Theology Cannot Save Us | Christianity today


This piece was adapted from Russell Moore newsletter. Subscribe here.

Once, when I was a youth pastor, a woman begged me to let her rebellious son go to youth camp even though he missed the registration deadline.

“I just want him to be tired enough to move once to walk down the aisle,” she said. “Then I will know that whatever he does after this, at least he will be in heaven.”

I sighed at the cultural Christianity I knew all too well – a Christianity that substituted a momentary repetition of words for the gospel. The problem was that I thought theology was the answer. Many of us have.

The folk religion and human-centeredness of much American revivalism contrasts with a “great God” theology and a focus on loyalty to denominations of faith. It’s logic. Thorough pragmatism can quickly lead to an “whatever works” mindset. This type of anti-credo leads not to the absence of beliefs but to the proliferation of unwritten and unspoken beliefs.

At the same time, many of us thought the problem could be solved by linking the uprooting and overemphasis on novelty in American evangelicalism to an older theological tradition.

In a way, I still think that’s valid. A church that learns from John Calvin or John Wesley is connected to a deeper stream, since Calvin and Wesley are themselves connected to Augustine, Irenaeus, etc.

And yet, the quest for novelty and narrowing of parameters has often proven to be just as present among theologically focused evangelicals – and perhaps even more so. It’s easy, after all, to jump straight from Apostle John to John Calvin to Jonathan Edwards to the guy with Jonathan Edwards’ portrait as his Twitter avatar.

Similarly, many of us thought that a theologically more robust evangelism would keep us from fragmenting. After all, unlike those who believe doctrine divides, we knew that a people with deep and enduring beliefs would be united no matter what.

But that’s not exactly how it worked.

The divisions in American evangelicalism—and in various denominations—did not end up dividing along the lines we all thought they would: Calvinist versus Arminian, complementarist versus egalitarian, revivalist versus emerging church, or traditionalist versus sensitive researcher.

Some of the people I might have dismissed in 2007 as theological pragmatists ended up showing the most courage and conviction of all in recent years. Alternatively, we have seen some who were doctrinally accurate do the exact opposite.

To imagine telling my younger self 15 years ago which people would now be considered allies and which would no longer speak to each other is shocking – especially when some who once emphasized the sufficiency of scripture are now aligning themselves with militant atheists to criticize the theology of evangelicals who should belong to the same tribe.

None of this would have been, as the snap says, on my 2007 bingo card.

It turns out that a lot of what we thought was evidence of a Christian worldview for some evangelicals turned out to be the same tribal loyalties and political rhetoric they would have employed if Jesus was still dead.

This is partly related to what we have already discussed here: the idea of ​​”revealed preference”, noted in a political context by writer David Frum. Over time, we begin to realize that even people who held the same opinions held them for different reasons. And often the differences were between what was seen as a central problem and what was seen as peripheral.

There is a huge contrast between the complementarist who believes that the Pauline epistles prescribe, in a very limited number of calls, some differentiation between male and female and the complementarist for whom gender is the grid through which almost all cultural phenomena.

The egalitarian who thinks that 1 Timothy 2 addresses a problem contextually local to Ephesus and that God gives both men and women for pastoral leadership in the church differs from the egalitarian who thinks that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are patriarchal words that need to go.

A Calvinist might see unconditional election as an explanatory doctrine intended to support what all Christians already believe – that Jesus “sought me and redeemed me with his blood of redemption.” Another might consider predestination a central theme of the Bible.

Likewise, a charismatic who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit still work to edify the church is radically different from the charismatic who believes that speaking in tongues or prophecy distinguishes “anointed” Christians from the dead.

Sometimes theology leads us to another kind of pragmatism, for example, a “seeker’s sensibility” in which seekers are defined as angry Christians who seek to fight for the sake of fighting. Some forms of revivalism conflated heightened emotional experience with conversion.

This has led some Christians to cling to this felt experience to make sure and others to despair that their felt experience was not dramatic enough. Still others fake the emotion, hoping that if they emit long enough, they’ll eventually find the real thing.

This can happen not only with the emotions but also with the mind. A confession of faith can become a testimony of revival for people who cannot cry at an altar or speak in tongues.

Theology matters. Of course, I still believe in it, otherwise I wouldn’t spend my life linking Christian theology to culture. But if we’ve seen anything in the evangelical collapse of the past five years, it’s that theology is not enough. And left to its own devices, theology can become as much a support for a cultural and politicized Christianity as anything else.

We cannot, as scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybsky put it on a very different material, confuse the map with the territory, just like we can’t confuse our weather app with what’s really happening outside. Theology is a word about God, which always refers us to the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.

There is a kind of theology that can shed light on how to worship God and be on mission in the world. But there is another kind of theology that defines itself by winning debates in any current controversy that attempts to separate the Christian wheat from the Christian chaff.

The theology defined by the Bible sees itself as the map and not the territory. She refuses to give in to the idea that faith is amorphous and without content. God spoke and He spoke in words.

Yet this type of theology will also recognize that God has given us both clarity and mystery, speaking to us as whole people – minds, hearts, consciences, intuitions. The God of the Bible cannot be reduced to a syllogism. But those who try to do so can easily replace a confession of faith with faith itself; ideology for the gospel; a theological tribe for the one holy, catholic and apostolic church; or, worst of all, Christology for Christ Jesus himself.

When Jesus said he was going away, he said to his disciples: “You know the way to where I am going. Thomas said exactly what I would have said, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way? What he wanted was an abstraction, a map.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:4-6). We need truth and life if we want to follow the Way. He never said to us, “Here, memorize this. He simply said, “Come, follow me.

Theology is necessary, but it is not enough. Let’s not confuse the map for the territory.

Russell Moore directs the Public Theology Project at Christianity today.


Comments are closed.