Theology – the forbidden word
”For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
If we look at what’s happening around us in the world today it is difficult not to get the impression that we live in what the Bible calls “difficult” times (2 Tm 3,1). We can notice many things which reinforce our conviction that the world is surely coming to an end.
Both in the natural world, and in human, social, political and economic matters, we can witness more and more signs that the end is drawing near. In fact, on the one hand, the gospel is being preached throughout almost the whole world, but at the same time, in so-called Christianity, some very disturbing processes are also going on that point to a serious crisis in real, pure, biblical belief. This is quite a broad topic and a particularly important one, especially when we bear in mind the words of Jesus Christ himself:
“However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18,8). It is important that Christians for whom fear of God and faithfulness and purity of the Truth really matter take a look at these dangerous trends.
Together, let us consider one disturbing phenomenon in Christian life. It concerns an increasingly commonly encountered reluctance towards something that we call “theology”. Today, this word often conjures up negative feelings and associations. It can be clearly felt that many Christians are convinced that dealing with “theological” topics is something utterly evil and improper, something contrary to the true spirit of the gospel. Attempts to draw attention to the importance of “theological” issues, to the need to return to a deeper study of various, even difficult, biblical issues, is often met with clearly noticeable dissatisfaction and impatience. Many people wince on hearing the word “theology” as if dealing with “theological” topics were something evil, something that has little in common with real Christianity and real faith. At the same time one cannot help noticing that, in church communities, people turn less and less to the “solid food” of the Bible, and engage less and less in deep reflection on the Word of God. Knowledge of it is generally diminishing. Christians, especially younger ones, to an ever increasing extent prefer to draw “the water of life” from multimedia presentations, films, concerts and short texts which are not too rich in content but often overly rich in showing charismatic speakers, rather than drawing it from the Bible. Increasingly often, the pure Word of God and Divine wisdom are substituted by human words and worldly wisdom and philosophy mixed with biblical truths, which is a deeply disturbing phenomenon!
What is the reason for such a turnaround? Without doubt there are many sources of this increasingly common reluctance towards “theology”. Together we will try to draw attention to some of them in this reflection. To begin with, however, it is worth examining the issue of “theology” itself – what it is and whether a true Christian should in fact keep well away from it, as if from something that arouses reluctance and is opposed to Divine will and the spirit of the gospel?
What is theology?
The word itself derives from two roots – “Theos” – God, and “logos” – learning, so put simply it means – “learning about God”. Under the word “theology” dictionaries give such definitions as:
an “explanation of the world and its relationship with God”, a “methodical study of religious truths revealed by God, according to maxims: “faith that is looking for understanding”. Theology looks for answers to a whole range of questions, for example “Who is God?”, “Who is man and where did he come from?”, “How did the world begin?”, “Where is the world headed and how will it end?”, “What is God’s relationship with man?”, “What should man’s relationship with God be like?”, “What does God expect from people, and what tasks does He set them?”, “What does God offer people and what has He done for them?”, “How should one actually serve God, glorify Him, and be pleasing to Him?” “How should one live alongside other people”, “How should one operate in today’s world in the light of Divine truths?”, “How should one approach the many problems that confront us every day?” and so on and so forth. Many similar questions could be cited. Does it sound “dangerous”? Are these questions “dangerous” for Christian spirituality? Do they “sound” like something “backward”, “out of touch with the times”, “unnecessary”, “against the spirit of the gospel”? Are such questions “unimportant”, “side issues” or “not so critical”? It is worth thinking about them a little more deeply before wincing at the word “theology”…
The Bible clearly shows that Christians should continually develop their knowledge and ability to discern right from wrong (Ph 1,9-10). Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews, criticised readers saying that although considerable time had passed since their conversion, their knowledge regarding “God’s teaching” had remained at a very low level (Heb 5,12-14). This fragment explicitly states that a Christian should be someone who continually grows in knowledge of Divine truth and his “cognitive powers” should be appropriately “trained”. The Apostle Paul, when writing to his loyal and trusted associate Timothy, did not fail to remind him of the need to give attention to, among other things, “reading and learning”. These are very important aspects of Christian life.
