We all have a long way to go in mastering the Bible and doctrine:
Most folks have heard of the expression found in my title. Sometimes the term “rose-coloured glasses” is also used. It refers to how some folks prefer to look at everything in an overly positive but often unrealistic manner. As such, they get a skewed picture of reality. Having these glasses on clouds their view of things and distorts their vision.
Here I want discuss this in terms of how we view Scripture. And a similar sort of phrase is used by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12 when he says: “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (KJV). Or as the NLT puts it, “Now we see things imperfectly”.
Because we are all fallen and finite, we of course cannot see everything perfectly. We all have imperfect vision, perception, understanding and awareness. Becoming a Christian does not mean all of that instantly disappears. We still have all sorts of biases and prejudices and ways of looking at things which may be far from how things really are.
Our knowledge has to grow and develop. Becoming a believer does not mean you all of a sudden become an expert in nuclear physics or advanced calculus. You keep studying and you keep learning. If you were trying to master another language before you got saved, you will still need to work at it after you become a Christian.
And that includes how we view Scripture. While the Word of God is perfect, authoritative and infallible, we are not. Let me offer a quick analogy. Suppose you are given a brand new, expensive and fancy private jet. You get in and seek to pilot it. You somehow manage to get it off the ground, but you soon crash it.
Now the plane itself was perfect – or at least pretty close to perfect. But you as the pilot were not – nowhere near. So it was not the plane’s fault but your fault that things went so very wrong. It is sort of like that with the Word of God. It is perfect but we are simply fallen and finite readers and interpreters of it.
So we have a lifetime of reading, studying, and learning to embark upon. And while all this might seem obvious enough, there are at least three related reasons why I want to discuss this further. The first has to do with salvation and what it entails.
One popular meme making the rounds on the social media begins this way: “How does the thief on the cross fit into your theology? No baptism, no communion, no confirmation, no speaking in tongues, no mission trip, no volunteerism, and no church clothes. He couldn’t even bend his knees to pray….”
The implication is, the thief did nothing, yet was saved. Yes, justification works this way: we are saved by grace through faith, and not by any works of our own. But of course most of us are not thieves hanging on crosses. Instead, we become a believer, and then for the rest of our lives we grow in the faith. And that includes our knowledge of Scripture and basic theology.
Paul for example complains about how the Corinthians are but infants, still dining on the milk of the Word, and are not ready for the meat (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). We are to grow into maturity, and that includes in our understanding of the Bible and theology. I have often written about these matters. See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/08/five-hallmarks-spiritual-maturity/
Second, some believers think that when they become a Christian and receive the Holy Spirit, they have all the truth they need, and they have no need to study or read things by other believers, and so on. This is really a type of spiritual pride.
We all need each other, and God has placed us in a body of believers both past and present. Thinking that we can be complete in Christ as a lone-wolf Christian is a delusion. God did not make us that way. He made us so that we are interdependent on others.
And that is why God gave pastors and teachers to the body. We all need to learn more about our faith and how we are to live the Christian life. And we gain that understanding both from our own personal study and Bible reading, and by listening to the teachers and pastors he has given us. See more here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/02/21/godly-spirituality-or-fleshly-pride/
Third, knowing that we do NOT have all the truth and that we must keep studying and learning – and if need be, changing some of our beliefs – should help us to stay humble. And that is vitally important. We are all on a journey, and that includes growing in knowledge and understanding of our faith. That never stops in this life.
I have been reading and studying the Bible and theology for over 50 years now, and I am still growing and still learning new things. And sometimes I have had to change my position and renounce earlier strongly-held views. Pride says we are never wrong and never need to change. Humility says we have a long way to go, and we must have a teachable spirit.
Most of the conflicts we see between believers has to do with a lack of humility and a refusal to admit you might be wrong and do not have all the truth. Sure, we stay true to core Christian teachings, but certainly on secondary matters we should be more flexible and more teachable.
This too I have often written about. See this piece as but one of many: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/06/20/a-teachable-spirit/
But before closing, let me mention one useful volume on all this that appeared a few years ago. Gavin Ortlund penned a short but helpful volume called Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage (Crossway, 2020).
As you would know, triage is a medical term used to discern how best to treat casualties, and who are most urgently in need of treatment. Ortlund applies this to Christian doctrines, arguing that given the urgency of the hour, some biblical truths will be more in need of being pressed than others. Let me offer some paragraphs from his introduction:
Using the concept of triage in the context of theology assumes two things. First, doctrines have different kinds of importance. Some hills are worth dying on. Others are not. As basic as this might seem, plenty of people, either in principle or in practice, deny this—more on that in a moment. Second, triage assumes that the needs are urgent. You can spend more time fixing a broken arm when no one is hemorrhaging ten feet away. If you have neither a broken arm nor a dying man to attend to, you can give more attention to a chipped tooth or bad bruise. But the more demanding the issues, the more you have to make hard decisions.
Similarly, if souls were not perishing, if our culture were not seeming to escalate into a whirlwind of confusion and outrage, if the church did not have so many languishing needs—I suppose, if these were not the conditions we faced, we could do away with theological triage and work on every doctrine all at once. But the dire needs of the times require us to make strategic decisions of prioritization in order to be as effective as possible at pleasing Christ, serving the church, and advancing his gospel.
Now, everyone understands how important triage is in a medical context. Just think what would happen if you didn’t have triage! One person would lose a limb so another could have his arm set. In the worst scenario, one person would die so another could have a bruise bandaged.
But we often forget to think in the same way about theology. Sometimes we flatten out all doctrine—either because we want to fight about everything or because we want to fight about nothing. More commonly, we have some kind of functional theological triage, but we have not thought it through very self-consciously. As a result, it is determined reactively by our circumstances and temperament rather than proactively by Scripture and principle.
There are all kinds of ways to distinguish doctrines. In this book I suggest four basic categories. We could explore further subcategories as well, but this fourfold ranking should help as a starting point:
• First-rank doctrines are essential to the gospel itself.
• Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church such that they frequently cause Christians to separate at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
• Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division among Christians.
• Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.
In this book I consider the Trinity, for example, to be a first-rank doctrine, baptism a second-rank doctrine, and the millennium a third-rank doctrine (more about that later). An older term, borrowed from Greek, that roughly corresponds to category 4 is adiaphora, literally meaning “things indifferent.” In Lutheran and Puritan circles, this term was used to identify practices or views that are neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. An example of a fourth-rank issue is the musical instrumentation used in worship or the number of angels that exist. Fourth-rank issues might be practically relevant or intellectually stimulating, but they are not theologically important.
Not everything will fit neatly into one of these four categories, of course. But at least they provide a basic framework from which we can make further specifications and nuances as necessary.
The rest of his book teases all this out in much greater detail of course, and his basic approach is quite helpful. And he concludes his book with a prayer that all of us can benefit from, and which offers a fitting end to this article:
Lord, where we have sinned either by failing to love the truth or by failing to love our brothers and sisters in our disagreements about the truth, forgive us and help us. For those of us who tend to fight too much over theology, help us to remember that you also died for the unity of the church, your precious bride. Give us softer hearts. For those of us who tend to fight too little over theology, help us to feel our need for courage and resilience. Give us stronger backbones. Help us to be people who tremble at your word and therefore ultimately fear no one but you. Lead us toward that healthy, happy balance of adhering to all your teaching while embracing all your people. Amen.