Two things that mess up "good" theology . . .

Two things throw a monkey wrench in “good theology”

1. Reading the whole Bible carefully in light its original historical, social, and cultural contexts.

2. Trying to translate and to apply the Good News of Jesus in a totally different language and cultural way of thinking.

The first helps us come to grips with the fact that God has always revealed himself in ways that speak relevantly to a specific language and cultural way of thinking; God is contextual. The second helps us come to grips with how culturally bound our own ways of thinking about God are – even when we think we are being faithful to the Scriptures.

My guess is that anyone who has spent a significant portion of his life doing one or both of these things is going to have theology that is “messed-up” in one way or another. These two things make it hard to force everything into our neat, theological boxes. So who is likely to have the most “messed-up” or controversial theologies? biblical scholars and cross-cultural missionaries; contrast these folks with church historians and systematic theologians and you frequently get sparks. (Does the name Paul ring any bells? Think of the flack he took for cross-culturally reinterpretation of the Scriptures.)

So for those of you on the home front, if your missionary dares to open up to you about some of her theological struggles (risking her livelihood), cut her some slack. She’s just encountered the God of the Bible in a different language and cultural expression.  “The Gospel will never be fully understood, until it has been expressed in every language and culture.” (William Dyrness quoting somebody.)

Ben Witheringon III has some important thoughts about the limitations of “good” theology:

. . . And all too often, the apparent intellectual coherency of a theological system is taken as absolute and compelling proof that this view of God, salvation,the world must be true and all others be heresy, to one degree or another. But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae. . .

. . . While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God . . . Indeed, the Bible is pretty clear that God quite deliberately did not ‘tell all’ either in general revelation in creation or in the Scriptures(read Job), not least because God wants us to trust him and to build a trust relationship with him. What God has done is that God has revealed enough so that we may be redeemed but not so much that we do not have to trust God about the future.

I must confess that as a NT scholar I am inherently suspicious about theological systems . . . rather than give a pat answer I am more apt to repeat the words of John Muir who said words to the following effect– “We look at life from the back side of the tapestry. And most of the time what we see is loose threads, tangled knots and the like. But occasionally God’s light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the larger design with God weaving together the darks and lights of existence.” . . .

Please understand that I am not suggesting that we should not think logically and coherently about our faith, and do our best to connect the dots. Nevertheless, we should be placing our faith in God, not in a particular theological system. There is a difference. In the former case the faith is largely placed in whom we know and whom we have encountered. In the latter case the faith can be too often placed in what we believe we know about God and theological truth.

. . . Humility is fostered more by a recognition of and an owning up to what you don’t know about God, than what you do. This is not because we do not know a good number of things about God both from the Word and the through the Spirit. We do. We know enough to trust God for what we do not know and understand. And in the end our posture should be that of Anselm– ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ faith seeking understanding, not ‘intellectus quaerens fidium’ ‘Understanding seeking and defining and limiting faith’.

Read Witherington’s [now re-contextualized] post: John Piper explains why Calvinists are so negative. Listen to John Piper respond to why so many Calvinists and Reformed seem mean or abrasive.

5 thoughts on “Two things that mess up "good" theology . . .

  1. steph says:

    What Jesus actually said will never be properly understood until we realise it was in Aramaic. 🙂

  2. […] The first helps us come to grips with the fact that God has always revealed himself in ways that speak relevantly to a specific language and cultural way of thinking; God is contextual. The second helps us come to grips with how culturally bound our own ways of thinking about God are – even when we think we are being faithful to the Scriptures. (read more) […]

  3. […] Byerly writes a perceptive post (thanks to Eddie Arthur for the link) about what messes up “good” theology. Ben writes, […]

  4. Simon says:

    If ‘theology’ is logos about theos, a ‘word about god’, and if a messy interpretation of these words is truer than a “good” one, then I wonder if *anything* is supposed to be unmessy.

    My “good” understanding of how to live each day was messed up by living my American lifestyle in an African context. Coming home, everything doesn’t make the same easy sense anymore like it used to. Food/housing/transportation/neighborliness/security – it used to be nailed down, and then after a time away from the US it became messy.

    What about two things that mess up everything-ology:
    1. Exposure to social, historical, and cultural contexts other than our own
    2. Trying to follow Jesus within these worlds

  5. Ben says:

    Steph, let me know when you get the audio recordings.

    I had a feeling this would touch a nerve with Bible translators; they tend to be fully in the mix.

    Simon, moral of the story: Stay Home! ;-). I’m waiting for you to send your “guest post” about all this re-entry stuff. We could do a series.

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