Our faith has to have solid foundations and be firmly seated on bona fide knowledge of Divine truth as revealed in the Bible. But the Bible is not a small brochure consisting of a few pages but a hefty “brick” containing a multitude of texts, some of which are not easy. It is true that one can find in it “milk” for “spiritual infants” but it also contains quite a dose of “solid food” for anyone who wants to grow “in knowledge and experience”. Our biblical knowledge will determine the way we serve God – whether we act “as we feel like” or according to His will. Adequate knowledge of Divine truth also constitutes a part of our responsibility towards others. Peter the Apostle drew attention to the fact that every believer should be ready to explain his “hope” to others (1 P 3,15). But this cannot be done on the basis of “it seems to me that” but only on the basis of the Word of God. Also, it is not always a case of explaining only the easiest and very obvious, basic things. Sometimes we have to confront really difficult, problematic questions that increasingly often are raised by people who are deeply involved in contemporary trends and philosophies that go against God. A Christian cannot run away from difficult topics. This inevitably leads to the need to deepen one’s knowledge of … theology. You cannot be a conscious Christian with solid foundations without an appropriate dose of “theology”, especially in today’s troubled times.
Among those reluctant towards “theology” you can sometimes encounter a quite interesting viewpoint. These people often argue that, instead of theology, attention should be devoted to the teaching of Jesus Christ and the gospel he preached. This is quite an odd statement which perhaps on the one hand shows a slight misunderstanding, or maybe a very limited understanding, of what theology is. On the other hand it shows perhaps a quite limited knowledge of the truth that the Lord Jesus preached. It may show a very selective treatment of the teachings of Christ and the apostles. If we trace the teachings of the Saviour we can see that he raised very many different issues. He often stressed the need to continually feed on the Word of God and to have good knowledge of it (Mt 4,4).
In the dramatic moments when He was tempted by the devil, knowledge of the Word of God enabled Jesus to counter Satan’s fraudulent temptations. Both then and in other situations, our Master used the power and authority of God’s Word. Many times he began his argumentation with the majestic “It is written…”. He criticised the Pharisees and those learned in the Scriptures saying that their false practices and beliefs had their roots among other things in a lack of knowledge of the Scriptures (Mk 12,24). He directed the young man, who came to him asking what was the most important thing for him to do, to the Word of God – “What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?”(Lk 10,26) On the road to Emaus, the Saviour gave the concerned disciples a solid dose of ”theology” – “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Lk 24,27)
When tracing the beginnings of the Church’s development through reading the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of the New Testament we can see that many “theological” topics were raised in the congregations and in the teaching by the apostles. Writers of the New Testament did not avoid them. Quite the contrary – the accumulation of them in the Letters gives evidence of just how much importance was attached to them. It is worth listing here at least some of the “theological” topics that were particularly pressing at that time and which formed an important part of apostolic teaching. For instance:
The question of Jesus Christ as Messiah and Son of God – this was connected with a deep and probing analysis of Old Testament prophecies and also the meaning and symbolism of many aspects of the Law.
The question of the “old” and “new” covenant.
The question of the “temple”, the ceremonies, the sacrificial system, feast days and how they were observed, the problem of “Judaisation” and the return to “shadows”.
The question of the “chosen people” and the gentiles, the problem of “accepting gentiles”, the conversion of “two sheep” into one and the breaking down of the dividing wall of enmity.
The question of the resurrection and life after death, the topic of the new “homeland”, the “new heaven and new earth”, the new body and the new reality for saved people.
The question of Jesus’ Second Coming – how and when this would take place, the signs that would herald it, how to recognise its approaching, and how not to be deceived.
The question of God’s commandments, the concept of grace, the relationship between grace and deeds, the problem of legalism – putting trust in deeds and on the other hand, the problem of antinomianism – rejecting the significance of any deeds, the problem of “being steadfast in sin, so that grace may abound” and difficult issues connected with the deceptions of growing gnosticism.
