What Academic Theology Doesn’t Do

13 September 2022

Academic theologians are often greatly rewarded for engaging questions that are unimportant in real life, and the things most vital in real life are often given perfunctory lip-service in the academy–if they’re addressed at all. The brutal truth is that the academy is a long way from real life, and deliberately so.

At its best, that distance gives academics the “time and space and air and light” to dig into ideas, histories, and lines of inquiry that aren’t immediately practical. The world God made being what it is, such inquiries “just to see what’s there” often lead to unexpected insight. Conducted properly, it can be a rich and rewarding pursuit. Unfortunately, too often that decoupling from the practical world can also lead to downright idiocy that never comes back down to earth.

But that’s not my real beef with academic theology. I have two reservations, one about its positive contribution and another about its negative contribution (about the latter, more next week). Positively, I have wrestled long and hard with the standard academic systematic theology categories, and I find them effectively worthless in the work of making disciples.  The contents of those categories are often vital, but the organizational scheme is actively harmful.

The academic approach divorces essential truths from the contexts in which their beauty and utility is readily visible, and embeds them in a classroom context where they appear abstruse and impractical. A counseling major in seminary remembers with a shudder the lectures on christology in his required theology classes, trying to keep homoousios straight from homoiousios, never learning that the precious truth the fathers preserved for him is the very heart of his life’s work. 

So because the Christian Faith is deeply precious, I have deliberately and consciously chucked the academic way of organizing and talking about it. There is another way of approaching the same material — still ordered, but it’s the order of a nursery, not a library bookshelf. It’s the order exhibited by the biblical literature itself, from the Torah to the church epistles — which are neither composed nor arranged like systematic theology texts. They’re history, liturgy, and theological reflection on both. If we simply study The Story of Our People, we will cover all the bad ideas, but we will encounter them in their historical context, as temptations rather than just bad ideas.


One Mind?

22 September 2020

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phil. 2:1-2)

What does God’s idea of “one mind” actually look like? In an age of ideology, we look for the wrong thing. We look for someone to parrot the party line, to have no “unapproved” thoughts, no unexpected questions. If we’re impatient, we punish anyone who deviates from expectations with whatever label our community uses to mark out Something You Can’t Say (i.e., blasphemy): “heretical,” “problematic,” or the ever-popular “racist” or “sexist.”

But God is not an ideologue, and we are not Unitarians. We are trinitarian, and that means we expect to hear the truth in multiple complementary voices. Our proverbs have two lines. We don’t all sing the same note; we believe in harmony. We even believe in discord: Jesus died on a tree. That was a hell of a note, but it’s not the end of the song.

On a walk recently, the Lady Wife and I were talking about the relationships where we have one-mindedness, and what characterizes those relationships. There’s certainly a lot of agreement, but that’s not the thing. We disagree too, and not just temporarily. I often find myself “holding hands across the fence” with someone who on paper holds a view on the other side of the ideological bright line, but has the same heart I do, and we are nearer to one another than we are to other people who *on paper* are on “our” respective sides.

Where we disagree, we find — Kimberly’s words here — “a place of peace where we’re not sinning” against each other, we’re not mad about it, and the work God’s called us to can go forward. We’re not all singing the same note, but there’s harmony. Even discord doesn’t in itself mean we’ve lost one-mindedness; it just means we’re doing jazz — if you keep playing, it wasn’t a mistake, and it will come to resolution in time.

Of course, as our more ideological brothers will be quick to point out, there is such a thing as intractable discord, and that really does create problems. Part of maintaining unity is discernment and discipline.

But the ideologues are good at discipline and no good at discernment, and as a result, they have conformity, but not unity. They don’t know what they’re missing.

Expiration Dates

27 May 2012

Theological systems come and go.  Mostly, there are some central insights that don’t really fit into the milieu from which the new system arises, and then people try to push those insights out into the corners.  The result is a new theological system.  Often, that initial crucial insight is good — a breath of fresh air, a kiss on the lips, water in the desert.  Usually, some of the derivative insights that arise in the early days of the system are also good.

