On Why Theology is Important: A Response to the grass-roots, "Let's just love Jesus" Polemic

Recently, I’ve been seeing an increasing amount of slogan posts decrying the stuffiness of theology and suggesting that we should return to “just loving people and Jesus”. While I appreciate what these posts are warning against (namely, theology as a baton of arrogance or condescension), I cannot agree with the simple conclusion that we should love people over against practicing theology.
One such post has a list of “Things Jesus Didn’t Say”. Some of the phrases listed there are:
“By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have correct theology.”
“And you will know the truth and the truth will make you superior to all the other simpletons who never learned Greek or Hebrew.”
The purpose of this list is to remind Christians of what is genuinely essential to the Christian faith, and to implicitly decry the state of the modern mega-church with all of its focus on buildings, programs, and other “religious” distractions. A lot of young adult-ish believers are sharing this post (and thus endorsing it) in an effort to express their desire for an authentic Christianity, but I wonder what kind of benefit this sort of satirical polemic really provides us.
A list like this places theology and practice at odds. It mocks the modernistic tendency to quantify and classify God, and it exposes the inherent arrogance that such quantifications can fuel. Basically, this list is saying that because theology is so divisive and cumbersome, we should just focus on loving one another. We should focus on accepting one another without all of the qualifications and hoops that we hold over people. Warning heeded. But let me offer a counterpoint. We ought not jettison theology just because some are doing it arrogantly (is that arrogant of me to say?). Rather, we should re-engage theology with the same kind of humility that it takes to love people. Let me offer five reasons why theology is important to loving people rightly.
1. Orthodoxy (“right thinking”) leads to orthopraxy (“right action”). To love anyone at all is an inherently theological act. It is motivated by what we believe about the worth of people (is it based on the image of God or functional worth?), about the heart of God, and about what love truly is. All of these are informed by right thinking about God, His word, His heart, and his creation. Love is, in and of itself, theological.
2. Discipleship is actually defined by right thinking about God. Jonathan Edwards wrote that the way to affect the actions of a person is first of all to affect the mind. If the mind can see value, it will incline the heart and will to move towards that object. Discipleship is about seeing the worth of Christ, valuing it, and pursuing him with all that we are. The more we value him, the more we will follow him. Thus, we need to know him better. We need to look closely at the contours of his glory and not just settle vague generalizations. It’s the difference between seeing a masterpiece painting from distance and going up-close to see the brushstrokes and the painstaking detail involved. You can definitely enjoy a painting from a distance, but when you begin to see what goes into it, it takes on a whole new level of value.
3. Love the Lord your God with your mind. Too often, we reduce life in Christ to an emotional feeling or a charitable act. While both of these have value in the Christian life, they must be held together by the life of the mind. Too often what I feel about God is in contradiction to what I know about God. That’s when I have to actually preach to myself. I have to take what I know to be true about God (theology) and rehearse it, work over it, and rephrase it such that it begins to affect my actions and my emotions.
4. While theology can sometimes be dividing, it can be uniting as well. I believe that unity in the church is one of the most powerful witnesses to God’s new creational, new humanity-creating work through the cross. However, it is not just unity for unity’s sake. It is unity around the good news that Jesus has defeated death by taking the brunt of sin’s just punishment. It is a unity that is forged as we, from varying backgrounds and ethnicities, belong to each other. It is a unity that says everyone needs grace, and it comes through Jesus alone. This is the stuff of theology. Throw out theology and you get a unity that is really nothing more than corporate activism. So sometimes, disunity is actually a necessary thing. If we can’t agree on the majors, then our fundamental premise is off. This doesn’t give us the right to be jerks or arrogant, nor does it necessarily mean we can’t work with someone. However, we shouldn’t just throw out theology in the name of unity. Too much is at stake.
5. Everyone practices theology. The entire list of 15 things is actually a theological treatise though informal in its presentation. The author of this list is saying that the kingdom of God is in our midst, that new creation means the earth will be made new, not destroyed. He suggests a theology for church practice, for evangelism. He is in essence saying, “this is THE theology that really matters. All of your lesser, petty disagreements should be put aside and everyone should just embrace this.” Isn’t this the same sort of condescending polemic that the author sets out to expose and renounce?
Just to be clear – I am not in disagreement with the author’s premise or his statements. I am just concerned that when we launch a polemic like this, we can inadvertently push the pendulum to the other side. Like Martin Luther said, we can be “like a drunk who gets up on one side of the horse only to fall off on the other.”
So let’s not throw out theology (actually, I don’t think it’s possible to “throw out” theology. We can only so ignore the importance of theology that we unknowingly do “bad” theology), but rather seek to do humble theology such that a gracious and humble orthodoxy leads to radical and sacrificial orthopraxy.
(A great little primer/reminder about the challenge of doing theology well is “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians,” by Helmut Thielicke.)