The question of the “additional harness” – where is the boundary between that which God demands of us and that which is additional and of human invention.
The question of morality and chastity.
The question of marriage and divorce, bringing up children, etc.
Mention could be made of many other teachings to be found in the pages of the New Testament. But we can already see that a whole spectrum of topics were being broadly discussed and analysed. Many of them are not plain and simple, and understanding them wisely and well requires commitment and extensive knowledge of the Bible. It is difficult not to have the impression that in today’s times the authors of the New Testament would hear many harsh words and experience reluctance due to unnecessary “going into theology”…
It is worth asking oneself now the question of whether currently, almost 2000 years later, theological questions have lost their significance and become unnecessary “ballast” and a “brake” on real Christianity? Not by a long shot! Jesus Christ gave this clear warning: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mk 13,22).
Someone who is ignorant of or does not know well the truths contained in the Bible falls easy prey to any kind of religious deception or fraud. It is plain to see how, over the years, various preachers of the gospel, self-proclaimed religious leaders and assorted kinds of “prophets” have managed to lead astray whole masses of people. Paul the Apostle warned the Galatians of deceptions and false teachings (Ga 1,6-9) and this warning still applies. The problem is, however, that today fewer and fewer people are trying to deeply get to know the real teachings of the Bible and as a result are not able to recognise and avoid “other gospel”.
Particularly dramatic is Paul the Apostle’s appeal to Timothy: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Tm 4,1-4) Peter the Apostle remarked in a similar way (2 P 2,1-3).
The apostles very fittingly diagnosed the problems that would follow – with time, people would be less and less keen to want to draw on the pure teaching contained in the Bible, and increasingly often would want to listen to teachers who preached an easy and pleasing truth, “exciting to hear” but unfortunately having little in common with the Divine Truth revealed in the Bible. Today, teaching in Christian communities is like an individual “smorgasbord” – people choose from the Bible the things that they “like”, but resist teachings and truth that “irritate their palate”. Sometimes on the smorgasbord there are dishes which are not from “God’s table” but which come from other religions and philosophical currents that are foreign to God.
Looking for reasons for the growing reluctance towards “theology” one cannot help noticing one particular, general phenomenon. Among people (especially those from ”western civilisations”) there is a growing laziness and reluctance to put oneself to too much trouble. It is better that ready-made solutions and results are “given on a plate” so as not to give oneself too much trouble. It is quite a common phenomenon. The level of teaching in schools is falling and lower and lower demands are being placed on pupils. Sometimes someone with a master’s degree knows less than someone with a school-leaving certificate 30 years ago. Reading books is drastically declining and people are no longer able to find out something for themselves, to think analytically, draw constructive conclusions, or even understand what they read. We are fed “a fabricated mush of information” by the media. Unfortunately, this trend is also seeping into church communities. People, especially the younger generation, are not too keen to take the trouble to study the Word in earnest, to learn, to deepen their understanding of the Bible, of hermeneutics, and to find out about the historical and cultural background to biblical issues. The consequence of this is a decreasing knowledge of Divine Truth and ability to recognise “other kinds of gospel” and to differentiate between good and evil.
Because, unfortunately, it is not possible to skip over certain issues. To be “good” in any field you have to devote quite a lot of time, effort and energy to it. Without that, nobody becomes an expert in a field. It is the same with getting to know God’s teachings which at times are not at all easy to understand.
