Life Rule #3: On Theology

On a slightly different note, here’s rule number three:

Theology is a humanities not a science. It’s closer to literature, philosophy, history, or even music than it is to the hard or social sciences. Scriptures aren’t to be read as a textbook, rulebook, or cookbook.

The easiest error any sincere, believing Christian can fall into is legalism. This is because it’s usually begun with the best of intentions – to know God and obey Him more fully. But, as C.S. Lewis writes in Screwtape Letters, the devil does his best work when he takes something good and twists it just so, making us think we’re on the right course when we’re really off track by a hair. Eventually, we find ourselves someplace we’d rather not be.

Life is far more complex, nuanced, and quirky than can be dreamt of in any systematic theology. The problem lies in the way we use the bible. When we use the bible as something other than the testimony of the first-century witnesses pointing to Christ, we risk turning it into a textbook, rulebook, or a recipe book. First and foremost, the bible should be our present witness to what Christ has done and can do in people’s lives. Secondarily, we can get good living advice, personal inspiration, or what else from the book, but if that becomes the primary purpose of scriptures, then we’re off track. Too many preachers today, especially in evangelical churches, preach out of a “recipe theology,” where the point of the bible is to get “biblical principles” on the topic of the day, or to drive home a particular political or ethical agenda, rather than to preach Christ crucified. Follow these principles, obey these rules, and life is easy and no one ever gets hurt. You just have to decode the right verses.

This Christless preaching turns the bible into a self-help book Oprah would try to sell us. The bible needs to be recognized as witness, as literature, as history, as philosophy, as music, and as a book of life principles. The bible is not a complex scientific problem that needs to be deduced or engineered. A lot of times, the rules aren’t even spelled out for us. We want black-and-white and right-and-wrong; and sometimes the answers are there and sometimes they’re not. What does the legalist doggedly looking for answers do in those latter cases? Usually, despair.

Remembering that theology is a humanities not a science is also an antidote to the “cage phase” that many recent converts go through. I’m sure we all know people who converted to a religion or to a branch within a religion (Reformed and Catholic converts are the worst) who put everything – past beliefs, actions, even relationships – through the prism of scripture via their new interpretive scheme. People going through the cage phase can be harsh, cruel, and dismissive of others, especially towards those of us who might gently disagree that they were predestined to be right and we were predestined to be wrong. “Cage phasers” look at the bible and their beloved systematic theology as closed systems with all the answers, all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Only in time and maturity, when their subject knowledge is deeper and the cracks begin to show, do cage phasers resemble normal human beings again.

Very quickly, this is also one of the reasons I appreciate Lutheranism so much. As Gene Veith notes, Luther didn’t write systematic theologies like Calvin or scholastic Catholics. He wrote bible commentaries. The lack of a system makes it very hard to believe that Luther had all the answers right there. In fact, he’s maddeningly illogical and inconsistent at times. Which is awesome. And how it should be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s