Is Debating the Finer Points of Theology Important?

June 14, 2011

“If we cannot hope to understand these details why is it important?”

“Does anyone really believe Calvin and Lewis are now in Heaven debating the finer points of the atonement?”

These are some of the questions of recent that I have come across as a pastor both within my church and without. I have faced some heavy criticism of being a very heavily “theological” pastor. Whether it be preaching the Word or interacting with people or teaching a theology class in our PM services, I have felt that a thorough and sound teaching of the foundational theological truths is incredibly important for the life of the Christian and the church. Unfortunately, this has met with some resistance. When we have been discussing the finer points of thinking on human responsibility and God’s sovereignty in salvation I have heard the comments that this is really unimportant. We need simply to preach the Word. All of this fine theological discussion does not actually help us to grow in the faith.

Yet, does not our love for God grow through our profound knowledge of God? And as our love for Him grows does not our service to Him grow in proportion?

I had the same discussion with someone on Facebook about the differences between John Calvin and C. S. Lewis and that neither are debating issues of “Calvinism and Arminianism” in heaven. I was astounded at this. Will, when we reach heaven, know infinitely all there is to know about God and His plans? Or will we continue to plumb the depths of the wisdom and glory of God for all eternity since He is infinite and we will always be finite? No, Calvin and Lewis are seeking to still understand the wisdom of God in all these things. They’re just not doing it as acrimoniously as we do today.

I wondered if this was simply new to our age. We live in an age or feeling and emotion and care not for the finer details of theology. But as I was reading Justification Vindicated by the Scottish Covenanter, Robert Traill (1642-1716) written when it was a time when theological precious and acumen was greatly prized, I realized the same issue has existed forever. He writes,

A light, frothy, trifling temper prevails generally; doctrines of the greatest weight are talked of and treated about with a vain, unconcerned frame of spirit, as if men contended rather about opinions and schoolpoints than about  the oracles of God and matters of faith. But if men’s hearts were seen by themselves, if sin were felt, if men’s consciences were enlivened, if God’s holy law were known in its exactness and severity, and the glory and majesty of the Lawgiver shining before men’s eyes, if men were living as if leaving time and launching forth into eternity, the gospel salvation by Jesus Christ would be more regarded (pp. 39-40).

The reality is, these finer details of theology, about justification, regeneration, election, substitutionary penal atonement, are of paramount importance both for the individual Christian and for the church. And if we only recognized our own limitations and God’s glory, we would spend far more time seeking to fine tune our theology to be most faithful to the Word of God.

So, I continue to teach theology. I continue to preach the whole counsel of God. I continue to recommend (and read myself) good, solid books, emphasizing right theology. I realize it is not just this day that makes men sloth for caring about the eternal purposes of God in the Word, but every age. And with every age there needs to be pastors who prompt and prod his people to know God and His Word better and to live it more faithfully and teach it clearly to the next generation.

In the end, we’re not going to know everything. There is a certain mystery to so much of the workings of God. Yet, our goal is to know and love God completely. We won’t have that perfected even on the other side of glory, but that does not abrogate my responsibility to work at it. I pray, that as I teach theology to my people, they will in turn love God more, and serve Him more faithfully.

Book Review – Practical Theology for Women by Wendy Alsup

March 9, 2009

My wife Tracy has written the following review of an excellent new theological resource for women.

Practical Theology for Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in our Daily Lives. Wendy Horger Alsup. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008, 160 pp., paperback.

Available from Crossway for $11.99.

When was the last time you heard a question like one of these: Why does God allow suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do innocent people go hungry? Why do I try to live for God faithfully and feel like my life is still a mess? When people look around today, they see suffering and difficulty. Life is challenging for many people, even good Christian people. Often when we get saved, we assume that God is going to take care of us and fix our lives. While there are tremendous benefits attached to being a Christian, having a perfect life is not one of them! Christians often find themselves feeling ill-equipped to handle the questions their non-Christian friends pose about the world around them. Even worse, Christians often have many questions themselves about who God is and why He does the things He does. It is easy to become discouraged and to wonder how to live and respond to daily life issues and pressures.

There is a simple explanation for this difficulty found in churches today. Many Christians have very little understanding of basic theology. They may read their Bibles and know many of its stories, but when it comes to explaining God’s character or basic ideas surrounding how and why God saves people and works in the ways He does, many Christians come up short. They find they really don’t have answers to many of the questions they struggle with, and they feel inadequate as they try to respond to life in general. Unfortunately, many Christians avoid the very study that would help them most, and that is theology.

Many Christians operate under the assumption that theology is for pastors, seminary students and professors. They assume that theology is merely an intellectual pursuit with no practical application in everyday life. This is a tragic mistake and has, in some ways, led to the confusion modern Christians experience as well as some of the struggles people face as they try to live out their faith in practical ways.

Practical Theology for Women by Wendy Horger Alsup is a good answer to this problem. This book is written for the layperson, particularly women. While theology is not different for women than it is for men, this book is written by a woman and is addressed specifically to women. It avoids most theological terms and complexities, focuses on helping the reader see how a grasp of basic theology helps make sense of life and leads to more consistent Christian living.

Part one of the book defines theology and explains why all Christians should study it. Alsup explains what faith is and argues that proper faith is practical and affects how we live. Faith without works is dead (James 2:26).

Part two looks at the character of God and highlights a few of His attributes. The author touches on aspects of our Father’s discipline and the place of suffering in life. She also addresses salvation and our position in Christ. A particularly helpful part of this section is the chapters on the Holy Spirit—in my experience the most misunderstood Person of the Trinity in evangelical circles.

Part three challenges the reader to know God intimately through the means He has provided. There is a chapter on prayer, and two chapters on understanding how to read different parts of the Bible and how Scripture is unified in one whole book. The author also gives some practical suggestions for daily devotions.

The entire thrust of the book is living out your faith based on what you know to be true of God. To that end, Alsup encourages her readers to make the pursuit of God their life-long passion. No one is ever finished learning about God. She points her readers to Scripture and prayer as the primary means for accomplishing this. She also provides a few resource suggestions at the end of two of the chapters. Because this book is a very basic overview of theology, curious readers will find their appetite whetted and will want to do some further reading. Because of this, it may have been helpful for the author to provide a more extensive list of recommended resources for readers at the end of the book. Many Christians do want to learn more, but have no idea which authors to trust or how to select a sound theology book.

Overall, I think this book provides an excellent, user-friendly introduction to theology. Many Christians could profit very much by reading it. I also think it would serve as a wonderful text for a women’s Bible study. I would encourage all women to read it, even those who may have some theological training. You will find yourself encouraged and challenged as we address making faith practical and living it out consistently in our lives.