of this wondrous covenant and will last an eternity. That’s an awful lot of coffee Bill. Cheers!

  • Thanks Robert. And until that day arrives when teaching and theology is no longer required, I might need a bigger coffee cup.

  • Hey Bill, how are you? It would be good to sit down in one of our little town’s, now 12 coffee shops, not counting the 3 Pizza shops or Indian Restaurant, pubs and an RSL club, to be able to have a theological discussion. What’s missing is any person with a deep knowledge and understanding of God’s Word, to be able to do that with sadly I am finding, even one of our new elders wants to confront me about a letter I wrote after a new form of worshiping our Mighty Heavenly Father. Now as far as I can tell my brother wants to talk to me and quote a few passages of Scripture about women praying of which there are many, the matter that I raised in the letter I sent, was that of women leading our congregational prayer, which to my knowledge is not a practice I was ever encouraged to do in all the time I spent at Bible college or is ever taught about in any CRC’s anywhere, Mind you that particular service was by no means an improvement on the time honored practices of our church order which has always guided our Christian services of worship.

    Since returning from college I haven’t joined a small group as no one will have me so I maintain contact with many good preachers and listen to some excellent messages though that is not the same as meeting with others to study the Word of the Lord. Being part of a home group is greatly encouraged by all Pastors I know, none more so than my latest friend and connection on LinkedIn Rick Warren, who contacted me last night from Africa where he is building churches and is sending me his Daily Hope. We are yet to have a theological discussion, I do listen to the messages Pastor Rick preaches at Saddleback Community Church in California though and we did ‘hangout’ for around an hour. Since Rick’s book “Purpose Driven Life” 2002, I have been a fan of his work, “Developing Your Shape To Serve Others” is A Purpose Driven Ministry Resource we actually used at Bible college that’s great curriculum for groundbreaking study for small groups “Doing Life Together.

    It was the coffee I had down the road at McDonald’s that kept me awake most of the night and after being blessed with that chat, it was difficult to sleep anyway, the man even tried to place a call but the reception was bad, it is hard to take in. There are many ways we can be built up in our faith of the Lord Jesus, he has the answers to all your questions Bill and the journey we are on is made more wonderful through the revelations God gives us through His Holy Word, all we need to do is believe and follow God’s Will in obedience, trusting in Christ Jesus his Son, theology is just understanding, there is no need to be daunted or scared of it, to have good theology is a precious gift, given by the grace of God, listen to Him He is calling you. It would be wonderful to sit together and have a cuppa with you Bill, we nearly did when I lived in Waurn Ponds and our mutual friend tried to arrange a meeting with you, it’d be good to have a good discussion with you, my left hand grows very tired of typing these comments. It’s good that Stephanie Ross will be running for parliament, is it not Bill? Blessings to you!

  • Here’s a great quote that comes to mind:

    “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” Don Carson

  • “there are so many theological issues one must first discuss before one can even begin to approach answering a question like this”

    Sadly it happens a lot. One area where I saw this repeatedly was the concept of OSAS (their term not mine). Forget about taking that back to the beginning, even something simple like “OK, how do the following 39 things that happen as a result of salvation get undone?” just gets a scripture reference which “apparently” clears that all up.

  • John Locke (1632-1704) had a fair bit to say about ‘bumper sticker theology’, for example, we must not:–

    snatch out a few words as if they were separate from the rest, to serve a Purpose to which they do not at all belong, and with which they have nothing to do (Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul, vol. 1, p. 106, OUP, 1987 edition)

    He continues elsewhere:–

    If the reading and study of the Scripture were more pressed than it is, and [if] men were fairly sent to the Bible to find their religion; and not the Bible put into their hands only to find the opinions of their peculiar sect or party; Christendom would have more Christians, and those that are would be more knowing and more in the right than they now are. (Second Vindication, vol. 7, p. 421,1963 reprint of the 1823 edition)

    Locke states that we must be wary of those who:–

    …choose to use and pin their Faith on such Expositors as explain the Sacred Scripture in favour of those Opinions they have before hand voted orthodox. (Paraphrase, p. 108)

    Then, he continues,

    we would have in their Writings less Ostentation and more Truth, and a great deal of darkness now spread upon the Scriptures [would have] been avoided (letter to S. Bold, 16/5/1699)

    Lastly, Locke strongly opposed:–

    the System, Confession, or Articles of any Church or Society of Christians yet known, which however pretended to be founded on Scripture, are visibly the Contrivances of Men (fallible in both their Opinions and Interpretations), and as is visible in most of them, made with partial views, and adapted to what the Occasions of that time, and the Present Circumstances they were then in, were thought to require for the Support or Justification of themselves. (Paraphrase, pp. 113-4)

  • G’day Bill,

    One bumper sticker you may agree with: ‘Life’s too short for bad theology and bad coffee.’

    Andrew Campbell
    Stanborough

  • Bill, it’s not the size of the cup that matters. It’s the quality and the supply of the Coffee. Cheers!

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