To outsiders who pay any attention to the church, Christian in-fighting must appear insane – and I don’t even mean church schisms because of carpet color or brand of communion wafer. I’m talking strangleholds and bulging veins; I’m talking endless theological quarrelling and quibbling. Having attended an evangelically affiliated university, I heard the same theological arguments over and over. Calvinists and Armenians endlessly clashing over free will and pre-destination. Catholics and Protestants heatedly trying to understand transubstantiation and the Eucharist. Debates about reason and faith. They circle round and round and never reach a conclusion. At first they’re fun and interesting but quickly turn dry, ashen. In the worst cases, I’ve heard cockiness and blind certainty and phrases like: “I know I’m right; why even talk theology” swirl around doctrinal issues. While each of the above topics has merit, they aren’t the core of faith, and I can’t help but wonder if they claim too much time – and ardor.
Over time, I’ve developed a little scenario to determine if a doctrinal issue is worth the vehemence. It goes like this: suppose you’re standing at a gas station when you a feel a spectral presence and something pressed against the back of your head. A gravelly voices proclaims that if you don’t deny “insert doctrinal issue” he’ll splatter your brains everywhere, and you have a moment or two to weigh your life and convictions and reply. While the whole scenario is admittedly absurd, take a moment, humor me, and consider inputting topics into the equation. For instance, would I take a bullet for a literal seven day creation period? Pretty unequivocally no, regardless of my opinion. But what about the divinity of Christ, the trinity, or the resurrection? How would the scene change? While eccentric, the anecdote of the theological mugger raises several valuable questions. Namely, what theology is essential? And more so, what’s the point of theology anyway?
Originally, the church created the Apostle’s creed not just as fine sounding catechism or liturgy but as necessary testament of what followers of Christ would die for. Martyrdom was reality. Later creeds defended against heresy and further defined the core of faith. And notice – there’s no mention of pre-destination anywhere in the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed; neither specify man’s role in salvation at all. Rather, they define the core of Christianity: creation, the trinity, the deity of Christ – his death and resurrection, the equality of the Spirit, the forgiveness of sin, and a future to come. The church defended these truths before the council of bishops and emperors; they defended them as the gun cocked by their heads.
And while sure – these Christians probably discussed a premillennial or amillennial second coming; they wouldn’t have taken a bullet for the doctrine. They argued fiercely over the divinity of Christ because they recognized and cherished mystery. The heretics – for both genuine and sinister motivations – attempted to rationalize the infinite within Christianity. All the prevalent heresies saved logical appearances but tainted the Gospel, sullied the mystery. As a concrete example, Christ’s simultaneous divinity and humanity is not easy to comprehend. Some heretics claimed that God possessed the man Jesus – and therefore Christ himself was not God and man. This simplifies the problem for sure but undermines the gospel. God himself died for our sins and rose again; he did not merely occupy a host who lived and died as proxy.
For those of us in America, we have the leisure to discuss non-core doctrines and come to an opinion of them. We have the advantage of several millennia of thought and scholarship to further our search. I believe that God wants us to ponder these truths out, to seek him and know him more. But –I worry that too often we approach theology as a mental competition or mixed martial arts match, maybe even spending hours of research to prove our “rightness” or our correct reading of scripture. When the true and noble aim of theology should always be to explore the mind of God, to romp around in the sacred, to know and love God more and to become more like him.
Doctrine about election and the like are worth studying because they reveal qualities about God, and we can benefit from discussing them but should recognize they don’t deserve our heat. The paradox is this: God remains forever beyond our grasp yet reveals himself in the tiniest insect; he testifies about himself through scripture. Yet still, concepts about God and the infinite can be approached but never fully comprehended; no human argument will reach their bedrock. Doctrinal discussion will have no end. These discussions will recur and recur perennially and neither side will ever reach a one hundred percent all convincing solution. It’s simply impossible within the finite.
To be fair, the line between theology as chess match and theology as wonder and exploration can blur fairly easily – especially when camps within Christianity perceive other camps as scribbling over the image of God, or worse, sketching their own cartoon of him. In this instance, vehemence can feel justified; squabbles about peripheral doctrine become mistaken for battles over the core of faith, and we quickly wield the apologist’s hammer. However, there are whole parsecs of difference between a perversion of mystery and different interpretations of mystery. God may be like an infinitely sided geometric object, like a bottomless pool that no mind can sound. These sacred infinities demand humility. Someone else’s “false rendering of God” may be heresy, but it may just be a facet of God we cannot perceive or do not emphasize: like God’s love or wrath or justice, and perception is required.
Moreover, we require clear-headedness to analyze our own absolutisms and line them up with scripture – to smash any gods made in our own image, any gods sporting the product placement of personal agendas. In theological arguments, we need to discern between an attack on God and an attack on our image of God, and which one truly stirs our zeal. We need to ask ourselves, by arguing do we serve God or our own egos, do we establish our rightness and intellectual dominion or a kingdom of love lived out? Cause really, extreme self-assurance narrows understanding of God. Ardor for debate might miss the point altogether. I have to wonder if blind arrogance and jowl shaking certainty about doctrine insults the light and incomprehensible depth of the Godhead – or disappoints the Father whose children spend their living years debating facts about Him rather than getting acquainted and running around the yard and laughing at the dinner table together.
Ultimately – heresy needs to be squashed; the mysteries of faith – the trinity, the nature of Christ, etc. – need to be preserved. On the other hand, non-core doctrine should be explored in wonder, no guns need to be drawn or fired, while the core of Christianity unites the church. Cause really, I wonder, if all the zeal for debate became an ardor for living fully immersed in the reality of Christ who died, who rose again, who’s coming soon – living fully taken with the gospel message, infected with empathy and love, transforming and transformed by grace – what would this faith look like?