4 thoughts on “On Why Theology is Important: A Response to the grass-roots, "Let's just love Jesus" Polemic”

  1. Jesus seems to give a strong endorsement to theology in Mathew 23:3. He advises his followers to do what the Pharisees say (preach, teach, theologize). But don’t act like them (pompous, arrogant, showy). Because why? Because the Pharisees did not act on their theology.
    Sorry Revm, gotta say, orthopraxy. Ouch. Sounds painful. Clinical. So, thank you. I will use it often in conversation.
    “What do you do?”
    “Radical and sacrificial orthopraxy.”
    “Oh, I, uh, well … gotta go, see ya!”

  2. In my humble opinion, I believe people, especially young people, react negitively to the behavioral constrictions we older folks ascribe to them. That’s why it so important, in the sermons you preach, to remind us to be loving, kind, generous, even tempered. We need to be reminded that we too sinned and failed and did and said and thought things we should not have. And then once we have confessed our short comings perhaps have earned the right to be heard sharing why we belueve what we believe. In conclusion. I love theology, but most of us get most of it wrong most of the time. But God is faithful to us even when we do.

  3. I think that revmlee makes many good solid points in his post above.
    I have not read the original ‘polemic’ and I do believe that knowledge about God (theology) is absolutely vital, but regarding the pursuit of an exhaustive (all encompassing) theology and where this pursuit has taken us (as the global Body of Jesus),… my mind and heart certainly resonates with the apparent assertion of this ‘polemic’… that we as followers of Jesus should focus a bit more on “Just loving people and Jesus.”
    Even if we should “Just love people and Jesus,” still remains the issue of defining ‘love’ and ‘who and how we should love?’… For example: to love others should we adopt a pluralistic-affirmation-of-all-religions complete-tolerance stance (that ‘seems’ loving)? …and accept whatever knowledge others have about God? Probably not! Again, Biblical knowledge about God seems critical to determine “How we should love others and Jesus/God.” A reasonable (and perhaps the only) approach would minimally include how to follow in “the Way, the Life, the Character, the Essence, the Name” of Jesus as revealed in Scripture (the Bible). We must lift our gaze to Jesus’ example and repent of (change) our ways and follow His/God’s Way.
    I would not define theology as “thinking about God.” Yes, everyone does this and this is good, but what foundation anchors and motivates these thoughts? Some atheists seem to spend a very great deal of time thinking about ‘God’… but they seem to be thinking about and rejecting their own god that fits their own terms and ideas — is this theology? Maybe? I suspect the ‘polemic’s’ definition of ‘stuffy’ theology likely referring to more of a systematic style theology: as a theology ‘beyond’ discovering the broad major themes of God’s revelation — themes which are consistent and redundant across temporally and circumstantially diverse encounters, yet unified in message. A ‘stuffy’ theology instead likely refers to an expansive brittle theology driven by OUR questions to distill detailed ‘logical’ inferences formulated primarily from the surgical extraction of favorable fragments of Scripture stitched together and interpreted insensitive-to-context to potentially shape a worldview to one’s own liking or inclination. These theological results seem to include overreaching assertions perhaps well beyond the core truth revealed in Scripture. Empirical evidence for this overreach (within this systematic theological process) includes the build-up of divisive doctrines that potentially clog up the Body of Christ.
    Theology is disciplined study to gain knowledge about God. This is not the same as knowing God. Theology is necessary, but theology is not sufficient to know God (and to ‘Love Others and Jesus’). True valid doctrine leads us to “love God and others” more. False doctrine can potentially create division among the followers of Jesus.