But the system as a whole has some blind spots and a few problems.  As time goes on, these get developed and magnified rather than reduced, and the whole thing gets stale.

Meanwhile, the Church at large is internalizing those crucial initial insights without necessarily converting to the system (“Well, I don’t agree with those guys on everything, but they’ve got a point about xyz”).  Alternately, the Church converts to the system, internalizes its key aspects, and then de-converts without losing those crucial insights in the process.  It’s important to realize that this dynamic wouldn’t happen without the formation of a system.  The core insight is not usually obvious to people in the beginning.  It conflicts with the existing system at a number of points.  That insight has to be elaborated in some detail and its implications worked out before people are willing to accept it.  System-building provides that work of elaboration.

However, there comes a point where the system has had the impact it’s going to have, the Body has absorbed its benefits, and it’s time to move on.  The system has reached its expiration date; as a system of thought, it has outlived its usefulness.  Its purpose, in the end, was to serve as a vehicle through which the Body could come to grips with a few crucial truths.  That work done, the members of the Body now regard those truths as self-evident, and the delivery vehicle can fall to the wayside.  There’s no need to keep the old wineskin after you’ve drunk the wine.

One of the signs that a system has reached its expiration date is that people will deny the system while holding to its key insights as self-evident.  In extreme cases, people are totally unaware that the “self-evident biblical truths” they are affirming only came to be considered self-evident because the system they so despise made people aware of them.  For example, missional types who regard the Trinity as the central biblical teaching for human relationships, but can’t say the word “Christendom” without sneering — they have somehow forgotten that Christendom furnished the historical conversation that resulted in the “self-evident” doctrine of the Trinity.  The Calvary Chapel movement furnishes another useful contemporary example.  Where else can you find pre-mil, pre-trib theology that holds to a firm distinction between the Church and Israel — and so abominates dispensationalism as a divisive and damaging doctrine that they actually ban discussion of dispensationalism in a home Bible study?


Ugly stuff happens along these fault lines.  I know of a situation where a Calvary Chapel-connected school was offered three faculty members — a Bible/theology teacher, an OT/Hebrew teacher, and a NT/Greek teacher — all three capable, all three offering skills and teaching far beyond anything the school had in its existing program.  The doctrinal statement wasn’t a problem.  The financial arrangements weren’t a problem.  Then somebody allowed as how all three teachers hailed from a dispensational background, and that was the end.  Not “Uh, guys, listen, can we talk about that?”  No deal, no discussion, nope, sorry, never gonna happen.  The school spooked and ran, and never looked back.  In fact someone tried to oust the president of the school simply because there’d even been a thought of working with dispensationalists.

Sad.  The students could have developed whole skill sets that school couldn’t and can’t deliver, but the administration they were trusting to deliver a good education couldn’t see past a word.


On the other hand, did it serve anyone well for the three teachers to use that word?  Was the term “dispensationalism” really necessary — or even helpful?

I’m not sure it is.  Dispensationalism is so diluted and diverse now that it’s necessary to heap adjectives upon it in order to have any hope of describing an actual position — “progressive” and “classic” are the favorites, but they don’t help much.  There’s substantial difference among “classic” dispensationalists — four dispensations, seven dispensations, etc. — and even more among the folks who take the “progressive” label.

When a student balks at learning a laundry list of theological terms, we tell him that it’s necessary in order to help the conversation along.  Having labels for things helps us to understand each other so that we can have good discussions.

Certainly worked out that way, didn’t it?


So it is that people who try to have a dispensational take on everything are about as helpful as those who try to have a Reformed take on everything — both systems, in their respective times, were a kiss on the lips, manna from heaven, good and godly work highlighting key aspects of Christian truth that were in danger of being forgotten.  Glory to God for them both.

