The gospel message is simple enough for a child to respond to, but deep and complex enough for the greatest philosophers to struggle with over many lifetimes. So we need to avoid some extremes here: we do not want to unnecessarily overcomplicate things, but neither do we want to oversimplify things.
The Christian faith is as deep as you can get. We are after all talking about the infinite, eternal God. So while we want to make Christian theology accessible to others, we do not want to dumb things down either. A recent experience of mine highlights all this.
I had just finished writing a piece on theological extremes that believers should avoid when I found on another site a post that perfectly exemplified the very thing that I was talking about. My recent article spoke of the need to avoid theological minimalism and maximalism: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/04/12/minimalist-maximalist-christianity/
As to the former, we need to appreciate and proclaim the depth of our faith. The gospel message may be simple in one sense, but the whole biblical storyline is complex, rich and deep, and trying to bring it down to a few simplistic phrases is really not too helpful.
Our faith has content and we must seek to plumb the depths of that content. We sell people short – and we sell the gospel short – when we oversimplify things. Sure, as I said in my recent piece, we can overcomplicate things too, but both extremes need to be avoided.
The post that I saw was short and sweet – it said this: “My theology in two words: He’s alive.” Hmm, it occurred to me that this person may need to read the article I had just penned. He likely means well and he would have other things to say about his faith – I hope – but this statement is just far too problematic.
In the first place, it is really three words! But far more than that, it does a real disservice to the faith we claim to believe in, and it helps no one really, be they non-believers or believers. Our faith has real theological content, and that content takes some time and effort to understand, explain and elaborate upon. Two word summations of the faith do little to help the believer, and they certainly are not very helpful in any evangelistic efforts.
This sort of thinking demonstrates the poverty of the ‘no creed but Jesus’ camp. The idea that we can super-simplify the faith into a few bumper sticker clichés is doomed to fail. It is impossible to share our faith with a few watered-down remarks that would be too sparse for even a Readers’ Digest version.
Let’s seek to unpack this, first to the non-Christian. How would we make it sensible to an average person on the street? If we simply explain our faith in terms of “He’s alive” we have really stated nothing, certainly nothing for the non-Christian.
A series of questions and answers would be needed before we could get anywhere with the non-believer. Such a conversation might go something like this:
Believer: He’s alive.
Non-believer: Who is he? Who is risen?
NB: Risen from what?
B: Risen from the grave.
NB: So he died then?
NB: Why did he die?
B: He died for our sins.
NB: What are sins?
B: Sins are what displease God.
NB: Who is God?
B: God is the one who made us all.
NB: But I believe in evolution….
Such a conversation could go on for hours of course. There is no common ground here, so even the basic concepts that the believer takes for granted (God, sin, salvation, etc) are totally lost on most non-Christians today. So plenty of work is needed to first clear up things, to make our case, to explain the biblical story line, and so on.
Simply saying “He’s risen” is basically meaningless without all the other biblical information which is first required. This is what we call apologetics: building bridges with non-believers, trying to find some common ground, clearing up misconceptions and objections, etc.
And telling a fellow believer this is your theology is not very helpful either. Sure, all Christians should believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But plenty of questions still remain. Indeed, let’s start a conversation with this guy and a fellow believer:
Believer: He’s alive.
Fellow Believer: Yes, amen, but I have a question about the place of baptism. What should we think about that?
FB: And what about the spiritual gifts? Are they for today?
FB: Which form of church government is the most biblical?
FB: What is the best form of worship?
FB: What is your understanding of eschatology?
FB: What should I do with my Christian sister who wants to have an abortion?
FB: Should believers attend homosexual weddings?
As you can see, this sort of theology is quite useless. Yes we know he is alive and yes we rejoice in that. But our Christian faith is about far more than just that. People – be they Christians or non-Christians – deserve honest answers to honest questions.
A minimalist theology such as this is just a copout and it is not what we expect of mature believers. As Paul told the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” That included the glorious truth of the resurrection of course, but a whole lot more.
