Avoiding Sin in Theology

This post emerged from a question posed to a prior entry (“Thoughts on Theology”)…
Question: What precautions could you take in the seminary environment to prevent sin through theology? (because that is a place where you run a high risk of placing the theologian over the scripture)

I think the first and most important thing is to study the Scriptures relentlessly and know them much better than you know any other book that you read. If you know the Old Testament well, how the New Testament authors quote and comment on it, and what more they have to say about Christ and the Christian life, then you will be much better equipped to see bad teaching and heresy for what it is, and you will also be able to bring a ready defense of solid Scriptural support for your conviction and understanding of what God is communicating to us through his written Word.

A very close second to knowing the Bible well is not reading the Bible through a theological grid, but reading the Bible for what it is actually saying about God. The books of the Bible were not composed in a vacuum, so we must study their historical and canonical context. They also were not composed by a theologian trying to build a system. Rather they were composed by a God who was intent on revealing his character, his attributes, his actions through history, and his Son who was the focal point of all creation. So we shouldn’t read the Bible looking for verses that support a certain theological conviction, getting all excited when we find a neat proof-text. The Bible is not meant to be stood over and told what it says – rather it is to be read in such a way as to bring the reader to a closer relationship with God. God is not a doctrine to be studied, but rather a ‘person’ (divine being with personal attributes) to be worshiped. Theologians have done us a great service in aligning the text to assert certain theological positions. However, while the ideas and concepts that they have picked up on may indeed be in the text, it is best to approach the Bible without using them as an interpretive lens. We have the Holy Spirit in us to testify to the meaning of the text and I think we are much better off listening to him first and foremost. That having been said, I do believe that theologians are immensely helpful in bringing up points and showing us things that we have either ignored or interpreted differently in the text – thus challenging our position and sharpening us in our convictions.

Another significant point is that in order to keep Scripture supreme we should always always always know the Scripture behind a certain theologian’s convictions. So you have your five solas (fide, gratia, Scriptura, Christus, Deo Gloria)… great. But where are they found in the Bible? For my fellow Reformed theologians, you have your TULIP… excellent. Quote the Scriptures as they make sense to you and have a working knowledge of the full counsel of God that feeds into these theological constructs and convictions. Do not forsake Scriptural knowledge for the convenience and sanctification-shrinking ease of quoting a theologian. To give an utterly practical example, when a non-Christian brings an pagan heresy against the Bible or has a legitimate question, will you quote the Scriptures back to them, or will you first turn to a theologian or philosopher to do your dirty work for you? To give an utterly biblical example, this is what was happening in Corinth when Paul rebuked the church for starting quarrels about what the apostles and early church fathers were teaching:

“… each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” – 1 Corinthians 1:12-13

In other words, are not all Christians baptized in the name of the Triune God? We are Christ-followers, not Calvinists. We are Jesus’ disciples, not Piper-ites (… Piperians? Piperinis?). Mark Driscoll is not the fourth member of the Trinity. What it boils down to is first knowing the Bible well and having a working personal knowledge of what God has written to us. Once that has been accomplished, then begin sorting out your deduced theological convictions and finding out who is like-minded, who disagrees and why (for each camp).

And finally (thank you, by the way, for reading this far), we must also be relentless to tie theology to life.

We seminarians have an uncanny knack for engaging in great theological conversations but leaving them at the coffee table next to our ESV Study Bible and our Moody Handbook of Theology (both of which I recommend, by the way), never to make it into the real world for real effect. So you can carry on an extended debate over supra- infra- and sub-lapsarianism. Excellent. So you can articulate your eschatology clearly, succinctly, and with Scriptural coherence. Incredible. But how do those things help you mortify sin, vivify affections for Christ, and make disciples of Jesus out of non-believers? I think in an academic environment like seminary we must be doggedly determined to always ask the question: “What does this have to do with how I live, and what am I going to do about it?”