As we mentioned earlier, the Bible is not a thin brochure but a fat book covering a huge number of topics and issues. Fathoming the text is a life’s work. It requires devoting considerable amounts of time and energy. Not everything will straight away be easy, straightforward and pleasant. Proper understanding of some issues does not always happen immediately. Yes, it has to be clearly stated – theology can be difficult sometimes. After all, it concerns God’s thoughts and ways and not those of men (Is 55,8). The Word of God is not always “light reading-matter”. It can sometimes contain texts that ”penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit”. (Heb 4,12). Getting to grips with it requires effort and commitment. But it is essential in view of the many dangers that are lurking all around. We have to be “trained” to know God’s Word, otherwise we will become “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Ep 4,11-14)
Discernment in theological matters has huge significance in our Christian lives. Proper knowledge of biblical truths has a substantial influence on how we perceive God and how we serve Him. It impinges on how we act and what we recognise as important in our lives. It influences our setting of priorities and decision-making. Contrary to what we might hear, theological issues are not just pure “theory” or philosophical matters but something considerably more. They are something that reflect in our attitudes, behaviour, actions, and the way we treat God and other people.
It is worth considering once again the range of theological problems that were the subject of contemplation and apostolic teaching during the 1st century. Some of these were mentioned earlier and it seems that most of them are still very topical. Even today, many of them are leading issues. Over the course of centuries in so-called Christianity new deceptions and false teachings have appeared. What kind of “theological” issues are a problem for Christianity today? It’s worth citing at least some of them:
The question of the credibility of the Bible and its inspiration as a whole. These days, even in Christian circles, the authenticity of substantial parts of the Bible is being called into question – they are being considered as not inspired, misrepresented, or modified. The world is presenting the Bible as a collection of human wisdom and myths, rather than as Divine truths. Protecting the veracity and inspiration of the Bible requires us to get to grips with the question of Bible studies, the history of the Bible, and the veracity of the prophecies, etc.
The question of the origins of humankind – these days, fewer and fewer people believe in the Creation. Today, even in Christian communities attempts are made to reconcile the biblical account with the secular theory of evolution and the Big Bang. The description given in the Book of Genesis is regarded as metaphorical, as myths or poetic, etc.
The question of the legitimacy of Jesus Christ – this requires studying among other things the prophecies, and also biblical and secular history.
The question of God’s essence – a vast majority of so-called Christianity today holds a non-biblical view of the ”Trinity”.
The question of respect for God’s Commandments – once again, a vast majority of so-called Christianity do not recognise God’s Ten Commandments as revealed in the Bible. Many people still have a serious problem with understanding the relationship between grace and deeds. To look more deeply at this issue and learn about it properly requires studying a host of difficult biblical issues – the function and history of the Law, the old and new Covenants, the essence of sin, justification and sanctification, the role of moral and ceremonial rules, the question of legalism and antinomianism, Judaisation and gnosticism.
The question of Jesus’ Second Coming – over the centuries there have been many deceptions in this area. Some claim that Jesus has already returned in an invisible form. Others believe He will return in a visible form, but they have tried and are still trying to define the specific day. Yet another group of Christians seems to be forgetting about this stupendous future event and instead of living a life of expectation is trying to situate too much in the material world …
The question of salvation – who will be granted it and under what conditions? Will one or more chances of it be given? Can salvation be lost or is it a case of once saved, forever saved? And so on and so forth.
The question of a range of teachings by the biggest church that is nominally Christian – the Catholic Church – the baptism of infants, confession, indulgences, the veneration of saints, the mass, images, the Papacy, life after death, etc. As it turns out, educated Catholics also have their “line of defence” and are able to cite various verses from the Bible which can give rise to considerable problems for those Christians defending the Divine truth who are “not well-versed in the Word”. Preparing a defence requires familiarity with and often quite in-depth studying of an issue.
The problem of religious “syncretism” and the infiltration into Christian communities of many teachings and practices not from the Bible. By this are meant mainly religious ideas from the East, New Age currents and also a humanist trend which is putting on a pedestal not God, His will and His idea but humans with their own thoughts, philosophical views and “desires”.
