I think we’ve settled into a rhythm with our trek through God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology. I’ll probably have to reduce the quotes that I share to keep these posts reasonable, especially since the next section is on the Trinity. For these two chapters, here are my take-aways.
The Practice of Theology
The primary purpose of theology is to teach us what should be common to the faith of every believer. The love of God reaches out to each of us individually, and no one person’s experience will be exactly the same as another’s. But we all have a great deal in common because we know and love the same God. Theology does not focus on us and our feelings but on God and the way he has revealed himself to us.
In this sense, the theologian performs a task like that of a medical doctor. People go to the doctor with their pain, and the doctor is expected to diagnose its cause and treat it. This requires a specialist’s knowledge that often outstrips the patient’s understanding, but without it a remedy is unlikely. Folk medicine may accidentally lead to a cure, but it may just as easily kill the patient or make his condition worse. Of course doctors are not infallible, and some things are just as mysterious to them as to anyone else, but at least they have an analytical framework within which they can locate particular problems and hopefully avoid erroneous prescriptions. Similarly, a professional theologian is there to guide believers into understanding their experience in the right way and to warn them against false trails that will lead them astray.
Theology is therefore a call to intellectual humility. It leaves us with paradoxes that cannot be fully resolved and questions to which there is no clear answer. If we can acknowledge this and come to terms with our own limitations, then all will be well. But if we try to go beyond what we are entitled to know, we shall be rebuffed and may have to face the unpleasant consequences of our overweening pride.
The fundamental difficulty with philosophical approaches to God is that they are based on theories developed in order to make sense of the world. In that context, philosophy is a valid discipline. We have been given minds to examine the created order over which God has placed us, and we have a duty to figure out how it operates—so that we can exercise our dominion in a responsible and constructive manner. It is reasonable for us to suppose that the logic we perceive in creation reflects the mind of the Creator, who must have a reason for ordering the material universe in the way that he has done. But to extrapolate from this to the idea that by studying creation we can know the being and mind of God is to go too far.
The task of a Christian philosopher is to show how his discipline can and must be understood within the parameters laid down by theology, and to show that philosophical attempts to dispense with the need for a divine self-revelation are doomed to failure. His duty is to defend what God has told us about himself by showing how it coheres with material reality, not to build a theory out of that reality which then purports to be a justification of the existence and activity of God.
One of the most important theological concepts for the life of the wider church is that of economy, which allows for flexibility in the way we apply fundamental principles to differing circumstances. To this must be added the subsidiary principle of the so-called adiaphora, or things indifferent. The adiaphora are those matters on which a local church is free to make its own arrangements and insist on them as part of its internal discipline, without claiming that they have a divine sanction so specific that no other pattern is possible. Both economy and the adiaphora make us highlight those things that are essential and encourage us to concentrate on them rather than on secondary matters.
Theology and Faith
The work of convicting hearts and minds is done by the Holy Spirit, without whom our efforts can only be pointless and unfruitful. We preach Jesus Christ, not because we believe that we are superior to others but because we want them to benefit from the same spiritual blessing that we have found in him—and only in him. The love of God is not a vague, well-meaning or wishy-washy experience that we can share or not as we choose, but a life-changing message that we must proclaim out of our love for him and out of his love for the world he has made.
In human life we often see people falling in love with each other, but it is by no means always clear why they do so. At the same time, there are people who look for love and fail to find it, and that is another mystery. How is it possible for me to love someone and not be loved back? Why is it that some people’s good will, dedication, and willingness to make sacrifices end up producing nothing in return, while other people mistreat those close to them in the most flagrant and abominable ways, but retain the love of those whom they abuse? We do not know the answers to these questions, even though we observe such things going on around us all the time. But if we cannot explain what we experience at the human level, which we understand and to some extent think we can control, how can we expect to fathom the love of God for his people? Why do we disobey him when he has sacrificed everything for us? Why does he continue to love us, even when we do everything in our power to hurt and deny him? We cannot explain this, but every Christian knows from experience that it is so, and we are grateful to God that in his love he will never abandon us, no matter how far we stray from him.
Good theology cannot make people behave like children of God, but unless they have good theology, God’s children will not know how they are supposed to act and are much less likely to conform to his will. Letting a child do whatever he wants is not a sign of love, but the very opposite. Children need to be disciplined, since otherwise they will never become the adults they are meant to be. Similarly, God’s children also need to be taught how to think and behave, or else they too will never come to the maturity they are meant to have in spiritual things.
Today, when we read the writings of the great Reformers and Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we are often shocked by their readiness to attack their opponents in the most scurrilous terms, a readiness which (it must be acknowledged) was fully reciprocated by those on the other side. Of course, it was an age of theological controversy and also one of literary hyperbole, and some allowance has to be made for that. The odium theologicum (“theologically motivated hatred”) so painfully obvious in some of their writings was not invented by them, nor did it fade out with their passing. The sad truth is that some of the greatest men of the church have been among the worst offenders, and even today it is by no means uncommon to hear Christians speak uncharitably about those with whom they disagree. In the final analysis, however, there is no excuse for the behavior of earlier generations in this respect, and it cannot be used as an excuse for us to follow in their footsteps.
Those who embark on theological study must be warned that they are treading on holy ground, and that they are marked men in the eyes of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Those who will be found worthy of the task that lies before them are those whose hearts are nourished by love and whose minds are enriched by faith and faithfulness to God and his word. The language of theology is the language of love, because it is in love that God sent his Son to save us. It is in that spirit that we are called to go forward, and in that spirit alone that we shall one day stand in his presence, when all things will be revealed and we shall know even as we have been fully known.