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3 comments

  • I think you have a lot of valid points here. It is a natural tendency, in the academic setting, to pick our personal theologians and cling to their systematic ideologies and view scripture through their lens. However, we must be careful not to commit the grave sin of personalized bibliolatry. I like your statement that we should not read the Bible through a theological grid, but rather to read what it is actually saying about God. But can we really ever arrive at the place where we can difinitevely know what the Bible is saying about God? We all bring a presuppositional lens to the text; cultural, theological, personal…and that lens is going to govern our perspective. When someone presents an opinion, rather than assuming that it is a "pagan heresy" that we should quote scripture against, we should instead grind our personal lens of scripture against theirs to attempt to reveal a more clarified view of God. Ask where they get their beliefs from, dialogue about their interpretation of scripture…if it is blatantly wrong, provide helpful correctives. In this way we can search to know God better through scripture. Following the sola's are valuable…but mandating sola scriptura above sola deus en Christus makes an idol out of our personal interpretation of scripture. Which I think we all would agree is sin.

  • Thanks Reuben, I appreciate your comments and I'd like to address a couple of points that you made.- You said: "I like your statement that we should not read the Bible through a theological grid, but rather to read what it is actually saying about God. But can we really ever arrive at the place where we can definitively know what the Bible is saying about God? "I absolutely think so. Yes, language is different and there is a great deal of contextual differences between our time period and that in which Scripture was composed. That does not change the fact that God has spoken and revealed himself in such a way that we are able to know who he is (at the very least we are without excuse as Romans 1:19-20 says). It’s not as though he has left us alone and we are left wondering what happened. Rather, we have an inspired, inerrant, written record that has withstood the test of time and has been passed down from reliable witnesses. While it is true that there is some ambiguity in certain parts of Scripture (and we shouldn’t be dogmatic where Scripture is unclear), I do believe that the testimony of Scripture is very clear as to who God is, what he has done, and what we are to do in light of those things. – You also said: "We all bring a presuppositional lens to the text; cultural, theological, personal…and that lens is going to govern our perspective. When someone presents an opinion, rather than assuming that it is a "pagan heresy" that we should quote scripture against, we should instead grind our personal lens of scripture against theirs to attempt to reveal a more clarified view of God. Ask where they get their beliefs from, dialogue about their interpretation of scripture…if it is blatantly wrong, provide helpful correctives. "I agree – we have got to examine our own presuppositions and make sure they are governed by Scripture, and we should definitely have a good dialogue with anybody who cares to engage us (either in debate or in friendly encouragement) and always pepper the conversation with Scripture so as to let the Word of God speak rather than our own opinions or those of other men.- You said: "Following the sola's are valuable…but mandating sola scriptura above sola deus en Christus makes an idol out of our personal interpretation of scripture. Which I think we all would agree is sin. "I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t necessarily see it as an either/or – that we either hold Scripture or Christ as primary. I see it more as a both/and – that Scripture has authority because it is God-breathed and because it reveals Christ (2 Timothy 3:16; John 5:39-40, 20:31) and that Christ is to be upheld because Scripture testifies to him and because he is the fulfillment of Scripture (2 Corinthians 1:20, Luke 24:27). What other reliable and orthodox interpretation of Scripture is there than a Christocentric one? And what other faithful and true testimony of Christ do we have apart from Scripture?

  • I agree with you that we should hold a very high view of scripture, and that the Bible is the greatest understanding of God that we have. The meta-narrative of the Bible conveys what God wants known about God's self. I would only say that we should warn ourselves (read: I should warn myself) about the presuppositions we bring to the text. My life as a middle class, hispanic, married, male in Texas brings a perspective to the text that is rather different from a single Nigerian mother living in Sub-Saharn Africa. The same God conveys the same basic message but in phenomenally different ways. Our desire should be to promote the greatest understanding of God to both her and I, not the greatest understanding of the Bible. I understand that some would view God and the Bible as co-equal…but I don't think that anything should be equated and elevated to the level of God, lest we be polytheistic.

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