Ultimately we are saved by God’s grace, by accepting His mercy having recognised our need for forgiveness because we HAVE sinned. Jesus’ first proclamation was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1), and his last was ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28).
So as Christians we are called to obey God. If we’ve got the wrong Jesus, we’re likely to make bad decisions about what He requires of us; this is the root cause of the scandals in church history where the pretty much the whole church ended up supporting behaviour that we now abhor. Yet, as the war over the gay issue reveals, the church has to try to get things right – and is still failing. The failure is over theology, and is a reminder we need to do it right.
There’s nothing new in this. 85 years ago appeasement was widely endorsed in Christian circles as the Christian way to respond to Hitler. 200 years ago slavery and racism were entirely ‘Christian’. 400 years ago the state’s persecution of heretics was endorsed on almost all sides; quite apart from Rome’s burnings, Luther and Calvin welcomed the execution of Anabaptists, the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers executed Quakers, until told to stop by Charles II, whilst in England, apart from executing Catholic priests for being emissaries of a foreign power, the Papacy, seeking to overthrow the government, the Church of England merely jailed Baptists (e.g. John Bunyan) and Quakers (e.g. George Fox) as well as harassing early Methodists. Passing swiftly over the Inquisition and the Crusades, we come to the divide over icons, which led to civil war in the Byzantine empire, the New Testament epistles are replete with theological divides, and the gospels reflect the divide of Pharisee v Sadducee. If we take our theology seriously, then there WILL be divisions over issues.
We ALL have a theology; the only question is whether we’ve got one that’s in decent nick, or one that is incoherent and not fit for purpose. We have a duty to apply our minds to this – Jesus reminds us that we are called to worship God with our minds – when he endorses the words of the scribe: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10). However, as a starting point, it’s crucial to realise why we are doing it: because we want to know, serve and love God better. When a theological idea doesn’t offer this, we have to question its value.
Authority in theology
A primary question in theology is: ‘on what basis do I make my decision about whether this belief is true?’ There are four main sources; on a good day they all line up and everyone’s happy, but in practice there is often conflict. At the risk of offering a caricature, I offer these outlines.
- Obey the church. Although usually associated with Catholics, who can simplistically emphasise the role of the Papacy, especially with Vatican I, there are elements of this visible in the New Testament, most obviously the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but also in Paul’s expectation of being obeyed because of who he is. It is also important to recognise that in practice much of church life operates on this basis; we are members of a local church whose leadership needs us to accept their authority to keep operating reasonably efficiently.
- Tradition One element of this is summarised by the Vincentian Canon: ‘Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.’ An alternative way to understand this is to express it in terms of having faith that the Holy Spirit has been able to guide the church down the centuries, so an idea radically opposed to what the church has always believed is likely to be wrong. It’s a powerful challenge to some of the wilder new ideas that fly around in some circles.
- Logic and ‘reason’. This is problematic because it often allows the beliefs of the present age to overcome the claims of the other sources. An ancient example is Arius’ use of logic to deny the full deity of Jesus because that status doesn’t make logical sense. More recently those seeking equal status for gay relationships have often focused on the claim that ‘God is love, gay relationships are an example of love, therefore God must endorse them’. Both Arius and pro-gay campaigners have a point, but their logic is inconsistent with the conclusion of other sources of authority, so is not acceptable. Similarly, modern philosophical systems are offered which are inconsistent with traditional Christianity, so the teachings of Christianity are tested against these systems, and the bits that don’t fit are ejected. Note that this implies that human philosophy can be constructed in a way that ignores the evidence of the Christian faith, a strong claim on its own.
- The bible. This, of course, is what Protestants claim as their unique authority and, on a bad day, claim that it’s the only authority they will accept. A moment’s thought reveals that this is inadequate: the bible can’t tell us what time to meet on a Sunday morning and what passage should form the basis for the sermon, let alone the totally problematic issue of what books should be IN the bible. It’s a sad sight watching Evangelicals try to solve that one.
Nulla contra scriptura v sola scriptura
Or, in English, nothing against scripture v only scripture. The genius of the Reformation lay in the use of the bible – and particularly the translation from the original Greek rather than the Latin of the Vulgate which was St Jerome’s translation into Latin from the Greek and Hebrew – to challenge the accretions and errors that had arisen in the Medieval church. This wasn’t entirely new – both Wycliffe and Hus had done the same in previous centuries – but this time the new understandings weren’t suppressed (Wycliffe) or contained (Hus) with only limited impact. Yet it is important to realise that both Luther and Calvin were not wholly dismissive of the Catholic church, instead seeing it as a seriously corrupt institution but ultimately still a means of God’s grace to some. Their test was scripture – but only to strain out the false, not as the only basis for the true.
By contrast a latter generation of Protestants understood the New Testament as being the limit of what was acceptable in the church, developing a tendency to reject anything not explicitly in it. Some, therefore, rejected any of: all special feast days; the use of instruments in church worship; any hymns apart from the psalms; paid employment of local church leaders and buildings set aside for worship. However as far as I’m aware they don’t ban their paid evangelists from travelling by air, and they do tend to wear wedding rings, a church tradition with zero biblical basis (no, a signet ring is NOT the same thing – someone tried to sell me that line when I challenged him over it).
The central point
MacArthur has an important point here, and the collapse of many ‘Evangelicals’ into a pro-gay stance is, to my mind, evidence of a deep rot in the quality of what has been going on in our churches. Yet the danger is that we become heresy hunters: far more interested in getting our THEOLOGY right than actually obeying God or ‘knowing’ Him. Jesus’ words need to ring in our ears:
‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
It’s interesting to note that Jesus immediately continues on to say:
‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Paul offers an insight when he states:
‘all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God’. (Romans 8)
Our aim is to be accurately led by the Holy Spirit to be obedient to all that God is commanding for us. Good theology is a vital means to this end – but is never an aim in itself. I am confident that we will be surprised by who will be with us in heaven; many whose theology we struggled with on the earth will be there because they ‘knew God’, whilst many whose theology ticked all the right boxes in our not so humble opinion will be missing. There are no easy solutions here; we need to keep listening, keep reading ALL the bible, keep thinking, and keep praying that God will go on granting us the grace to continue faithful to Him until our last day.