And again, we could list here other issues which have particular significance in today’s world. If we want to be ready to defend pure, Divine truth, to resist deceptions and false teachings, then we must continually nurture our knowledge of the Bible. We have to be ready to do what the Apostle Paul did – on the basis of the Scriptures to show that which is true and that which is not (c.f. Ac 17,2-3)
In the context of reflections on theological issues, one may sometimes encounter the argument that it is pointless dealing with certain topics as they are not relevant and do not have significance in terms of “salvation” and are purely “unnecessary theology”. Verses that could be cited in this connection include: 1 Tm 1,3.4; 4,7; 6,3-5.20; 2 Tm 2,14-16. It is evident that the Bible clearly warns us about entering into unnecessary discussions and reflections that do not bring any benefit. The problem with this, however, is that, unfortunately, people often try to throw too many issues into this “bag of unnecessary topics”. Some would like to treat a whole range of theological topics as a “war of words”, or “empty talk”. Sometimes it is too easy to label certain doctrines as “unimportant”, “without significance for salvation”, and so on.
Unfortunately, this is a very dangerous way of thinking, because although we can treat human teachings and philosophies, which do not have the Word of God underlying them, as “fairy-tales” and “empty talk”, we must not do this with any fragment of the Bible. We cannot simply say “this part of the Word of God is not important and not worth dealing with”. The Bible clearly teaches that the whole of Scripture is inspired and useful for our Christian lives (2 Tm 3,16.17).
We cannot choose for ourselves what to pay attention to and what not to. It is true to say that certain practices and rituals described in the Bible do not apply to us now (because, for example, they concern a ceremony connected with the earthly temple of the Old Testament), but that does not mean that we can forget about them, because they may constitute an important lesson that teaches us something or point to important features of God’s plan of salvation and so on (c.f. Rm 15,4). However, before we claim that certain biblical requirements no longer apply to us we first have to have sound foundations for doing so. And that requires careful research of the topic, namely theological reflection. But sometimes people try to turn this process upside-down – first someone arbitrarily claims that a given topic is not significant and then draws the conclusion that for this reason it does not need to be addressed or researched. This is a complete reversal of how things should be done and it is very dangerous. Because, sometimes, assessing what is important and what is not, what applies to us and what does not, is based on solid study of a topic in the light of the Word of God but results from our own whim, and often has its source in the traditions of the society we “grew up with”, in personal habits, a conviction formed once (or instilled by someone else), a fear of having to change one’s way of serving God, or common “laziness”. A great deal more reasons could probably be given.
Sometimes assessing the ”significance” of biblical issues is done on the basis of whether they appear in the Old or New Testament. As a consequence of all this, the situation arises whereby quite a number of issues end up in the “bag of unnecessary topics”. And so people who, in defending certain important biblical teachings, try to reflect more deeply on what are sometimes the most difficult questions and fragments of the Word of God, are accused of initiating an unnecessary “war of words” or of taking delight in “plain, empty talk”.
The ever more common phenomenon of the “expanding bag” of not-significant or not-so-significant things is another sign of the times and perfectly fits the contemporary trend of ecumenism with its slogan of “Let’s not talk about what divides us. Let’s talk about what we have in common”. However, there are relatively few things that the many so-called Christian churches have in common… Unfortunately, this is a path that leads astray and into the wilderness… This problem affects a growing number of communities, even those who were recognised earlier as quite orthodox and upholding pure, Divine truth. Let us recall once again the Apostle Paul’s fervent appeal – Tm 4,1-5!!
If we concern ourselves with the topic of reluctance towards theology, one very important reason for this state of affairs has to be mentioned. Naturally, there are many factors involved, but attention must be drawn to certain, very significant phenomena that put people off theological matters, namely so-called “dead theology” or “groundless theology”. This relates to the situation where grand words, deep theological reflections and professed teachings are not backed up by acts of belief and a devout Christian life. The fact is, unfortunately, that in some Christian communities a great deal of attention has been given over the centuries to teachings, theological research and doctrinal matters, but putting Bible teaching into daily life has been neglected. These communities have become fossilised, cold, hermetically closed enclaves for which theological and doctrinal matters have often been eclipsed by other factors such as evangelisation, openness to the needs of others, ministry, love, joy and charity, etc. People are sometimes put off theology by seeing those that were able to spend hours leading biblical discussions and deep reflection, engaging in “splitting hairs”, and seeing at times a blatant mismatch between that which a given person avows and believes in and how he or she behaves on a daily basis. Perhaps it has been noticed that sometimes people who are very “learned” in matters of biblical teaching have shown themselves to be embittered individuals, lacking in basic human warmth, empathy, goodness and sincerity. Often, predominance has been given to assessing, instructing and applying the “hard letter of the law” to people, while common goodwill, warmth and words of encouragement and support have been lacking, i.e. what the Bible calls “with great patience and careful instruction”, “gently” and with ”respect”. (c.f. 2 Tm 4,2; Ga 6,1; 1 P 3,15.16).