Both systems, as systems, have now passed their expiration date.  In the end, they were not timeless systems of thought, but simply delivery vehicles for a few key insights.  The work is done; the Great Conversation has moved on.  Not everyone has accepted those few key insights, but they have been rendered difficult to forget: a Roman Catholic divinity student might ignore Hus, but he’s going to have a hard time avoiding the Reformation.  Moreover, a great many of the reforms called for by the Protestants (e.g., moral reform of the clergy) did take place in the Counter-Reformation, because the moral purity of the Protestant churches put the Roman church to shame. So the Reformation had its impact even on the Roman church which supposedly rejected it.  Dispensationalism likewise: today you can hear people who were never dispensational talking about how a certain biblical event took place “at a different point in the story” than where we are today, and you have to take that into account.  Hmmm….

Christ is building His Church, and He is using all these different movements and theologies to do it.  The gates of Hades have not prevailed, and will not.  And what Christ is building is His Church, not some sect or movement or particular theological system.  Christ’s blessing rests on these subsets of the Church for a time, as a means to edifying the whole Church.  Working in such a subset is good, honorable work, but it helps to keep in mind that you only see part of the picture.

Whatever strand of the Tradition you’re part of, whatever theological system you subscribe to, remember this lesson.


Cartoon used by gracious permission from Pastor Saji of St. Thomas the Doubter Church, Dallas, TX.

For a different take on the temporary nature of theological systems and creeds, see Jim Jordan’s Symbolism: A Manifesto (particularly the last 3 pages).

The Tradition: Dealing with Error, Part 2

13 May 2012

My second post on the Tradition a while back ended with a question: “How shall we reject the antisemitism of our (early church) fathers without rejecting our fathers, and thereby repeating the very same sin that they committed?”

It’s quite a dilemma, isn’t it?  The race hatred of our fathers was a sin, and we must reject it.  We must speak against it.  We must say that it is incompatible with Christian life and faith.  We may not overlook it; we may not simply pretend it didn’t happen.  Period.

On the other hand, these men — Chrysostom, Luther, and so many others — are our fathers in the faith.  They paved the ancient paths on which we walk, and we may not overlook that, either.  We may not pretend that we have simply come de novo to the Bible, and we owe them nothing.  Even if we had come de novo to the Bible, we would owe them a debt we could never repay for their labor in recognizing, preserving and propagating the canonical books — but we owe them far more than that.  We have not come de novo to the Bible after all; we are taking part in a Tradition to which we owe a great deal.  Nor is it enough for us to simply say we owe them and then move on: genuine gratitude must be meaningfully incarnated, or it is just cheap sentimentality.

The fashion of the age is to avoid this sort of trouble by damning anyone* who indulges in race hatred.  Such a person (so goes conventional wisdom) is benighted, backwards, and useless, and could have nothing worthwhile to say.  For a Christian, this is not an acceptable stance to take.  First of all, we have our own sins, and if we would not have others dismiss us out of hand because of our failings, then we may not dismiss others for theirs.  Second, as a matter of historical fact, our fathers had quite a lot to say that was, and is, worth hearing.  The Spirit did not fail to speak through the teachers of past ages; Christ has been building His Church right along.  So the fashion of the age be damned; we’re Christians and we’ll have to do better than that.

I propose we do better by simply telling the truth, all the way around.  Luther was a great man whose great contributions we respect and use, and who fell into a great sin that we hate and renounce.  What’s so impossible about that?  We know that we can sing David’s psalms without falling into his adultery; why doesn’t it occur to us that we could acknowledge Luther’s contributions without expressing some sort of tacit approval of his antisemitism?


*Not actually true.  There are people who can get away with it, even today.  Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic statements come to mind.

The Tradition: Dealing with Error

20 November 2011

This is the second post in a series on the Tradition, which is also related to the posts on Mystical Union and Theopoetics In the last post, we finished with the idea that the Tradition could be wrong only if Christ is not risen, Yahweh is not the God of heaven and earth, and so on.  Which leaves us with the question: Living within the Tradition, how do we deal with errors when they arise?

