Minimalist and Maximalist Christianity
Warning: this is an article about theology. Now that I have scared away around 90 percent of my readers, let me continue with the remaining ten percenters! My thesis here is simple: every Christian, whether they like it or not, or know it or not, is a theologian.
The only real issue to explore is if they are good theologians or bad theologians. But all believers have to think about, reflect upon, and seek to rightly understand and interpret what the Word of God says. While a few hyper-spiritual types may think they have perfect understanding via a direct pipeline to God, most ordinary and humble Christians realise we see through a glass darkly and we all need help in seeking to better know God and his revelation to us.
Thus we are all theologians. In 2014 R. C. Sproul penned an introduction to systematic theology with the title, Everyone’s a Theologian. He explains: “Theology is unavoidable for every Christian. It is our attempt to understand the truth that God has revealed to us – something every Christian does. So it is not a question of whether we are going to engage in theology; it is a question of whether our theology is sound or unsound.”
Yes exactly. But I have found over the years that there can be at least two extremes that Christians can gravitate to when dealing with theology. I refer to them as minimalists and maximalists. The former basically want nothing to do with theology, while the latter are hyper-theologians who have everything packed into a nice, tidy theological box.
I find both camps to be rather problematic to be honest. Let me deal with the maximalists first. We all know them. They are all gung-ho for a particular theological system, and they allow no room to move. You either are fully with them or you are fully against them.
They might be a hard-core 5 point TULIP advocate for example. For those totally lost here, let me very briefly explain what I am referring to. Early on when Calvinists were involved in theological debates with Arminians, the latter group drew up a creed with five articles.
The Calvinist response to them became known as the five points of Calvinism, with TULIP being the acronym of the five points. Anyway, some devout 5-pointers will look at a, say, 4 ½ pointer as an arch-heretic. They can be so dead set into their one particular theological system, that they have great difficulty enjoying Christian fellowship with anyone who deviates from their spin on things.
Of course there would be all sorts of Christians with their own set-in-stone theology who can be equally tough to work with if you dare to differ with their system, so I am not picking on Calvinists here. They have what is found in Scripture neatly packaged in their theological grid, with nothing left out and no major questions remaining.
I picture this as a suitcase with all the clothing neatly and tidily arranged and packaged and properly fitting within. But to my way of thinking no one has such a foolproof and perfect theology. Scripture – and God – are far too grand, glorious and majestic to be all neatly packaged in some little human system, no matter how good and helpful that system might be.
Thus we will always have socks and many other things hanging out of the suitcase, and things will of necessity be messy and far from a perfect fit. That is because we are all fallen and finite, and no one has a perfect grasp of Scripture, and therefore no one has a perfect theology.
A bit of humility goes a long way here. Yes some theological systems may be better than others, and some may be closer and more faithful to the biblical data than others, but none is inerrant. Only God’s Word is, but in this life our understanding is always imperfect and incomplete.
Partly in response to the maximalists I recently posted something on the social media. It went like this:
OK, a dozen more reasons for some Christians to hate on me:
-I am not a hardcore Calvinist
-I am not a hardcore Arminian
-I am not a hardcore Pentecostalist
-I am not a hardcore cessationist
-I am not a hardcore dispensationalist
-I am not a hardcore theonomist
-I am not a hardcore anti-theonomist
-I am not a hardcore premillennialist
-I am not a hardcore anti-premillennialist
-I am not a hardcore postmillennialist
-I am not a hardcore anti postmillennialist
-I am not a hardcore ‘my theology only’-ist
My point of course was not to suggest that I consider good theology and doctrine to be unimportant. No one who has read my stuff could possibly think that. But they would also know that I also value humility and teachability, especially on secondary theological matters.
I did want to highlight the fact that no one theological system has all the truth, and no one theology can do full justice to all that we find in the revelation of God. Sometimes holding things just a bit loosely can be better than clinging on to some theological system till death do us part.
The response to that post was interesting, with a number of folks replying, including some from the minimalist camp. If the maximalists can be part of one unhelpful extreme along the spectrum, these folks can be too – in the other direction.
Many of them will proudly say that ‘they and Jesus’ are all that matters. Or they will say ‘me and my Bible is all I need’. Or they will decry theology and doctrinal differences and say we should just learn to all get along, and not worry about creeds and doctrine.
Some will even say that the one true God is all that matters. But all these responses are far from helpful. Those who say we should just run with the true God do not help matters much: Muslims, Jews and others would also say that. If we adopt such a minimalist approach, then how do we differ from them? We don’t actually.
If we insist on just ‘Jesus and me’ we still have not gotten very far. Plenty of groups look up to Jesus, including Muslims and the cults. We need a fair bit more detail if we want to highlight the very real differences between biblical Christianity and some of these other groups.
And claiming all you need is in the Bible, and no theology or external teaching is necessary will get into trouble real fast. All the cults operate on that principle: they want you to close yourself off from all other teaching, theology and spiritual input, and just rely on what some ‘anointed’ leader tells you.
And even if you just stay home and read the Bible for yourself, it is still very easy to go off the rails. That is why the New Testament insists on the importance of teachers and good teaching. We all need that. None of us can get all the truth all by ourselves. God never intended for that to be the case.