It is a serious matter and not a new one. Jesus Christ once accused the Pharisees of a discord between the teachings they preached and their actual lives (c.f. Mt 23,2-4). Unfortunately, all this creates a stumbling-block and puts people off theology. This shows what huge responsibility lies with those who have the role of teachers, pastors and in fact anyone who to some extent teaches the Word of God to others. If words are not backed up by deeds, the outcome of the teaching can be completely the reverse – instead of coming to love the Word of God and reflecting on it, we can effectively put them off.
Another factor which makes people very reluctant towards theology is the way some “go about it”. Regrettably, one too often comes across people leading theological discussions in ways that diverge significantly not only from high biblical standards but even basic standards of good behaviour. Arguing, spitefulness, ad hominem attacks, deriding the opponent’s views, one-upmanship and contempt for the “adversary”, “outshouting” on both sides without hearing out the other person’s arguments, and slighting and insulting the other party – unfortunately these are all too common pictures of “dialogues about God and the Bible”. This phenomenon is even more glaring on internet forums, and it is sad. It does not testify to the spiritual level of the people involved in that style of discussion, or their respect for other people, their love, patience and other aspects of “the fruits of the Spirit” … It is not surprising that people on the outside looking at such theological reflections are, to put it mildly, sick to death of theology and want to keep well away from it …
Naturally, the phenomena described above, although serious and absolutely real, do not in any way justify running away from theological issues, but unfortunately that is what often happens. It is not unusual to encounter arguments such as: “nothing good ever comes of getting involved in theology”, followed by the various negative examples that we mentioned earlier. But this is the wrong way to look at things.
It is not the fault of theology itself that some people skew its meaning and neglect proper development in other areas of Christian life. It is not the fault of reflections on the Word of God or research on biblical topics that some people make big mistakes in their behaviour. It is always the fault of people, their neglect and misrepresentations. One cannot throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and reject theological reflection just because some people who have engaged in it simply lost their way.
In concluding this reflection, let us stress once again that getting to know the Word of God and deepening our knowledge of it should be an essential part of our Christian lives. It requires commitment and adequate amounts of time and effort. We cannot always understand everything easily, quickly and enjoyably. Some of the truths contained in God’s Word are not the easiest, which is why commitment is needed and ongoing development of our knowledge of the Bible (c.f. 2 P 3,15.16). Let us remember that if a person like Timothy, who was so experienced in the study of the Lord, constantly needed to “pay attention to learning and reading”, so all the more do we. Otherwise we can become a target for falsehood and deception as we will not be able to differentiate between what is God’s will and what is the invention of human teaching, which in turn leads us spiritually astray and exposes us to the risk of neglect and misrepresentation in matters of doing God’s will. Let us remember that serving God must be done according to His will and His Truth, which is why we must know that Truth well.
Let us also not forget that ”theology” on its own is of little value if it does not go hand-in-hand with other aspects of Christian life. If the Word of God does not change our attitude and behaviour, simply studying the Bible will be of little use. Concentrating on theory while at the same time neglecting other important things can lead to our faith being regarded as “dead”, which should never be allowed to happen. Christian life comprises many aspects, every one of which is vital and should not be lacking. Theology is one of them. Let us not neglect it or let ourselves be persuaded that it is something bad, unnecessary or leading to nothing good. But at the same time, let us not “idolise” it or treat it as a ”filler and substitute” for other aspects of our devotion.