The Tradition is the only game in town.  How will you walk with Yahweh except by His Spirit, among His people, and according to His Scriptures?  As a Christian, you’re part of the Tradition whether you like it or not; you can’t judge it from outside, because you can’t get outside it.  “I am right and the Tradition is wrong” is a self-contradictory statement for a Christian; every Christian is part of the Tradition.

One presumes there was nothing wrong with the way the Apostle Paul conducted a church service.  Chrysostom writes a liturgy in the 4th century, the Divine Liturgy that much of the Eastern church still uses to this day. The interesting question is not why a 21st-century church uses a 4th-century liturgy, although that will certainly bear exploring.  The interesting question is, why a 4th-century liturgy, rather than a 1st-century liturgy?  What did Chrysostom add, replace, change?  Was he justified in doing so?  And if so, then couldn’t Thomas Cranmer have been justified also?  Couldn’t I?

The Tradition is providentially developing through history.  The Tradition is always maturing, and therefore is always incomplete in that sense, because it always has room for future growth into greater maturity.  We can’t disparage the Tradition on account of its historically-bound incompleteness.  That’s the way God chose to do it, and there’s that whole business of critiquing the Potter to be concerned about, and anyway, it’s just silly to criticize others for their historically-bound incompleteness when we have the same problem.

But sometimes, we’re not just talking about incompleteness or immaturity.  We’re talking about serious sin in our history.  How shall we talk about rampant and obvious sin within the Tradition?  The obvious answer is to critique it biblically — and this is also the right answer.  But how we go about this task matters.  Let’s take an easy example: the antisemitism of the early church.  This problem is not often discussed in most evangelical circles, because it’s embarrassing, but for those of you who don’t know, large swathes of the early church were virulently, violently antisemitic.  This is a well-established historical fact, so I’m not going to repeat all the evidence here.  Feel free to look it up; it’s almost certainly worse than you imagine.

Moreover, the early church’s anti-Semitism is eminently understandable.  It was Jewish people who abducted Jesus in the middle of the night, illegally tried Him, and delivered Him to Pilate.  It was only at their insistence that Pilate crucified Him.  It was Jewish people who murdered Stephen, it was to placate Jewish people that Herod killed James, it was Jewish adversaries who hounded Paul from town to town.  Jesus was Jewish too, of course, but He came to Israel, and took from Israel a people for Himself, and then sent His disciples into all the world.  Judaism after Jesus was not the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Jesus took their descendants with Him (that was the point of Stephen’s famous speech, which got him murdered).  Judaism after Jesus was and is the chaff, not the wheat, and so it will remain until Israel’s repentance and restoration.  In due course God sent Titus the Roman, and the chaff was scattered to the four winds.  The theology was simple and self-evident, the historical evidence was indisputable, and the emotional motivation was potent: Jewish people had been, and remained, implacable and murderous enemies of the gospel, precisely because they were Jewish.

So why not hate them?  The early church forgot two things: first, if Israel is our enemy, then we must do what Jesus told us to do, and love our enemies.  Second, we come from Israel.  We are not a second tree, planted in Israel’s place when she is utterly rejected—no indeed.  We are productive wild branches, grafted into Israel’s tree, and if her fall is riches for us, what will her restoration be?  The fruitless branches will not remain cut off forever: “All Israel shall be saved.”  In the meantime, her root supports us.  Her Scriptures are ours, and we owe her all gratitude for conserving them for us.  From Abraham to Jesus, Israel was the custodian and visible manifestation of the Tradition, and we cannot disown her, however much the early church might have tried.

Which is to say that when the early church sought to expunge every trace of Jewishness from their religious practice, their error wasn’t just hating their enemies; that would have been bad enough.  They were hating their fathers.  God don’t dig father-hatred, and has made His opinion on this most clear: “Honor your father and mother.”  “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.”  “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother, for they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains on your neck.”  “Whoever curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in deep darkness.”  “The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.”

Now, how shall we reject the antisemitism of our (early church) fathers — which we obviously must do — without rejecting our fathers wholesale, and thereby repeating the very same sin that they committed?

