Last week I returned from a three day retreat with fellow interns at CAP to find that the Christian corner of the internet was ablaze with the roaring bushfire of debate. Needless to say, I was rubbing my hands together with no small amount of glee. Some people hate it when Christians argue; I take a differing view: what is the measure of man but (in part) his ability to hold or appreciate an intelligent discussion or debate? All Christians do not hold the same views - what's the point in pretending otherwise? Arguments in Christian circles are a golden opportunity to show grace and love in an arena known for mis-representation and, in the case of the internet, putrid bile. It doesn't always happen, and I know I struggle in this area, but that is our ideal to strive towards.
The cause of the great internet debate was the Strange Fire conference held by John MacArthur's church in the US. To understand why it promoted such an outpouring of internet blog posts and discussion it is sufficient to quote from the description on the Strange Fire website (apologies for American spellings):
"The sons of Aaron…offered strange fire before the LORD…and fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them.
Never are Christians more guilty of doublethink than when it comes to the issue of the Ten Commandments. In fact, the place of God's law in the life of a Christian is a source of much debate, confusion and error. Yesterday Mr. Driscoll posted a blog post on this very topic and it certainly provides food for thought. In many respects it is a perfect example of reformed charismatic teaching: a strong root of reformed thinking which is then corrupted to something less.
Case in point: Driscoll refers to the Westminster Confession of Faith on understanding the law of God and proceeds with an excellent very short summary of reformed thinking. For the purposes of a fuller explanation I'm going to write my own longer summary.
Old Testament law is spilt into three types: ceremonial, civil and moral. The ceremonial law refers to all the laws about the sacrificial system: the priesthood, the laws of being clean, the tabernacle, and so on. The book of Hebrews is all about how these laws are fulfilled in Jesus, he is the sacrifice that all the animal sacrifices pointed to. He lived the pure life all the laws on cleanliness pointed to. The Old Testament system wasn't good enough to save; only Jesus could bring salvation.
This is a book about theological nuance. For some that might be immediately off putting; others may think that the authors have wasted their time in pursuit of an overly rigorous theological standard; some will no doubt cast doubt on the authors' intentions implying that Keller haters are going to hate and yet a few others will be greatly vexed that Mr Keller is the subject of such, any, debate. Me, I really enjoyed it! And I hope to demonstrate why if you fall into any of the above categories this book is still well worth a read.
Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical is written by half a dozen British Presbyterian ministers criticising Mr Keller's expression of his views on sin, Hell, the Trinity, social justice, hermeneutic, creation and Presbyterianism. As the authors are careful to point out they are not doubting Mr Keller's intentions or his profession to hold to reformed orthodoxy. As they consistently maintain: Mr Keller is a godly man seeking the glory of Christ. What they are calling into question is whether Mr Keller achieves his goal of teaching orthodox truth to post modern society without compromising on the message.
As should be fairly clear, the authors disagree with Mr Keller on the issues mentioned. Yet what is good about the book is that they do not allow their disagreement to become personal. They confine themselves to discussing the theological problems rather than straying into any form of personal attack. It is a mature, sensible, adult conversation they are having - would all such discussion be conducted so! Engaging with Keller typifies the irenic spirit so easily lost in theological debate and a graciousness that befits godly men. I found it a needed challenge to my own writing style to match the authors' graciousness.
There are a lot of things that can vex me about the modern day church but high on the list in particular is the anti-intellectualism of many Christians today. There was a time when theology was looked upon as the queen of all sciences but all too often the trend today is to sweep theological matters under the carpet. Perhaps, as Christianity comes under increasing attack from secular thinking, the easy path becomes to retreat away from theology and take refuge in "just being about Jesus."
It comes out in many ways. The unwillingness of many Christians simply to put the effort in and form an opinion on any number of theological topics - anything from women in church leadership to worship to biblical evangelism. Or in the fact that many are unaware that there is, indeed, a biblical (and non-biblical) approach to evangelism. Or in holding to scientific views with deep theological consequences that remain cast aside - for example, embracing the evolution of man causes serious problems to holding a consistent view on the historicity of Adam, the integrity of the Genesis narrative and all resulting negative consequences.
This has all been on my mind because I've been reading Engaging with Keller - a critique by half a dozen British pastors of Tim Keller's theology. Expect a review soon but two things have struck in particular. The first is that the book is very gracious towards Mr Keller, it debates theology as Christians should debate theology - with grace and love. The second is that the book illustrates the vital importance of theology.
‘You can be a good Christian without theology’ is a statement I’ve heard many a time in some form or other. Generally implied within the statement is that theology is not necessary to live a solid Christian life. Further implied within the statement is a disapproval of people who do view theology as being very important.
That would be me.
It is also a commonly held view that there is no need to be pedantic about theology, that even attempting to correct another person’s theology is wrong (naturally, there are good ways to do this and bad ways, I am, sadly, an expert at the latter rather than the former) and that a serious study of doctrine (principles of Christianity) can even hinder Christian living!
The root cause of these ideas is twofold. First is the seeming divide between theology and ‘real practical theology’. There is some element of truth, having a sound grasp of theology does not always lead to a more fruitful and holy life. I know from my own personal experience how hard it is to put theology into practise and move from a purely intellectual understanding to a deeper spiritual one. It is also true that it is easy to become proud of one’s own theology and look down on others for their ‘inferior’ kind. Like I said earlier corrected wrong theology is good but it can be done in a bad way.
The second reason is to do with the influence of contemporary Western culture which is all to do with subjectivity and ‘if it feels right it is right’ type thinking. Truth statements are viewed with suspicion and everyone is allowed their own truth as we all hold hands and dance around mushrooms.