The design of all the revelations contained in the Word of God is the salvation of men. Truth is in order to holiness. God does not make known his being and attributes to teach men science, but to bring them to the saving knowledge of Himself. The doctrines of the Bible are, therefore, intimately connected with religion, or the life of God in the soul. They determine the religious experience of believers, and are presupposed in that experience. This is specially true of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a great mistake to regard that doctrine as a mere speculative or abstract truth, concerning the constitution of the Godhead, with which we have no practical concern, or which we are required to believe simply because it is revealed. On the contrary, it underlies the whole plan of salvation, and determines the character of the religion (in the subjective sense of that word) of all true Christians. It is the unconscious, or unformed faith, even of those of God’s people who are unable to understand the term by which it is expressed. They all believe in God, the Creator and Preserver against whom they have sinned, whose justice they know they cannot satisfy, and whose image they cannot restore to their apostate nature. They therefore, as of necessity, believe in a divine Redeemer and a divine Sanctifier. They have, as it were, the factors of the doctrine of the Trinity in their own religious convictions. No mere speculative doctrine, especially no doctrine so mysterious and so out of analogy with all other objects of human knowledge, as that of the Trinity, could ever have held the abiding control over the faith of the Church, which this doctrine has maintained. It is not, therefore, by any arbitrary decision, nor from any bigoted adherence to hereditary beliefs, that the Church has always refused to recognize as Christians those who reject this doctrine. This judgment is only the expression of the deep conviction that Antitrinitarians must adopt a radically and practically different system of religion from that on which the Church builds her hopes. It is not too much to say with Meyer, that “the Trinity is the point in which all Christian ideas and interests unite; at once the beginning and the end of all insight into Christianity.” - Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. I (read it online for free)
Lane Harrison, pastor of Lifepoint Church in Ozark, MO asked me to come and talk with their Ozarks Church Planters/Leaders Network gathering early this week. I was to talk about the development of a healthy theological culture in the local church. It was a real blessing meeting these brothers and exchanging ideas. I certainly came away encouraged by many of their words and insights. I'll be sharing a few summaries from my talk there. First up, a few thoughts on the abuse and neglect of theology, and theology as "the sail." Theology, like any good gift of God, is often either abused, or neglected. In fact, when it comes to theology I see abuse and neglect more often than not. Theology is perhaps most commonly abused when the end for which God has given it is forgotten. It is rightly said that theology should lead to doxology, meaning that if our theology does not lead us to glory in God through worship and transformation we are doing something wrong. Those of us who love doctrine know how easy it is to become more excited about our theological perspective, formulations and traditions than the One these things should lead us to worship. As Ray Ortlund recently said on the blog,
We can admire our theology of God rather than God, because the theology itself really is gorgeous – but only as a dim reflection of the One described there.
Worse yet, we can admire ourselves for being so smart: “We get it, we’re Reformed, we’re not like those Arminian idiots over there in that other group.” God hates pride. All pride. Reformed pride. - Interview with Ray Ortlund
On the other hand, and I believe even more commonly, theology is neglected. It is found to be unnecessary and irrelevant. Some seem to eschew it because of its abuse by others, or fear of division in the church, and also because in recent history the local church has not exactly been the model of theological exercise and enrichment. We think of theologians as scholars working in the academy, not preachers in the pulpit. Of course, it was not always this way. Throughout history our brightest theologians have occupied the pulpit and pastored God's people. Examples like Augustine, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, and Spurgeon should show us a better and more biblical way.
Even among those who say theology is important, it is often likened to the foundation of a building. Theology is the foundation upon which everything else is built. It's a good illustration, but like the foundation of most houses, once the house is built people live in their homes without ever thinking about the poured cement. There is no practical interaction with the foundation. Experientially, it is an invisible element that is given little to no attention.
I believe a better illustration is that of a sailboat. Our theology is the sail. It is high and lifted up, not to be admired, but to catch the wind and find power outside of itself to move the boat. The sails are always visible and in constant use. The boat is the church. Without the sail all in the boat perish slowly. Without the boat people drown quickly.
The fourth interview in this Experiential Theology series is with Ray Ortlund, pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Ray previously served on the Old Testament faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside of Chicago for nine years, and has pastored churches in California, Oregon, and Georgia. Ray participated in The New Living Translation and the English Standard Version of the Bible, and contributed the introduction and study notes to the book of Isaiah in The ESV Study Bible. He also serves on the Council of The Gospel Coalition. You should be reading Ray's blog, Christ is Deeper Still. But first, check out this interview with our brother where he shares his thoughts on the value and goal of theology.
Why does theology matter?
Theology matters because God matters. Theology, done properly, is the Bible prompting us to articulate our vision of God. The less articulate we are, we power down. The more articulate, the clearer, the more biblical, we power up and are enabled to live in new ways that show God really matters.
Theology matters because community matters. Theology connects us to one another through shared discourse and agreed upon categories. Ultimately, what unifies us is not a shared experience but shared beliefs.
Theology matters because mission matters. When living for Christ gets tough and even friends may fall away, our theological convictions remain close friends. They keep us going when truth is the only power left for missionality to stay alive.
What is the central task of the theologian?
To love the Triune God wholeheartedly, according to the Bible. Nothing complicates theology like academic detachment or worldly self-display or career ambition. Central to everything else about a theologian is a tender heart toward God, reverent toward the Scriptures.
How would you respond to those who say, “I’m not a theologian”?
I’d start out pretty nice: “Okay. God has called you to be a musician. Great.” Then I’d show my true colors: “But you cannot be the musician God wants you to be without going deeper than that. You need to think biblically about who God is, who you are, what’s gone wrong, what God has done about it through Christ, and where it’s all going. That’s theology. It changes how you see everything. So unless you want to be a shallow musician, you need to become a theologian/musician. And you can be.”
What advice would you give to the average Christian who loves Jesus and the church, but needs to grow theologically?
Here’s one way to jump in. Pull some friends together, everybody buy a copy of Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, and work through it together. Check out the small group suggestions on pages 437-450. Read it slowly. Embrace the difficulty. Look up every word you don’t understand. Mark up your copy with questions and highlights. Get mad if you have to. But pray to God for clarity, and he’ll give it. As you read, keep checking it against the Bible, examine what your friends say too, and don’t let go until you really know what you believe. You will never be the same again.
We know heretics are bad theologians, but can one be a bad Reformed theologian? How?
Our minds were created to admire grandeur and coherence and challenge. Reformed theology provides all that, plus more. So we like it. But given our wickedness, the very excellence of Reformed theology can make us weird. We can admire our theology of God rather than God, because the theology itself really is gorgeous – but only as a dim reflection of the One described there.
Worse yet, we can admire ourselves for being so smart: “We get it, we’re Reformed, we’re not like those Arminian idiots over there in that other group.” God hates pride. All pride. Reformed pride.
Final thought. Through the years I have learned a lesson: Everything man-made will let us down. Everything, eventually. Even theological systems. Only Jesus will never let us down. We appreciate Reformed theology. But let’s put our final trust here: the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself, our dear Friend, the only Savior of sinners.