Hurricane Irma blew through Central Florida in September 2017 after passing through several Caribbean islands and the Florida Keys.
By the time the hurricane was gone, more than 130 people throughout these areas had lost their lives as a result of the storm, and total property damage was approaching $63 billion. It is one of the most destructive hurricanes on record.
In the aftermath of the storm, several million people throughout Florida were without power. Neighborhoods hummed with the sound of portable electric generators as people waited for the power companies to restore service. But as we followed the news during those days, we learned that many people never learned how not to operate a generator. Several people in Central Florida died from carbon monoxide poisoning because they ran their generators indoors. If they had known how to properly operate a generator, their lives would not have been lost.
When the stakes are high, it’s important to know the right way and the wrong way to do things. The stakes are highest when it comes to our theology—our ideas about God, Christ, how we can be saved, among others. Our theology will determine what happens to us for all eternity, so it is important to engage it rightly. That means knowing how not to do theology as much as knowing how to do it. So, what are some ways that we should not do theology?
By thinking we are not doing theology
Dr. R.C. Sproul has said that everyone is a theologian, and he is right. Since theology can be defined as a word or a thought about God, all people are theologians because all people have some thought about who or what the divine is, what God expects of us, and a host of other related issues. Yet, even though we are all thinking these thoughts, how many of us think of ourselves as theologians? How many of us are conscious that as we study Scripture we are developing a theology of some kind? How many of us know that we are developing a theology even as we think about the world around us? Being unaware that we are actually doing theology makes it difficult to recognize our theology and to correct it when necessary. We begin to think that all of our thoughts about God are self-evidently true, and we have di¢- culty believing that our thoughts are actually distinct from divine revelation. This might be fine when our thoughts actually match what Scripture is teaching, but failing to recognize that we are always engaged in the tasks of interpretation and of doing theology makes it di¢cult to be appropriately self-critical of our beliefs. Thus, we become less apt to measure our beliefs against Scripture and less likely to refine or change them when it is necessary to do so.
By practicing solo scriptura
To fail to recognize that we are actually doing theology all the time and especially when reading the Bible is one aspect of what it means to practice solo Scriptura. In essence, we may define solo Scriptura as the belief that we do not need the assistance of the church, the creeds, and teachers throughout history in order to rightly understand the Bible. The practitioner of solo Scriptura thinks that he is not bringing any preconceived notions to his study of the Bible. He believes that simply studying the Word of God on his own is su¢cient to guide him into all truth.
Sola Scriptura, on the other hand, says that while the Bible is the only infallible authority for the church, believers actually need the help of subordinate, fallible authorities to understand divine revelation rightly. Creeds, theologians from the present and past, and one’s local church all provide useful guidance in understanding the Word of God. They provide a way for us to measure the accuracy of our private interpretations of Scripture. Christ has promised to be with His church and to guide His corporate people in the understanding of His truth (Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:11–13). Among other things, that means that He does not speak in a code that only a few can understand, and He does not grant insight to us as individuals that He fails to give to other people. If we think we have discovered something new in Scripture, it is probably not true, and it is probably not a new error either.
As Protestants, we have to think carefully about the right of private interpretation and how we as individuals relate to the wisdom of the church. The story of the Reformation is sometimes told as a story of rugged individualism, of individuals who came to independent conclusions and who resisted error because they had the courage to stand for the truth when no one else would. Certainly, many of the Reformers reached points at which they felt as if no one was standing with them, but they also recognized that they were, in fact, not real- ly teaching anything new. Martin Luther advocated for justification by faith alone and for Scripture as our only infallible authority, but others came to the same conclusions as he did independent of his work even though Luther’s personality shaped the Reformation decisively. And Luther and others came to these conclusions by recognizing that the final authority of Scripture does not mean other subordinate authorities have nothing to teach us. In fact, one of their criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church was that it is not catholic—universal— or ancient enough. The Reformers appealed to the church fathers, medieval theologians, and earlier creeds to show that it was the papacy that had struck out on its own, not the Reformers.
By listening only to a select few
God has gifed His church with a variety of teachers, each with a unique style of teaching. Usually, we will find ourselves gravitating to particular teachers because their style and manner are particularly suited to our individual personalities. In one sense, there is nothing wrong with this. It is good to follow those who oer the greatest help to us in understanding God’s Word. The problem comes when we listen only to those select few and never venture outside our favorite set of teachers.
Following only one or a few teachers can shape us in unhealthy ways. The fact is, we need to hear from many dierent sound instructors. Paul tells us that God has given to the church “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” so that we may grow to maturity (Eph.4:11–16). Note the Apostle’s use of the plural. One Apostle was insu¢cient for our instruction, so God gave us Peter, Paul, James, Jude, Matthew, John, and several others. One prophet was not enough, so God gave us Elijah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Malachi, Amos, Elisha, Micah, and several others. The Apostolic and prophetic o¢ces have passed away, but our need for more than one or more than a few men in the other o¢ces have not. Listening to many sound teachers, both those who are well known and those who are not, means that we will benefit from the strengths of the many and not only from the strengths of a few.
By doing so only via social media
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can be great resources. Through these media, we o¤en find insightful articles, audio clips, and videos on various doctrines as well as good conversations about theological issues that improve our understanding. However, doing theology via social media alone will leave us impoverished. We might even be led astray by a well-written blog post or other resource because we are not taking the time to wade through more meaty theological books or regularly attending to the preached Word of God in our churches. The Internet provides us with great theological resources, but we need to crack open a book and sit under the preaching of God’s Word in person on a regular basis in order to develop our discernment and to be able to recognize when what is getting a lot of likes and retweets is actually grievous error.
By thinking we have it figured out
Finally, we must not do theology arrogantly,assuming that we have figured out every di¢cult issue and that no one can possibly teach us anything. It has taken the church two thousand years to uncover what it has from God’s Word, and it is still only scratching the surface. We cannot think that we have arrived at a full understanding a¤er
Doing theology for five, fi¤een, or even fi¤y years. Doing theology arrogantly takes many forms, but one form that many of us must beware of is believing that we cannot learn from those who have less experience doing theology than we do. Some of us have received formal theological training. That gives certain advantages, but it does not mean that newer Christians or those without formal training know nothing of Christ. Sometimes they can remind us of things we’ve forgotten. Those who have never received formal training in theology—but have followed Christ faithfully for years—can speak profound truth having experienced God’s faithfulness and studied His Word all of their lives. In other words, studying theology is commendable, but if we are not careful, it can cause us to be pued up with pride (1 Cor. 8:1).
We must do theology from a position of humility. We who have studied theology for years as well as new Christians must never think that we have learned all there is to know. We are not infallible, and we need to learn from one another so that we are all continually growing toward maturity in Christ.
Robert Rothwell is associate editor of Tabletalk magazine and a resident adjunct instructor at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla.
By Permission of Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.