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Theology is Essential

We’re all theologians—including the seven-year-olds.

April 06, 2014Filed under theologyMarkdown source

Today, I spent a good part of my afternoon talking theology with a seven-year- old. I was watching some friends’ little girl, who is not yet a Christ-follower, and our discussion ranged all over. We talked about everything from the bush- climbing groundhog who appeared out the back door midway through our conversation to the reason for the “blood” langauge throughout the Bible (“Eww! Blood is disgusting!”), and from what happened in the Incarnation and the nature of the Trinity to how hard it is to obey one’s parents.

The conversation highlighted for me the necessity of learning theology. These kinds of questions will come up in any family whose parents are seeking to point their children to Jesus. The Bible has a lot of initially perplexing material in it. Many of its concepts are foreign to our culture by dint of antiquity and sociological differences between the ancient Hebrews and Greeks and modern Westerners. Others are foreign to all cultures because of the Fall, and require all of us to undergo the transformation that occurs in the renewal of our minds as the Spirit sanctifies us. No surprise, then, that a seven-year-old would be asking questions about these things: they are hard and confusing.

What is a surprise to me is how often I have heard these topics brushed aside as inessential or secondary. The Trinity? Too complicated for ordinary folks. The Incarnation? Just kind of a thing that had to happen so Jesus could die for us. The blood language? Well, that’s mostly just the Old Testament anyway. The really important bits are that we tell people about Jesus and live basically right!

Of course, the obvious questions are who this Jesus is and what it means to “live right,” and to answer these questions at all we have to deal in some rather deep theological concerns. To live right is to live in accord with the way of God in the world he made—but who is God, and how did he shape the cosmos? As for the person of Jesus, any answer at all that wrestles with the text of the Bible must soon confront both the ideas of the Trinity and the Incarnation in short order.

And that’s just for talking to a seven-year-old!

I wish that the picture I presented above were a caricature, an over- simplification of more nuanced positions designed to make a rhetorical point with some flourish, but it is not. In the Baptistic circles in which I travel, there are many churches with explicitly anti-doctrinal stances. To be sure, we have our share of churches that focus on doctrine to the exclusion of right practice, but these are much less common in low-church contexts than their opposite. “Doctrine divides,” and we want “deeds not creeds,” and that is all there is to it—only it cannot be.

As has often been said, the question is not whether we are theologians, but what sort of theologians we will be. All of us have our own understandings of God, and these ideas are more or less in line with what Scripture says. Because God is truly great, his revelation of himself pushes us to think. We refuse to engage our critical faculties at our own peril.

I am not for a moment suggesting that my own particular brand of nerdiness ought to be the standard by which Christians are judged. I am, however, deeply and increasingly persuaded that a failure to think seriously about the contents of our faith will result only in ruin and calamity in our people. We need blue- collar men and women no less than erudite scholars to be comfortable explaining the Trinity to their children and coworkers. We need not all be intellectual sophisticates (Lord help us if we were), but we do all need to be a people shaped by the intellectual depths of our faith. We need to be able to explain our faith both so that we may teach outsiders and so that we may build one another up and guard one another in the faith.

We need to be able to tell our seven-year-olds how it is that God became man and why that would even matter. We need to understand ourselves how the one who was totally pure became “disgusting” on our behalf in order to undo the brokenness our rebellion introduced so we can tell that story to our children. We need to grasp that the Trinity is not an ancillary doctrine to our faith, but one of its bedrock affirmations, so that we can proclaim to our children and our neighbors the God who is unending love within his own being—they will need this to make sense of any of the other things we say about Jesus. And this I say not in some abstract sense, but because I needed to be able to talk about all of those to help my friends’ little girl make a little more sense of the gospel today.