We need the entire Body of Christ. To think you can just be some lone wolf Christian who needs no one else, or no other help with understanding biblical truth, simply indicates how proud and arrogant you are. The first thing such people should do is repent of this ugly attitude, and admit that they are far from infallible.
So both approaches are to be avoided. Just as we can do immeasurable harm to our faith by overcomplicating things, over-intellectualising things, and over-theologising things, so too we can cause great damage to it by under-complicating things, downplaying good doctrine and spurning all theology.
Both extremes must be avoided. Both can do far too much injury to our own faith and to the cause of Christ. Delighting in ignorance and a brainless faith helps no one. But having a head full of theology with an empty heart is also no good.
The idea is to love God just as Jesus commanded us to do: with all of our being. That includes our mind, will and emotions. Using our brains for the glory of God is just as vital as having a good heart. We need both. An uninformed and juvenile faith can be really dangerous. But so too a faith that is all intellectual, with reams of good theology, but little love and grace toward those who differ theologically.
Again, I am not for a moment suggesting that we all can be theology-less or theology-lite. Good theology is vitally important. Without it we will be driven around by every wind of (bad) doctrine, as Paul warned against. So I am not saying you should not be Lutheran in your theology, or a Thomist, or a High Anglican or a keen Baptist, or a devoted Presbyterian.
I am saying that no theological system is perfect, and we all can learn from others to some extent. Seeking to force everyone into our particular cookie cutter theology can be harmful rather than helpful. And pretending that we can be theology-free is equally harmful.
So be wary of both maximalist Christians and minimalist Christians. We need sound theology and solid teaching, but we also need to hold that with humility and with a teachable spirit. Getting that balance right is usually difficult, but that is what we are called to do.
Let me close with another quote from Sproul and the volume I mention above: “The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to Him. That is why we engage in theology.”
Or as C.S. Lewis once 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.”
6 Replies to “Minimalist and Maximalist Christianity”
You’ve covered this topic well. I agree with all your points, not sure I know enough about the -ists to comment but a speaker at one conference I attend along with other interested ‘preachers’ announced that “for all we know we could be wrong and trust that you wont hold that against us,” alternatively “by the same token, should you be wrong, we would not hold that against you!” At the moment I am handing out leaflets for Easter and I understand that any literature we pass on to others in the community especially out to contain the Gospel message to be able to make a lasting impact, after all it is the Gospel by which men are saved and learn of Salvation through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, raised to new life for all who will believe to live with him eternally.
Theology really does help us to understand the finer details of this profound truth which is being revealed to us every day through God’s Holy Word and aids us in fulfilling our great commission which is to go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals do have to be thankful to Pentecostals for bringing our attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, we also need to be mindful that the Spirituality we have be given is a Biblical one as after all it’s because “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 otherwise the Father will say “I never new you!” Can we afford to explain God’s plan of salvation any other way? Blessed Easter Bill!
I find it helpful to be challenged by theological viewpoints different to my own. It drives me back to examine and assess my own position more carefully with respect to the issue of concern. I don’t like to presume that I have ‘got it,’ and would prefer to be alerted to weaknesses in my own understanding. I welcome these occasions as opportunities to get deeper into the Word as well as to read others on the issue. As a result, I have sometimes held to the position I had, but many times I have moved from a position, and am grateful to those who opened my eyes to help me see what I was missing.
Amen bro. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Everyone’s A Theologian means everyone not just Christians, I’m sure you agree Bill. Thanks for trying to show the 10 percenters we can BE one as we ARE in Christ. In the face of the anti-theologians’ current rising power in Australian society, how discouraging it is that believers in Christ WILL not be 100 percenters in Him. The power we are ignoring! as the world around us is being morally/spiritually sludged under our noses. LORD, have mercy, send us a Whitefield to thunder us – again.
Should someone 100% agrees with me, he needs prayer.
But then again I may change my mind about some theological concept tomorrow.
Perhaps he prayed for me.
Iron sharpens iron.
There is no substitute for a healthy discussion.
As a believer in the inerrancy of 5-point Calvinism…sorry…
To start again, as a 5-point Calvinist I find myself in disagreement at times with other 5-pointers. I often find myself in agreement with those who don’t take that stance and many of my favourite Christian authors would not fit themselves into that system, J C Ryle, C S Lewis and D B Knox being three of many examples. After 61 years post-conversion I am still not sure on what millennial position to have, if any, and indeed I long ago decided that trying to settle on one dogmatic view on the subject was not worth the trouble. The actual state of the dead between death and the resurrection is another topic on which I have a view (not the usual Calvinist or Arminian one) but I am not certain that I’m correct.
We were listening in the car only yesterday to a talk by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Calvinism and evangelism. He reminded us that there is no such thing as a boring Calvinism or a theoretical Calvinism or an intellectual Calvinism. Far more important than a theological system is a living faith in Christ, whether we are Calvinists or Arminians or whatever. as Bill makes clear, while at the same time studying the Bible and reading good authors to get as much truth as we can. On some things we will come to different conclusions or not be able to come to conclusions at all.
Notwithstanding the above, I am certain of many things, and I hope all Protestants would agree on the undeniable truth of the Reformation doctrines of faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone and the Bible alone, all understood properly of course. That is especially topical in this 500th anniversary year of Luther’s 95 Theses.
So thanks Bill for as usual prompting us to reflect on the need for balance in our thinking.