The Tradition

13 November 2011

The Tradition is a building.  The foundations are set in stone, as they ought to be.  Some rooms are finished and decorated, for the moment.  We may redecorate, or even renovate them eventually, but not right now.  Others were finished, but someone left the windows open all winter.  There’s a lot of water damage, and it’s starting to leak into other parts of the house.  And there’s a nest of rattlesnakes that live under the bureau, and bats in the closet.  Need to do some serious work in there, pronto.  Other rooms are framed in, but there’s exposed wiring, sawdust and tools everywhere, the occasional hole in the floor.  You probably don’t want to let a kid in those rooms yet, at least not unattended.


Adding to the Tradition is part of the Tradition.  Always has been.  When Moses gave the Torah, the only music in the Tabernacle liturgy was somebody occasionally blowing a trumpet.  And not a Louis Armstrong trumpet, either — a shofar, a hollowed-out ram’s horn.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the shofar.  But there’s a reason nobody’s recording a whole CD of shofar music.  It’s not capable of a particularly broad range of musical expression.  Along comes David, and brings the Ark up to Jerusalem, where the Temple will one day be.  He makes musical instruments, writes psalms, and organizes the Levites to bring a service of musical worship that parallels the service of animal sacrifice in the Tabernacle.  There’s not two words about any of this in Torah, but David does it anyway, and when Solomon builds the Temple, the musical worship is included in the Temple as well as the animal sacrifice.

Scraping off accumulated barnacles is also part of the Tradition.  Jesus does this very forcefully in a number of ways, with His “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” utterances, His parables, His miracles and actions.  But Jesus is not leading some sort of fundamentalist “Back to Torah!” movement.  When He cleanses the Temple, He drives out the bazaar in the court of the Gentiles, but He leaves the choristers and musicians alone.  He celebrates Hanukkah, too.  Some changes harmoniously build on and glorify the foundation that has been laid; others obscure and obstruct it.  Jesus differentiates between the two, as well He ought to, since He’s about to introduce some innovations of His own.

Of course it’s not as simple as “good accretions” versus “bad accretions” to the Tradition.  To everything there is a season: some accretions are glorious in their time, but not intended to be everlasting.  The Tabernacle gave way to the Temple.  Animal sacrifice gave way to the death and resurrection of the Messiah.  (The folks in charge of offering sacrifices were a little slow to take the hint, so about 40 years later God razed the Temple to the ground.  Hadrian constructed a temple to Jupiter some 40 years after that, God apparently preferring demon-worship on the Temple Mount over the emptiness of animal sacrifice after His Son’s death.)  The feast of the peace offering gave way to the feast of the Lord’s Table.  Sipping grape juice at that Table will give way to drinking new wine with Jesus in the Kingdom of His Father, as we hear Him declare the Father’s praises in our midst…but I’m getting carried away.  Back to the Tradition…

It’s a living Tradition, a succession of experiences and relationships mediated by the Holy Spirit.  Along the way, there are ordinations, baptisms, structures of civil and ecclesiastical government, and so on, but the succession of those things is a characteristic of the Tradition, not its backbone.  The Tradition is the life of the Church, the Body, the fullness of Christ, and is in turn perichoretically filled by the Holy Spirit.  It is the life God gives, manifested among men.  Think River Ecclesiology here — where the living water flows, the Tradition is alive. 

The Spirit inspired the Scriptures within that mighty stream of experiences and relationships: “Holy men spoke as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit.”  The Scriptures are part and parcel of the Tradition.  It’s a serious category mistake to talk about “Scripture and Tradition” as though the two were separate sources — no matter which one you want to have primacy.

Can the Tradition be wrong?  Of course.  If Christ is not risen, if Yahweh is not king above all gods, if the gods of the nations are not idols, then the Tradition is finally, fatally, irrevocably wrong.  But since Christ is risen, Yahweh is king above all gods, and all the gods of the nations are deaf and dumb idols…the Tradition is not wrong.

Praise Yahweh for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!