Indeed, we have 27 books in the New Testament, demonstrating the length and breadth of the Christian faith. We need to proclaim all the truths found therein. Otherwise we are just serving up pap. Otherwise we are just throwing out useless clichés which help no one.
More unhelpful remarks
I do not mean to pick on just this one fellow, and the very next day I saw another doozey of a comment that some pastor posted which he seemed quite proud of. But it also was of equally dubious value: “Don’t overrule God’s word with your mere opinions, sought out in commentaries.”
Um, what is wrong with this? Let me count the ways. Should all Christians never seek to overrule God’s word? Of course, that goes without saying. But just what is this guy actually suggesting here? He is claiming that people’s opinions, based on what is found in commentaries, are contrary to what is found in the Word of God.
Earth calling pastor: every Christian on the planet has opinions. How can we not? Unless you are a closet Catholic who thinks you can become infallible like a Pope when he speaks ex-cathedra, you are simply sharing your opinion every Sunday morning as a pastor.
Sure, hopefully you prayerfully seek to present God’s word as accurately and truthfully as possible. But you as a pastor are still a mere human, a fallen and fallible human, with opinions just like anyone else. Sure, we hope our opinions line up with God’s inerrant and infallible truth, but that is certainly not always the case.
So every time this pastor and any other pastor gets up and speaks about what is in the Bible, guess what? He is giving his opinion. Hopefully it is a sanctified opinion, and one which is more or less a faithful rendition of Scripture, but it still remains an opinion.
And guess what a commentary seeks to do? The exact same thing this pastor and all other pastors seek to do: it seeks to give the meaning of the text, it seeks to help explain it, and it seeks to present Scripture in an understandable and helpful fashion. A good commentary is an exposition and explanation of Scripture – the same thing a pastor does in a sermon.
So this was a really rather foolish thing to say. Unless of course, as mentioned, this pastor thinks he has an infallible and inerrant understanding of the Bible, and when he opens his mouth each Sunday he shares only inspired truth, and nothing else.
Such people have a few problems, the main one being insufferable pride. We are all cracked vessels, we all see through a glass darkly, and we all can get things wrong. Perfection comes in the next life, not in this one. So a bit of humility can go a long ways here.
But some of these hyper-spiritual types think they need no other input, whether from a commentary or a sermon, and presume that they just have a direct pipeline to God. But if that is true of them, why is it not true of every single believer?
If we all can have this infallible and perfect understanding of the Word direct from God, then we would have absolutely no need for any pastors or teachers. Why should this pastor try to teach us and educate us each week if we all can be like him: perfect in our understanding by direct contact with God, with no need of “mere” human learning?
I just saw another post online with these words: “My entire theology can be condensed into 4 words: ‘Jesus died for me’ -Spurgeon”. Given the very high regard I have for Spurgeon, does that nullify all that I said above? Not really. While I know nothing of the person who offered the two-word summary above, I do know something about Spurgeon.
I do know that he spent millions of words expounding on and explaining the gospel message. He preached countless sermons on the Christian faith and what the gospel is all about. He was no opponent of solid theology, and he spent his life trying to share good theology.
And I would like to know the context of that statement. Perhaps it came from a detailed sermon of thousands of words. One site offers this as the context: “On his deathbed Spurgeon said to a friend, ‘My theology now is found in four little words: “JESUS died for ME.” I don’t say this is all I would preach if I were to be raised up again, but it is more than enough for me to die upon’.”
If that is the actual context then it fully makes my case. Spurgeon would be the first to argue that our faith has real solid content, and it must be carefully and thoroughly presented and elaborated upon. The Apostle Paul also offered summary statements of the gospel, such as 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
But that comes from an epistle of 16 meaty chapters, and that is just one of thirteen epistles he wrote, all jam-packed with heavy-duty theological content. So there may be a place for brief summary statements of the Christian message, but only in the context of a much more detailed and carefully worded theological position.