    Theology is akin to absolutely necessary medicine (or food) that must be taken (eaten) as our natural sick human condition is far from approaching the wellness as student imitators/followers/disciples of Jesus. With no medicine, we remain sick and undisciplined. With the proper dosage (of medicine), we should respond towards health. Likewise, Scriptural study to learn about God (theology) can prompt us to follow Jesus and confidently share the Gospel. But, too much medicine/food/theology may bring adverse complications and death.
    Granted the analogy above is far from perfect, but IMHO there exist a balance between orthodoxy (right knowing) and orthopraxy (right doing).
    I dont’ mean to imply that theology tastes bad… for some theology tastes great!!! I love theology… and I love studying all kinds of views about Jesus/God. Others may not have the same taste for it. But I realize that the gluttonous pursuit of theology only (knowledge about God and not knowledge of God) can potentially isolate me from others.
    At some risk of offending some to make a point…
    Systematic Theology is the approach of asking a question… such as “Who is God?” and then searching all of Scripture to find all relevant Scripture and then to distill and synthesize these passages into the ‘best’ answer to our question.
    Within systematic theology… one could ask Scripture (the Bible) “what is the revealed doctrine on matter X,” but we need to be mindful as to how much information Scripture provides for the subject of interest. For example: What does the scripture say about “marriage,” “immigration,” or “heathcare?” or (taken beyond ‘reason’), “What does Scripture say to guide decisions regarding the purchase of an “iOS” or “Android” based Smartphones?
    One could search Scripture for relevant verses and make a strong case for which Smartphone is the “Christian” choice?” One could argue that God told humans to “not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17,3:2,3:6)… and this fruit is often depicted as an apple and further computing devices are about knowledge and information, regardless of whether that information is good or bad. So clearly according to Scripture, Christians should not purchase or use iPhones, iPads, etc.or other Apple Computer Inc. products. Further, an android is a ‘robot’, and a the word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word meaning ‘slave.’ And Paul (and others) says that he (and we) are slaves of Christ (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 7:22, 2 Cor 4:5, Gal 1:10, Eph 6:6, Phil 1:1, Col 4:7, Titus 1:1, James 1:1, Jude 1:1 and others). Therefore, we should clearly as Christians purchase Samsung Galaxies and/or other Android-based Smartphones.
    However, others would say that Jesus said “that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15:8) and similarly stated that to be a follower of Jesus one must bear fruit (Matt 7:19, Mat 12:33, John 15:16 and others). And so we should be carrying Apple products such as iPhones, etc. Further Android OS versions (the operating System versions) are named after sweets… Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean, etc.and as indulging on such sweets could lead to the deadly sin of gluttony… therefore, Christians would be wise to avoid all Android based Smartphones. As while Smartphone are not literally food… the connection to self indulgence and a absorbtion into self is promoted by Android based systems (with their self-facing cameras, etc.). Also, Google (who developed Android) is about searching and an almost infinite number of results to choose from among, and in contrast Christianity is is about the one Gospel and finding Jesus.
    These ‘incorrect’ ‘theological’ arguments (that are not really about God, which is part of the problem) could lead to divisions within the Body of Christ and split the followers of Jesus into the pro-Apple and pro-Google denominations. Each denomination with strong arguments and strong opinions about the correctness of their own viewpoint as revealed in inerrant Scripture.
    Jesus gathers and Satan scatters…. but of course Jesus gathers his followers who “love God and others.” Hopefully, our theology whatever it may be promotes the same.

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