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Can Theology be an Idol?

One of my favorite classes in seminary was Christology. It was the systematic biblical study of the person of Jesus Christ (that’s a mouthful!). By collecting and summarizing passages of the Bible, we learned about the identity and nature of Christ. It helped me understand my Lord on a deeper level, and it certainly made me want to get to know him more.

As much as I valued the class, this information about Christ could go bad quickly. We young seminarians were tempted to think we could learn everything about him -- at least everything important. We thought we could put him in our human made categories, examine him under the microscope, and pull him from the shelf when needed.

We had the hubris to think we had Jesus figured out.

Theology is the finite study of an infinite God. It’s a worthwhile pursuit, but its very nature is that it’s incomplete and wanting.

God cannot be contained.

Although theology helps us organize our shared biblical principles, the core of Christianity is about loving God and people, not simply getting theology right.

Learning information is not knowing

A dangerous mistake Christians and many leaders make is that we imagine we could know Jesus through studying about Jesus.

Similarly, we mistakenly believe spiritual maturity is measured by our knowledge of theology or of the Bible.

Theology misused can even move into a space that only God should occupy. We can forget that God is not a paradigm, philosophy, or idea, but a person with whom we have a relationship.

Again, biblical information or theology can lead us to knowing God, but often theology masquerades as maturity. When we find comfort in theology rather than the person of Christ, it is serving as an idol.

Paul warned the Corinthian church that their focus on knowledge was leading them away from God, not toward Him:

“Now regarding your question about food that has been offered to idols. Yes, we know that ‘we all have knowledge’ about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).

Sadly, we are often led by pastors and ministers who are experts in theology, but whose prayer life is stunted. They understand doctrine, but struggle to articulate or model how to love others. They have Bible information, but their love for God and people have cooled. We’re all guilty of this on some level. These are the people we hire and choose to lead our churches. Love, relationship, and connection with Jesus is devalued. Knowledge, expertise, and “know-how” is prized.

“Right Theology” has replaced Relationship and Mystery

When I was a child, my mother would take us on errands. We would pile into the ‘74 Ford Country Squire station wagon. Yes, it had the fake wood side panels. I can still feel the vinyl sticking to the back of my thighs holding me in place. The seatbelts had long slipped below the seats, unused for years.

“Where are we going?” I would ask.

We rarely got any more than the answer, “You’ll see.” Perhaps she would say, “Errands.”

That was enough for me. I trusted my mother. I figured she knew, so I felt safe.

We Christians want to contain the Christian life and our relationship with God; we want to categorize and understand it, rather than trust the driver of the relationship, God.

Frankly, we want to be in control. But control is God’s part in the relationship.

He is the one that is driving.

He is the one that takes us where he wants us to go.

He is God.

In the gospels, many turn to follow Jesus, but do not have full understanding just who he is. They know enough, though. At least Jesus thought they knew enough. I think of the woman at the well in John 4 and the demon possessed man in Mark 5. Both have a conversion experience with Jesus, but do not remotely understand completely who Jesus is. Both are then qualified to give testimony about Jesus, and as a result, many turned to Jesus. The healed demoniac ASKS to follow Jesus, but Jesus says no:

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. (Mark 5:20).

Jesus seems satisfied with letting the disciples and the Church learn of his nature gradually, even after his resurrection. It wasn’t until the 5th century, for example, that the western church agreed on the nature of Jesus Christ, the hypostatic union, or the idea that Jesus is completely human and completely God in one person. That’s pretty basic to Christianity, but I’m convinced that those who didn’t get Jesus’s nature just right weren’t believing in “another Jesus.”

So, should we study or even read the Bible, then?

YES! The study of God’s word helps guide us to him. The Bible is the word of God given to us by God through human authors in the context of their cultures and experiences. It teaches us concepts about God, and God’s interaction with human kind, most specifically and importantly the person of Jesus Christ.

But it’s a means to an end -- to know Christ.

How do we connect with God?

What is most amazing is that we can connect with God in a personal way through prayer. As I pray to the Jesus I studied, I am left in awe of how much I don’t know about him. And as much as I loved that class, and as important as it was, I don’t need it to pray or know Jesus. The study enriched my walk with Christ, but it wasn’t necessary to it. What IS necessary for my Christian life is to talk to him frequently.

Where do I start?

Invite Jesus into your day -- in every moment, relationship, and interaction. In this way, you are acknowledging his presence and power over your life. You’ll be surprised how you’ll become more cognizant of his presence throughout your day.

Pray “word” or “sentence prayers” to God throughout the day, particularly giving thanks for small things. People in your life, situations, small and big blessings. Sometimes I’ll hear a song or finish a task and simply whisper, “thank you, Lord.”

Pray for help in situations. Again, this isn’t necessarily a long prayer. Often, it’s one word -- “Help.”

Look for ways God is working in your life. This usually shows up in opportunities to love people -- usually people that might be difficult to love. “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” 1 John 4:12.

When you find a truth in scripture, talk to God about it.

Today, enjoy your journey with God. Learn about him, let him in, and enjoy the mystery, knowing you’ll never know EVERYTHING about him.

But you’ll know enough.

Photo credit - Gerd Altmann

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1 Comment

Donna R Holland
Donna R Holland
Sep 14, 2021

Jon, I loved your “errands with Mom” analogy. The thoughts you share here lovingly invite all to share in the joy of seeking and trusting God and living with him in our daily lives.

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